Real-life CSI sleuth Erika Di Palma, MFS ’07, spends her off-hours designing a breakout new fashion line: Clothes and apparel personalized with unique fingerprints.
As a forensic identification specialist with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Erika Di Palma, MFS ’07, can start her day at the scene of a burglary, where she might be examining shards of broken glass or fibers of carpet for drops of blood. Before lunch, she may be on the scene of a car theft, taking tire track impressions in the dirt. And when the rest of the city is asleep, she could be surrounded by yellow police tape and swirling squad car lights as she searches for fingerprints in a murder investigation.
Covering a jurisdiction that stretches for two hours in every direction from downtown L.A., Di Palma—whose master’s degree is in forensic sciences—has investigated over 200 major crime scenes in the last seven years. “In some cities, you see one or two homicides a year,” she said. “We get that every day.”
It was following a particularly demanding week, one in which she was involved in investigating a high number of homicides, that Di Palma stumbled upon a way to channel her stress and professional knowledge into a cottage industry. While out on a hike—and with fingerprints relentlessly dancing in her head—she noticed a pair of hikers in track suits. “I thought to myself: You know what would be cool? What if you could put your fingerprints on your clothes? Now that would make a statement.”
One of a Kind
Di Palma soon launched My Own Fingerprint, an apparel and accessories collection featuring customers’ fingerprints imprinted on items like t-shirts, sweatshirts, watches and art pieces. Her business model combined her love of forensics with her passion for creativity—and resulted in a product that is, literally, one of a kind.
“We all know that no two sets of fingerprints are alike so wearing your print truly allows you to show off your individuality,” she said. “Fingerprints are my life. I not only lift them from crime scenes but I also think they are works of art. They are, in essence, our physiological autographs.”
Di Palma's My Own Fingerprint apparel collection features fingerprints on t-shirts, sweatshirts, watches and art pieces.
To turn fingerprints into fashion items, Di Palma connected with Los Angeles vendors and created t-shirt prototypes, marketing them on her website. Her business took off when she auditioned for the ABC show Shark Tank. Although her segment never aired, her presentation piqued entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s interest and resulted in Di Palma securing a $75,000 investment from the billionaire.
She now sells about 35,000 items a year and donates a portion of each sale to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Her customers include forensic professionals in search of an imaginative retirement gift and teenagers looking for a unique style. She plans to branch out into pet print items—as soon as she solves the mystery of how to keep the paw print samples from being contaminated by dog hair.
While Di Palma is enjoying her foray into the fashion world, she has no intention of quitting her day—and night and weekend—job. “I realized at GW that forensics were my passion,” she said. “And my motto is: If you find your passion, make it your life.”