A few years ago, Joshua Castillo and Kenny Freeland emailed Dallas-born designer Lele Sadoughi cold. “[We] just said that we were fans of her company and we would love to collaborate,” Castillo says.
In 2019, the pair founded Salood, a nonprofit that helps local families of pediatric cancer patients pay their bills beyond just the medical expenses. Salood works with pediatric cancer ambassadors, pairing them with local brands so they can “collaborate and create customized products” for that business. Half of the proceeds then goes to Salood’s financial aid program.
When Sadoughi, who’s now based in New York, heard about Salood’s mission, “I was like, how can I not help with this?”
Salood then put out a call for applications for childhood cancer patients interested in fashion. That’s when middle schooler Valentina Nejfelt, who had been diagnosed with leukemia in March 2021, heard about them. The Frisco native’s mom was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post about Salood.
“I had no idea what it was about,” Nejfelt says, but she wanted to work in fashion when she grew up, so she applied, and she got the gig.
Over the next six-or-so months, Nejfelt, while going through chemotherapy treatments, worked with the designer and her team. In late April, they launched a two-piece collection of accessories—a bejeweled headband and a headscarf, “which was a brand new silhouette for us,” Sadoughi says. The collection is available for sale on the Lele Sadoughi website and also in the designer’s flagship Highland Park Village store.
We sat down with Castillo, Sadoughi, and Nejfelt, who is now about to enter high school, to discuss Salood, the design process, and the special meaning behind the collection.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
D Magazine: Joshua, can you tell me why it’s so important for Salood and its ambassador program to provide financial aid to families of pediatric cancer patients?
Joshua Castillo: Outside of chemotherapy expenses, there really isn’t a lot of aid for families that are struggling with their bills. And so, we feel very, very strongly with the money that we are able to raise through the collaborations to be able to give back at a “no questions asked.” Because when a child goes through cancer, at least one parent typically has to stop working. So, it’s reduced income. And so, we’re very, very lucky to have these opportunities.
D: Lele, what made you want to work with Salood?
Lele Sadoughi: When Josh came up and was like, “we are nonprofit; we can allocate part of your proceeds towards this,” it’s such a tangible moment. We were able to meet Valentina and know that the money goes to local people and know that it goes to families that are suffering. It just seemed like a good way to expand our category and do something that was targeted towards that and celebrated it.
Especially when Valentina was like, “I want happy faces, it makes me happy. And I want crystals, because it’s shiny, and it’s just having such a positive outlook.” I feel like it also resonated with our brand too. I’m not a nurse, I’m not a doctor, There’s only so much I can do. But if I can make somebody when they look pretty, feel pretty, then that feel, I feel like I’ve done my job in that respect.
D: Valentina, can you tell me what it was like when you found out you were going to be working with Lele?
Valentina Nejfelt: I was actually in the hospital when I found out. I was getting chemo, and I had to stay in the hospital for a while. And so I got up in the Zoom call because Josh was like, “All right, we have something to tell you guys.” I open the computer, we log in, and I see two people there. … They’re like, “you made it! You’re going to be an ambassador.” And I was just feeling so excited. So ecstatic. I really just remember smiling ear to ear.
JC: Good memory.
D: So what happened next?
VN: I got some homework. I was told to create a mood board of my favorite colors, the things I want to include, some samples of headbands I like, and just kind of the pattern I was going for, the vibe I was going for. And so, I worked on that. We did our first call after I did the mood board. We did everything via Zoom because I was still in kind of intense treatment.
LS: Valentina picked the cutest trends. We were able to really work together. And she came back with ideas, and we sent fabrics and we sent embellishments to the hospital, like a whole box of things so she could really explore and feel and pick soft fabrics.
D: What was it like choosing the different elements for the headband and the scarf?
VN: It was very hard. I had a huge mess on my desk for a while. And sometimes it got a little frustrating trying to see. But in the end, I loved it. I love picking out certain things, the whole designing process. It gave me a glimpse of what it’s like to be working in [fashion]. And it really assured me that I want to do this later on in life.
LS: And hopefully, you’ll have a messy desk forever. Mine is, always.
D: You picked orange crystals because that’s leukemia’s ribbon color and the headband’s gold stripes to represent pediatric cancer. But why the smiley faces?
VN: When I saw them in with the all the other embellishments, they stood out to me. And it actually wasn’t these gold, happy faces that are on there now. It was different ones. I just knew instantly, like I have to have some sort of happy face on them. Because not only do I love them, but I also really wanted to put them in to represent my positive outlook on life. And just how I kind of stayed positive throughout this incredibly hard time, even though it was really hard to. So yeah, after knowing that I want to happy faces, we changed the colors of them until we found the gold. And we kept the gold because they were my favorite out of all of them.
D: What was it like when you finally saw the finished collection?
VN: I don’t even know the words describe it. It was just so amazing seeing and feeling it, like seeing my work, and especially seeing it in the store now. It’s crazy. Like I designed that. I was working on that. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe my work, my vision, has come to light.
JC: You felt proud, Valentina.
VN: I was extremely proud. I was extremely proud of myself.