"There is so much beauty and so much flyness in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is never really properly credited for its contribution to the world," says LaLa Romero.
Everything fly is born in the neighborhood. It’s a phrase that’s important to remember when mainstream designers and celebrities repeatedly cop hair and clothing styles from communities of color who’ve been discriminated against for starting those same trends, and LaLa Romero and Natalia Durazo, owners of the L.A.-based clothing and lifestyle brand Bella Doña, remind themselves and their supporters of it every day.
“There is so much beauty and so much flyness in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is never really properly credited for its contribution to the world,” LaLa Romero tells CHICA. Natalia and LaLa are attempting to change that with Bella Doña, which enthusiastically embraces Chola style—an aesthetic traditionally marked by oversized flannels paired with khakis or Dickies denim, dark-lined lips with a lighter shade in the middle, and monumental bangs.
As Chicanas themselves, LaLa and Natalia are well aware that their community is one of the most poorly represented Mexican-American subcultures in Anglo media. “I’ll get asked if it’s true that there are drive-bys every day,” says Natalia, reflecting on the popular image of Chicano neighborhoods as dens full of gang bangers and drug dealers. “You never see beautiful stories,” says LaLa. “For me, it was really important to repaint it through my lens, how I see it. Everywhere I look, I could see the beauty in it. I could see the strength in it. I could see the strength [of] the women in my neighborhood, so that was kind of like the catalyst for everything.”
A brand inspired by ’90s hip-hop
Both women were creatively active in their communities long before launching Bella Doña. LaLa, who grew up loving hip-hop legends like 2Pac and Nas, built a strong following as a singer with the support of the Chicano community and lowrider circuit. She hit national airwaves in 2008 with the songs “HOMEGURLZ” and “Sprung on a Thug,” and in both videos, she referenced Chicana culture with things like gold nameplate necklaces, images of La Virgen de Guadalupe, and lowrider cars.
Meanwhile, East L.A.–born girl boss Natalia was designing jewelry. Her brand HoneyBGold, founded in 2009, incorporates the nightlife influences she absorbed as a teen attending underground hip-hop shows on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. Big chains and gold bamboo earrings of all sizes are staples of the line. “Growing up wearing the big hoops, people identified that as low class,” says Natalia. “You would hear things like, ‘That’s some hood shit.’ Something so valuable and precious to us also gave us a bad look.”
“It was always was about being proud of where you’re from,” says LaLa. “Unapologetic, and making space for women.” In true millennial fashion, the cofounders first interacted on Twitter after LaLa slid into Natalia’s DMs. While social media does have its negative aspects, the two entrepreneurs believe it has the ability to create special bonds. “I think it can be positive when you feel alone in this world, or you feel like maybe your family doesn’t understand you, or you don’t really know what your place is,” says LaLa. “You can go online and find your community.”
Eventually meeting a few times in person, they became closer once they connected on a topic that was discussed less often in the 2012 internet space than it is now: mental health. “I was never really ashamed of my anxiety and depression, but at that point, there was still a stigma,” says Natalia, who found comfort in knowing that LaLa also suffered from anxiety. “People didn’t really understand it, and [when] you find someone that not only understands but suffers from the same thing…we just immediately bonded.”
Creating space for the West Coast Chicana
After realizing they could talk to each other about pretty much everything, Natalia and LaLa formed a friendship that would soon align with a significant purpose—creating space for the Chicano narrative in media and fashion. “West Coast Chicana perspective was missing from the mainstream conversation and in a lot of ways, I feel like it still is,” says LaLa. “You’re not really hearing our stories.”
The pair’s fanatical love for classic hip-hop, customized jewelry, and overall Chola greatness are all celebrated in Bella Doña, which was founded in 2013 and now boasts 228,000 followers on Instagram. “The inception of the brand was actually kind of selfish because we’re making things for us,” says LaLa. “Like this doesn’t exist. I want to wear it. Kind of like what [Natalia] was doing with her jewelry.” Many of the pieces found on the site are inspired by their own personal style. “It really started from loving streetwear, wearing a lot of boys clothes—tight things and cut things,” LaLa adds.
They also wanted to make sure the Chola lifestyle was celebrated. “It’s always really been about telling stories, and when [Natalia] and I met, she helped me add to a story that I was already trying to tell,” says LaLa.
Loca Pero Cute
Remaining authentic to certain phrases and hood aesthetics is a priority for LaLa and Natalia when designing products. You can see this principle reflected all over Bella Doña, whether in a crop top emblazoned with the phrase “Loca Pero Cute” in an airbrush-style font or in the brand’s diverse, inclusive promo photos. Bella Doña models come in all sizes, colors, and hair textures, and LaLa and Natalia wouldn’t have it any other way. “When we say the neighborhoods, our neighborhoods were black and brown, our families are black and brown,” says LaLa. “When we talk about nails and things like that, we have to shine a light on black women. When we talk about L.A. style, our neighborhoods are mixed out here.”
In a time when lack of representation in media and fashion is still a serious problem, LaLa and Natalia’s work is admirable. Bella Doña is a brand that sells cute shirts and earrings, yes, but it’s also a reclamation of a style that a marginalized culture has been fine-tuning for years.
Bella Doña’s next venture? “We’re launching cosmetics,” says Natalia. “It’s an entirely new venture for us, and we’re both super excited to launch.” Soon the brand’s fans will be able to rock their hoops big and wear their wings sharp, all courtesy of Bella Doña. It’s just one more reflection of the co-founders’ mission to reclaim a space in fashion and beauty for Chicano and West coast hood culture. Black and brown women have been fueling streetwear trends since forever, and with Bella Doña, Natalia and LaLa are making sure that those women are always front and center.