How this Canadian illustrator became Eva Chen's collaborator and has Oprah video calling him

Derek Desierto made his dream come true — thanks to a single Instagram post.

Derek Desierto made his dream come true — thanks to a single Instagram post

(Left, courtesy: Derek Desierto; right, source: Feiwel & Friends)

Although Derek Desierto's childhood sketchbooks were filled with cartoon characters like Marvin the Martian, the cast of Sailor Moon and Simba from The Lion King, his first forays into art and design were in the fashion industry. His goal of becoming the next Marc Jacobs led him to fashion school and, eventually, to creating the Derek Cardigan eyewear line at the age of 21.  

Desierto left the job a few years later because he missed drawing cartoons. While working at the Toronto animation studio Nelvana, a magical chain of events led him to become the illustrator of Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes, the stylish children's book written by Instagram's head of fashion, Eva Chen, that's a sensation amongst all ages.

Insta(nt) friends

Like many modern business relationships, the Canadian-Filipino's partnership with Chen began online when they met via Instagram. Chen re-shared an illustration that Desierto had posted of her and her daughter, Ren.

Desierto, now based in Vancouver, says the collage style of illustration he's famous for evolved out of necessity when he was working at the animation studio.

"I would draw something and not have enough time to colour or paint it. So I would just put in a fabric swatch to put colour in and call it a day," said Desierto. "So it was from necessity... I had no time and I just had to do it. And I just kept doing it and doing it and doing it."

The duo's second book, A Is For Awesome: 23 Iconic Women Who Changed the World, was released in February, and a third collaboration, Juno Valentine and the Fantastic Fashion Adventure is due out in the fall of 2019. Desierto illustrated a rendition of Oprah on the cover of their second book and Oprah gave the book a shoutout on Chen's Instagram stories at Paris Fashion Week in March.

"I've always loved strong women. And I've always kind of gravitated towards them," said Desierto, who listed Oprah, Michelle Obama and Marianne Williamson as influential women in his life. "I like someone with personality."

Believing in a friendly universe

Desierto's search for a creative outlet has propelled him change career paths quite a few times, like when he left the animation studio last year and moved back home to Vancouver to be a freelance illustrator.

"I really had no fear. In fact, it was a sense of relief that I could just focus on one thing and really indulge myself," said Desierto. "I was just doing what I enjoyed and, luckily, thanks in great part to Eva, it started to resonate with people."

Desierto says he always knew he would be a children's book illustrator in his lifetime. He just had no idea what the trajectory would look like. Phenomenally, in collaboration with Chen, Desierto's first published book became a New York Times' bestseller.

I've always believed in a friendly universe, that life is for you and not against you," Desierto said. "It's that unresounding faith that has always kept me grounded, I think."

Do it now, don't wait

For young artists working on their craft, Desierto's advice is to "not wait until you're ready" because the work will speak for itself.

"Had I thought 'I'm not ready' and I didn't post any of my work, you wouldn't be talking to me now," he added. "And I wouldn't have any of the opportunities that I have now." 

Life with Derek Desierto

What time of day are you most inspired?
Early morning. Like nine to 11 am or eight to 11 because at the end of the day I'm like "I'm tired, I just want to watch Netflix and eat chips." 

Describe your look in one word.

Who's the one artist everyone should know about right now?
Grace Zhang, her IG is @graceYYZ. She is one of my favourite new artists that I follow. We have mutual friends. I adore her work.

What's the one book you'd recommend to everyone?
A Return To Love by Marianne Williamson, it has changed my life.

Where is your favourite place on earth?
Being with my boyfriend is a really cheesy answer, but it's true.

Amy Chyan is a freelance journalist, producer and video editor based in Toronto. Her work intersects the topics of food, race and the Asian American experience. She tweets @ayl.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.