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The Former Marine Who Won the Diet Coke Young Designer Challenge

By:  Susan Swimmer Oct 30, 2012
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From Boston to Mumbai, Diet Coke has been quenching thirst for 30 years, and its fans are a wildly enthusiastic bunch. The amber-colored bubbly has inspired everything from graffiti to jewelry to a video featuring the experiments of two madcap scientists that has been viewed on YouTube more than 15 million times. Clearly it’s more than a beverage, it’s an iconic marker on our cultural landscape. It has also been a long-time favorite of the fashion-forward pack.

So it’s no wonder that they teamed with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to challenge fashion students nationwide to create a limited-edition T-shirt to be sold in Target stores. Called the Diet Coke Young Designer Challenge, hundreds of up-and-comers sent in entries. The grand prize, selected by renowned designers Cynthia Rowley, Zac Posen and L’Wren Scott, went to a young man who spent his childhood dreaming not of Seventh Avenue, but of a surgical suite.

Diet Coke Design Challenge winner
Jane Kratochvil Photography

Gustavo Alonso wins the Diet Coke Young Designer Challenge.

From Doctor-to-Be to Marine to Design Student

Born and raised in Cuba, Gustavo Alonso spent as much time studying English as he did hanging out with his friends. A determined kid from the start, he knew that one day he’d move to the United States, and when that day came he wanted to be ready. He was 10 when he and his mother packed their bags (his parents split when he was young), and he calls his arrival in Miami an equal mix of fear and excitement. “I had grown up in a big city,” he says of his native Havana, “but nothing could have prepared me. It was overwhelming.” After the initial bout of culture shock, Alonso says it didn’t take him long to think big.

“I always thought I’d be a doctor,” Alonso says now, laughing at the memory. “My only interest in fashion was that I made pretty elaborate Halloween costumes. Like one year I was an Egyptian pharaoh. I mean, my mother was a seamstress and I used to watch her make clothes, but I didn’t think of it as a career.”

Alonso excelled in his studies; upon graduating high school he enlisted in the United States Marines Corps in order to pave his way to college. “After boot camp I was stationed in Jacksonville, North Carolina,” he says. “I was the personal clerk for the commander of our base. I just felt so lucky to have a job that I loved.” Alonso served four years, and then moved back to Miami to consider his options. He calls his decision to trade in a stethoscope for a sewing machine the result of a subtle shift in thinking, an inkling that his interest in fashion could one day develop into real passion.

That passion was realized as soon as Alonso enrolled at the Miami International University for Art and Design. “The first class I took was pattern making, and right away it felt right,” he says. There were lots of contests that Alonso heard about — he says his teachers were always encouraging students to enter their designs — but winning proved elusive. “I entered all of them!” Alonso exclaims. “The same thing always happened, I’d get selected as a finalist but I’d never win the prize.” Alonso, undeterred, approached the Diet Coke challenge with his customary gusto. His winning design — a woman wearing a chic, red trench-style coat — was inspired by a pink coat he designed and made for his tailoring class. “When I started sketching ideas for the Diet Coke shirt, I knew I wanted to use the coat, but right away changed the color to red. I felt it was strong and sexy. My idea was simple — I wanted every woman to see it and say, ‘I want to be that girl in the red coat.’”

Getting Major Recognition

Diet Coke Young Designer’s Challenge Winning Design
Jane Kratochvil Photography

The graphic on the winning design is based on one of Alonso's own fashion creations. 

Mission accomplished. Erik Jenkins, Diet Coke's brand manager of Diet Coke, says Alonso's design really connected with consumers. “His dramatic take, featuring a mysterious woman in that vivid red coat, had an undeniable allure. His design set the tone for why Diet Coke is more than just a refreshing beverage. It’s an extraordinary fashion statement.”

Apart from winning a $10,000 scholarship and a trip to New York for a glam launch party hosted by Glamour magazine, Alonso says he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of adoration from friends and fans alike. “People kept texting me photos of my shirt displayed at different Target stores across the country,” he says. “It has been one of the best experiences of my life. I graduate in March 2013, and I can only hope that I’ll have the opportunity to work for a great designer. Maybe one day I’ll be fortunate enough to have my own line, or see one of my dresses at the Oscars.”

What does Alonso say of his passion for fashion now? He doesn’t hesitate. “Obsession is more like it!”

To learn more about the judging of the T-shirt which debuted at Target on September 8, 2012 watch the video below.