When seated next to Derek Desierto, it’s easy to brush off the ruckus of the lunchtime crowd at JJ Bean’s Dunsmuir location. He is a charming, captivating, and bright storyteller, as animated as the very illustrations that have changed his life this past year.
His week looks a little something like this: from Monday to Friday, he is the creative director of Friendly Universe, his anticipated eyewear brand on the verge of launching. Then come Saturday and Sunday, he is busy in his home studio sketching his imaginative illustrations—some of which are featured in his first children’s book, Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes, written by style icon (current head of fashion partnerships at Instagram and former editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine) Eva Chen.
The story of how Vancouver-based Desierto met New York-based Chen demonstrates the connecting power of social media. Desierto was in Toronto at the time, working at an animation studio where he was often left creatively frustrated. So he started carving out time in the mornings, before everyone else came into the office, to draw for himself. He called these sessions his “warm-ups,” a bit of creative freedom to get him ready for the day. A fan of Chen’s, Desierto decided to make her and her daughter, Ren, the subject of a warm-up one morning. He posted the illustration to his Instagram page and tagged Chen; she saw it and adored it. From then on the two kept up a causal friendship, talking back and forth over messages, and then one day Chen asked Desierto the question of a lifetime: “How would you like to illustrate my book?”
“I said absolutely,” Desierto recalls with a smile.
Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes is set to be released on November 6, 2018 with Macmillan imprint Feiwel & Friends. The debut picture book for both Desierto and Chen tells the story of Juno, a young girl on a whimsical journey to find her lost shoes. “It was a total collaborative process,” Desierto recalls of the book’s creation, which was executed over FaceTime, Instagram, email, and text (the duo did not meet in-person until recently). “What is even more surprising is that I never expected for us to get along so well. I think since we both have such an interest in fashion and culture, she’d throw a reference and I’d totally get it, and vice versa.” In an Instagram post from April, Chen recalls a moment when she referenced an Alice in Wonderland-inspired Vogue shoot photographed by Annie Leibovitz and starring supermodel Natalia Vodianova in Tom Ford. Dieserto immediately knew what she was referring to and made a Juno illustration in that same style—a surefire sign of their natural symbiosis.
Desierto describes his work as collage-like, using moments from pop culture to inspire and shape his illustrative world. From a portrait of former Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz surrounded by an army of models, to the dreamy sisters of rock band Haim drenched in Dior, his work revolves around shapes, textures, and colours. “It’s really just what delights me and amuses me that I gravitate to, and that makes its way into my art in some capacity,” Desierto explains. His style also came as a result of those early morning warm-ups and the rush to finish a sketch before his boss walked into the room. “It was really out of necessity that style came,” he adds. “And now, it’s become a sort of calling card.”
Born in the Philippines, Desierto moved to Terrace, British Columbia when he was eight, and then landed in Vancouver during his high school years. He describes himself as an “overall nice guy from a nice family,” on a mission to make the world a better place with his cheerful art. Before launching an animation career, however, Desierto was the man behind one of Canada’s most recognizable eyewear lines: Derek Cardigan. He was in his early twenties at the time, the first designer for the optical store, but after three years, he knew he wanted to try something new. That’s when he decided to pick up his bags and head back to school, leaving Vancouver for the animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario (though he has since moved back to the West Coast). His work has been recognized by the Ottawa International Animation Festival, the National Cartoonist Society, and 9 Story Media Group.
In November, he will head on the road with Chen for the launch of Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes, travelling to New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It will only be his second time meeting the Juno team, the first being this past May at the 2018 Book Expo in New York City. There, Desierto met the book’s editor Jean Feiwel, senior vice president and publisher at MacMillan Children’s Publishing Group. Feiwel’s credits include Ann Martin’s Babysitter’s Club and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, as well as the acquisition and publication of the Harry Potter series in America. “She is a total legend,” Desierto says, remembering the night he met her. “I mean, it’s a dream come true.”
Although drawing for both Friendly Universe and Juno Valentine takes up most of his days (he has already been confirmed for a second adventure with Juno), he doesn’t take his time too seriously. “I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun,” he says. “Especially for art, I think people can feel if you’re having fun or not. So, I prioritize that. It’s incredibly fulfilling and fun to do all this.” There’s no denying it: Desierto’s pencil is mightier than the sword.
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