Courtesy of the designers.
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the resulting uprisings sparked a wave of support—some of it genuine, much of it hollow—for the Black community. The response from the fashion industry ranged from posting black boxes on Instagram as a clumsy, superficial display of solidarity to creating grant initiatives like the Designers Hub, founded by Bethann Hardison with help from the CFDA. Publications churned out list after list of Black-owned brands to support—which, for many, meant a major boost in sales.
The question now is: Will that support endure? As the nation still reels from the pandemic and nearly a full year out from Floyd’s death, 15 designers of Black-owned brands open up about the impact of COVID-19, the protests of last summer and what it takes to build, sustain, and grow a fashion business.
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Against Medical Advice
At only 23, Wole Olosunde is both an emergency nurse and a thriving fashion designer. Olosunde’s creations for his label Against Medical Advice are heavily influenced by his medical background, featuring knitwear emblazoned with X-rays and human anatomy. “I overwork myself a lot,” he admits, describing pulling 12-hour shifts at a hospital in addition to running his company. As a frontline worker, he has seen the devastation the pandemic has wrought on New York City. As a business owner, he saw a boost in sales after a surge in interest in Black-owned brands in the summer of 2020. “The pandemic was definitely a catalyst for my business,” says Olosunde, who believes the interest was due in part to the fact that there was a renewed level of respect for the work that nurses do.
He sees the day that he’ll transition from medical professional to full-time designer as inevitable—in the interim, though, he’s been seeking out grants and mentorship programs. However, Olosunde sees a fundamental flaw in many of the opportunities available: they require applicants to be current fashion students or graduates. He believes the industry’s concept of a designer’s path is still a conventional one, leaving people like himself ineligible. “I feel like those programs need to adapt to that ever-changing title,” he says.
Just this past February, 28-year-old Jamaica-born designer Edvin Thompson was featured in our story on Black-owned fashion labels making waves for spring, and his brand Theophilio has been seen on Gabrielle Union and Solange Knowles. Though grateful for his growing visibility, Thompson quips, “If I was getting paid for press, I’d be rich.”
Up until March 2020, he worked at Red Lobster in the Bronx, where he lived before moving to Brooklyn. “That has been my stability,” Thompson says of the restaurant chain. “They’ve always been there along my fashion journey.” Though Thompson isn’t on totally solid footing just yet, he is choosing to bet on himself. Since his presentation in September, he’s been named a CFDA Fashion Fund finalist. “I’m still trying to push ahead,” he says, until he can get to a place where the business can fully fund itself.
Reese describes her two-year-old line, Hope for Flowers, as “sustainably focused and responsibly designed.” A fashion veteran with over three decades of industry experience, she recently relocated from New York City to her native Detroit, where her business is now based, and is building a new brand essentially from scratch. Reese, who has owned a house in her hometown for the past four years, says she wanted to have more space and be closer to her family. She also wants to “be able to contribute to my community here.”
“I need to be able to contribute to the futures of young people,” she says.
Though she became known for her namesake label, Reese “wanted it to be clear to consumers that [Hope for Flowers] was a different brand with a different mission.” Of course, a long career does not mean a business free from hiccups. She notes there was “some contention over the rights to the Tracy Reese brand name” that has only recently been resolved. Now, “she’s playing a conservative hand” as she grows her business and says the pandemic helped her determine what she wants Hope Flowers “to grow into and stand for.”
London-born handbag designer Nasrin Jean-Baptiste’s pride in her ancestry runs through the DNA of her brand. For starters, the brand name, Petit Kouraj, means “little courage” in Haitian Creole. Haiti, where her parents were born, is also where she manufactures her bags. “A lot of why I started this brand in the first place,” Jean-Baptiste says, “is because I wanted to create a product that felt unique and special and had identity.” Now, three years in, the 41-year-old Brooklyn-based designer sees what she believes to be a lack of support in the fashion industry for small designers like her “in terms of business structure.”
“Where’s the access to accountants or lawyers who can help you make a contract with your manufacturer? Or check a contract agreement you have with a retailer?” she says. “It just feels like so much of the information is hidden even at a time where all information is accessible.”
Blackstock & Weber
Founder Chris Echevarria calls Blackstock & Weber a “men’s lifestyle brand,” though its core product is the loafer. The 33-year-old F.I.T. graduate grew up wearing the time-honored shoe. And despite a year-plus of hoodies, Crocs, and yoga pants, he says 2020 was his best year ever in business.
