In just under two decades, Kelsy Dominick went from sewing dresses for her Barbies to being the first U.S. designer in at least 60 years to send her creations down a fashion runway in Cuba.

“Fashion, as a universal language, is a wonderful way to break down barriers between countries,” says Dominick, who, soon after graduating, launched DiDomenico Design, a couture design firm in the Washington, DC, area.

In the fall of 2015, after seeing Dominick showcase a collection of evening gowns during New York Fashion Week, a group of Cuban trade representatives had asked whether she would be willing to participate in Arte y Moda, a November 2016 fashion show in Havana. They were seeking a designer to help warm relations between Cuba and the United States; by chance, they found someone also trained in international relations.

“I always knew I wanted to pursue fashion, but I was drawn to international studies too,” says Dominick, who majored in both fields. “The fashion show in Cuba allowed me to do both.”

Her passion for international travel influences her design choices, Dominick says, as does family tradition. On her African American side, her grandmother owned a reupholstery business; on her Italian side, her Great Aunt Bessy created elaborate gowns for her Little Italy clients.

“The key to their craft,” Dominick says, “was dedication to detail, with perfection in every stitch. My mission is to carry on such long-forgotten craftsmanship, with creative flair.”

Written by Paula Byron