For the second time in his young life, Gustavo Alonso is among the few and the proud.
He spent eight years serving in the U.S. Marine Corps before making a radical career shift: He became a fashion designer. And on Tuesday night, the 27-year-old from Miami showed his women’s eveningwear collection at New York Fashion Week.
Alonso’s journey from rifleman to garment guru has astonished many of his friends, but it’s safe to say that no one is more surprised by it than Alonso himself.
“I loved my job in the military,” Alonso told TODAY.com. “I didn’t know anything about fashion or about designers when I was in the military ... and now this! This is every designer’s dream, to show at Fashion Week. I’m so excited, and I’m also nervous!”
But Tuesday was also a huge day for Alonso for another reason: At 11:15 a.m., he married his partner of five years, Oscar Arevalo, at New York City Hall. Because same-sex marriage is banned in their home state of Florida, the couple thought they’d make the most of their trip to New York for Fashion Week .
“When we get home, we’ll have a big dinner for all of our family and friends that were unable to come,” Alonso said. “Both of our families are very supportive of us.”
Alonso’s military career began in 2004, when he joined the Marines and got stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan; instead, from North Carolina, he supported service members overseas. His jobs ranged from administrative clerk to supply clerk to contracting officer, and he also underwent the intense training for which Marines are known.
“My number one job was being a rifleman,” Alonso said. “It was great!”
After completing four years of active-duty service, Alonso longed to return to Miami so he could be near his son from a previous marriage and his other family members. He moved back home and served in the Marine Corps Reserve for another four years until his honorable discharge as a corporal.
As he found himself struggling to readjust to civilian life and “join the rest of the world,” he made a snap decision to enroll in Miami International University of Art & Design, part of The Art Institutes. He learned how to make a basic skirt and bodice in his very first class.
“Once I cut that first pattern, something just hit me: This is what I want to do for the rest of my life — this is it!” Alonso recalled. “It’s that feeling when you’ve found what you love to do. I just wanted more and more and more.”
Alonso immersed himself in the world of fashion: entering design competitions, interning for designer Zac Posen, and providing red carpet dresses for Zuleyka Rivero and Michelle Vargas. After graduating in 2013, he landed a job designing uniforms for hotel and cruise-ship workers at the apparel company Cintas and continued to create designs for women’s eveningwear and sportswear on the side.
When he recently learned he was one of 13 Art Institutes students chosen to show their collections at Fashion Week, “I jumped out of my seat,” he said. “I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry. It was very exciting!”
Scott French, producer of The Art Institutes Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Show, said Alonso was an obvious choice for the show.
“His choice of fabrics, quality of detail and sense of color made it clear that he is a designer to watch,” French said. “Gustavo simply understands what it takes to make a woman look fabulous in the evening.”
Alonso credits his military background for shaping his design aesthetic.
“I’m a perfectionist, and in the military you have to be — other people’s lives are in your hands, so you have no room for mistakes,” he said. “That’s how I look at my clothes. For any woman who is going to wear my clothes, I want that to be perfect for them.”
On Wednesday morning, Alonso said both his wedding and his Fashion Week debut were "fantastic — all that I expected it to be."
He also said his Marine buddies have been supportive of his new career path and his New York nuptials.
“They’re very proud and very happy for me — about everything in my life,” he said. “They’ve come to visit me in Miami. They’ve shown me that they’re very true friends.”
He said he’s glad to be living at a time when people “don’t have to be in hiding” about who they are, and when the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is a thing of the past. He’s also grateful to be embarking on a new chapter of family life with his son Eylann, now 8, who is Alonso’s “number one fan.”
“I’ve had a career change, a life change, everything in one,” Alonso said. “It’s working so perfectly that sometimes I think about it and I can’t believe it’s happening.”
This story has been updated since it was originally published at 10:59 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014.