“As a business owner,” Echevarria says, “there’s always something to do.” Every day is a constant game of catch-up. The pandemic meant that, in many ways, the whole world froze for months, giving him the opportunity to “look back at some of the stuff that was inefficient about my business and fix it while the clock was stopped.” This past summer, Blackstock & Weber was ready, with a collaboration with the Philadelphia 76ers. For all the growing pains that might come with building a business,“being small and being agile was also our saving grace,” Echevarria says.
Designer Mia Joseph’s, sheer, colorful, stretchy paneled shirts have been worn by Jordyn Woods and SZA, and according to Joseph, Kim Kardashian has even purchased her creations. The visibility that can come with being worn by high-profile celebrities can, of course, be a boon, but determining when to loan is important for a small fashion business. Loaning to a stylist for a photo shoot has the potential to introduce your brand to a totally new audience, but a designer also runs the risk of their garment getting damaged or stained.
“In the beginning, I would just say yes to everything,” the 26-year-old says. “Then you start to learn what’s beneficial.” Now, she uses gut instinct as a determinant over dollars and cents, gauging who to loan to based on whether she thinks they will create the kind of content that aligns well with the Myae Made brand. “When you’re a small business, if you’ve only got 20 items and you’re going to loan out five but you could have sold them that week—you have to start weighing the pros and cons of it,” she says.
House of Aama
Rebecca Henry, 54, and Akua Shabaka, 23, are the mother-daughter duo behind the Los Angeles-based brand House of Aama. Henry juggles being a full-time lawyer while handling production duties. Shabaka, who was still in high school when House of Aama launched, focuses on project management, content, and creative direction. When it was time for Shabaka to go off to college at Parsons School of Design, her course of study was a strategic decision for their company. “I encouraged her to go into the BBA [Bachelor of Business Administration] program as opposed to the fashion school,” Henry says.
They currently produce their clothes made-to-order, a choice that was made out of necessity. “When we got those quotes back, they were so high,” Henry says of the costs of sampling and pattern-making. Despite their personal investments, they don’t have plans to give up any percentage of their company, so they have opted to self-fund, even if that means slow growth. They have received several grants, though, one of which was the CFDA’s Designers Hub grant for Black-owned businesses. Still, Shabaka says, “there’s definitely a lot of bootstrapping.” She also takes on side gigs doing art direction and set design. “With a lot of Black designers and creatives,” she points out, “they use everything they have to fund their business.”
Tia Adeola sold her first garment on Snapchat. It was 2016, and the 23-year-old Nigerian-born designer was studying culture and media at The New School. Fast forward four years and Adeola would debut at New York Fashion Week. Now, as she continues to build her brand, her home country has become integral to her business.
“We have amazing seamstresses. We have amazing tailors,” she says. Adeola got in touch with a family friend who has a factory in Nigeria, which is where production is now done. “For one, I’m saving so much money,” Adeola says. “I’m also taking jobs back home.”
River Is Wild
Akinwale Akinbiyi, 31, and Thomas Davis, 33, are the pair behind the streetwear brand River is Wild. Akinbiyi, who has an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and a master’s in sustainable energy engineering, describes himself as risk-averse, saying that “Tom is very much like, ‘The universe will provide.’” With that balance, they are building what they describe on their website as “a Nigerian concept brand, a constant exploration of esoteric Africa.”
Like all business owners, they have had to determine how best to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had a very, very hard time justifying releasing product,” says Akinbiyi. Ultimately, they decided to collaborate with a friend to create the Resident Alien Project, which sells merch and donates the money raised to organizations that serve the Black community.“We built this thing and it comes with our message. It’s more than just a fashion brand,” says Davis.
Timothy Campbell, 29, and Jarrett Raghnal, 28, are friends and the co-founders of the eyewear brand Ember Niche. The Brooklyn-based company is best known for funky colors and styles, like their alien-esque Spookz frame. The duo was not ashamed to share their entrepreneurial blunders early on. With very little information about how to find a manufacturer to produce their glasses, they flew to China “on a whim,” says Raghnal, who with Campbell traveled around Shanghai asking whether anybody knew a place where they could produce their frames. They would end up giving thousands of dollars to a man who was posing as a current employee of a manufacturer, who would disappear with their money. Luckily, through some savvy sleuthing and persistence, they managed to get it back. (“A learning process,” is how Campbell described the ordeal.) To prevent future mishaps, they now have a pair of informal mentors, the sisters behind another Black-owned eyewear brand Coco and Breezy. One thing Campbell has learned? “Mentorship in Black business is definitely necessary.”
