When Alyssa Wasko wrote an autobiographical piece in Teen Vogue's November 2011 issue about Donni Charm, a fashion line she created, readers would have understandably harbored a bit of envy.
"I graduated last May, and now I'm living in New York City," Wasko said at the time. "In addition to focusing on Donni Charm, I'm also working as a freelance visual consultant at Chanel four days a week. It's really exciting."
Fast forward three years, and what looked on paper to be a life of glamor has produced fruit for the glamorous. Wasko's line of scarves, tees and other stylish articles of clothing have been spotted on Eva Longoria, Halle Berry, Lea Michele, Beyoncé and Rihanna, amongst other celebrities who make up a long list of famous admirers.
For what seems to be a life of big city dreams, though, some might be shocked to learn that Wasko's story actually began with a nightmare, one which started on the first day of her sophomore year at the University of Arizona, when she lost one of her most treasured companions.
Three months after he had suffered a near-fatal, 15-foot fall while helping a cousin move furniture on a balcony, Wasko's father passed away. For a woman who described her loving father as her "world," it was a crushing blow.
"It was as though I had charged into a gaping hole, landing on my back with the wind knocked out of me, faced with two options: 1) Sit and let it soak in, just waiting for it to stop hurting, or 2) Do something. Anything. Work towards something. Start to pump your legs again and get that swing going, because if you sit and hope the wind will put you back in motion, you might be waiting a while," Wasko wrote in an article published by Elle on Sunday. "My life had forever changed, but I soon realized that sitting idly wouldn’t make it go away."
After going through the turmoil of her father's funeral, Wasko returned to school immediately. She refused to take a semester off, even though she acknowledges that others might have done so.
"I can totally understand that—I just knew that wasn't for me," she said.
Instead, Wasko channeled all her energy into keeping busy. Productivity, she said, took her mind off everything else. After adding four classes to an already full schedule, Alyssa Wasko took 25 credits during the fall semester of her sophomore year at Arizona. She also took on fashion projects and achieved Dean's List status in the process, as she tried to do what she says her father would have wanted.
"'You play the hand you’re dealt.' That’s what he always said. So that’s what I did."
With increased productivity being her escape, while on break during the school year, it was only natural that Wasko navigated her way into entrepreneurship out of a need to, as she said, "Do something. Anything."
"With no schoolwork to hide behind, I found myself at the local craft store with a basket full of fabrics, thread, and charms," she wrote in Elle. "Perhaps it started as a way to keep busy, but as my hands got to work making scarves, something clicked. All I know is it was the best I had felt since I lost him. I was in my own personal therapy session, expressing my grief while pouring my heart into this project."
From there, Wasko's coping mechanism turned into an attractive line of scarves. She'd begun making the scarves by hand, but was interviewing manufacturers during the summer before her junior year. By August, the line went into full production. When she returned to the U of A campus in Tucson, Donni Charm's website was up and running. Suddenly, Wasko had a full-fledged business on her hands, to which she devoted 30 hours each week on top of classes.
"I drank a lot of coffee," Wasko said in Teen Vogue, as she recalled how difficult it was to balance both academic and entrepreneurial responsibilities.
The name of the business is inspired by her father's nickname -- Donald, or Donni for short -- and the charm that is placed inside of each scarf. While putting all her energy into the enterprise has proven to be an outlet of emotion, Wasko still feels pain from her loss.
"I still think it's unfair," she wrote in Elle. "His life was taken too soon. We had so much more left to do together. But with Donni Charm, not only has the creativity given me an outlet through which to heal, it has given me a purpose."
If the attention she's received nationwide is any indication, that purpose has been met with real drive. Donni Charm has been featured in not only Elle and Teen Vogue, but also in publications, such as Us Weekly, O Magazine, The Boston Globe and People Magazine, while stars like Jessica Alba and Megan Fox have been caught as repeat admirers of Wasko's products.
Amongst those who have taken notice, the Colorado native counts those with whom her story has resonated as her most valuable.
"As Donni Charm has grown, it's unearthed a network of remarkable people who continuously reach out to express their appreciation to me for sharing my story and inspiring them to use creativity to cope with loss," she said. "The emails started pouring in, the fire was lit, and I had found my fuel. I became even more inspired and motivated."
Wasko built such a fashionable brand while balancing her responsibilities in school and at Chanel, and that has made her story all the more remarkable.
Now, with Donni Charm as her only focus, Wasko's flame may burn brighter than ever while her story continues to spark inspiration in others, as well.
Top photo via ELLE
To visit Donni Charm's official site, click here.