“I wanted people to think it was cool to be a tailor, “ says Patrick Henry, 40, who goes by Fresh. “So I wanted to be the coolest tailor on earth.” After years of providing alterations for professional athletes and celebrities, Henry launched Richfresh in 2018. The brand’s bespoke, made-to-order suits have been worn by Justin Bieber, The Weeknd (at left), John Legend, and Dwyane Wade, among many other A-listers. When the pandemic began to sweep through the country, his business was not immune.
“Richfresh took a bit of a slowdown,” said Henry. “There are no events to go to. People aren’t spending $5,000 to wear a suit around the house.” Instead, Henry and his brother Chase Morgan launched the subscription mask company Henry Masks. “We were just responding to a need,” said Henry, who says he donated thousands of units to people who couldn’t afford them. “Being able to do that puts you at a high.”
Although 28-year-old John Dean can count the fact that his brand Renowned LA is now sold at Nordstrom as a major achievement, he is not afraid to share his stumbles along the way. Like the time he “went in on a gentleman’s handshake” and agreed to a partnership with a friend he met in the fashion industry. The agreement: He would design, and the friend would finance and manufacture the collection.
“I think it’s really important that Black businesses understand this,” he says of what ensued. After butting heads and sensing his partner was falling out of love with the business, Dean suggested they part ways, sell the remaining inventory and split the profits from those sales. “He kept all the initial profits, from the inventory and the cash flow we had going.” With no resources to afford a lawyer, Dean licked his wounds and moved on.“The greatest thing is, he didn’t own any intellectual property because it was just a handshake agreement,” Dean said. “Ever since then, I’ve never had another partner.”
Today, Daymond John may be most associated with the ABC reality show Shark Tank, where he serves as one of the resident sharks. For earlier generations, he is best known as the founder of FUBU, one of the brands that defined ’90s hip-hop fashion. Given how much retail has changed since FUBU’s inception, John, who officially re-launched the brand in 2019 with his three original partners, knew his approach would be different this time around. “We didn’t want to rely heavily on retailers regardless, because first of all, the margin is not as great,” he says of the decision to adopt a direct-to-consumer business model.
With a brand acronym that stands for “For Us, By Us,” it was no surprise that the rise in attention on Black-owned businesses last year, particularly in the press, generated interest.“We happened to have a resurgence after George Floyd,” says John. It wasn’t just an interest in the aesthetic that gave the brand a boost; it was “about ownership and about pride.”
When asked about the best financial decision she made for her label, Pierre Davis, the 31-year-old lead designer of No Sesso, cites merch. Having a separate merch program, distinct from the runway pieces and at a lower price point, has helped give people “easier access to the brand.”
Davis and designers Arin Hayes and Autumn Randolph have been able to weather the pandemic and “create our best collection to date,” says Davis. The nonbinary brand, which translates to “no sex/no gender,” in Italian, is moving at its own pace. “We were able to bring things back to our own terms and decide when we want to release collections.” With that in mind, it’s no wonder that when asked about the business turning a profit, Davis’ response emphasized the importance of prioritizing art over commerce. “Right now,” Davis says, “we have been focusing on creating art and making garments that speak beyond measures of contributing to capitalism.”
Jomi Bello, 30, is the founder of what he says is “Nigeria’s first skateboarding company,” WAFFLESNCREAM. “Growing up, I moved around. I did not stay in one place,” says Bello, who was born in Lagos, lived in Zambia, and then moved to Leeds in the U.K. It was there that he saw a skate park for the first time. “I was so intrigued,” he says. “For the first three months I didn’t skate. I was just sitting down, watching.”
He went on to channel that awe into his line. It not only produces streetwear, but its former shop served as a community hub for Nigerian youth to gather in a place where skate culture is still in its infancy compared to the United States. The pandemic, however, brought things to a halt. “It was the first time I did not know what to do,” says Bello. The flagship store, which opened in 2016, would ultimately be a casualty of COVID-19. According to Bello, a new storefront is set to open in May; the pandemic gave him a chance to take a breath. Now, he says, “I can design the store I want.”
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