Courtesy of Daily Paper

Fashion

7 Black Designers On the Unique Challenges of Establishing Their Own Brands

The young creatives reflect on the lessons they've learnt working in fashion and how they continue to thrive.

One of the many things that the recent protests for Black Lives Matter have highlighted is how often Black people deal with bias in almost any industry. Social media is filled with stories of young entrepreneurs and creatives speaking of their experiences of abuse, discrimination, and racism.

For all of its shoehorning of diversity, industries like fashion continue to be notoriously exclusive with its long-standing cis white beauty standards. And although the landscape is shifting slowly, things are far from equal. As such, Black fashion designers and business owners face unique challenges that are rarely addressed. Ahead, we spoke to seven independent Black fashion entrepreneurs on the dynamics of establishing their own businesses and the lessons they've learnt in the process.

Jefferson Osei, Co-Founder, Daily Paper

What's the most formative fashion lesson you've learnt throughout the years?

JO: Have a clear vision of what your brand is about — especially in times of doubt, this is the best safety net. When I used to get lost in research, I always asked myself what Daily Paper is about and what it represents. This is also the number-one lesson I give to upcoming fashion designers: What does your brand stand for and what added values will it give to the world?

Courtesy of Daily Paper

What inspired you to establish your label?

JO: Daily Paper started as a blog in 2008. We covered things we liked such as music, fashion, art, etc. To promote the blog we bought blank T-shirts and printed our logo on it. Our first customers were just our family and friends. Slowly, people became more interested in our apparel than our blog, which then inspired us to create a full-on clothing line, go trade shows, and connect with cool stores.

What's your advice to young Black designers looking to create their own business?

JO: Start small and realistic. You can even start with just one product. When we started, we only launched five T-shirts, and the reason we did that was because that was all we could do with the amount of money we had saved up at that point. Instead of building a big collection from the get-go, you can also start with networking and promoting your brand in the right way. I believe that the key is to grow organically.

Undra Duncan, Founder, Undra Celeste New York

What's the most formative fashion lesson you've learnt throughout the years?

UD: Define your customer and work your butt off to speak to and serve them. When I first started my brand in 2015, I started with a very defined look. I started chasing too many trends and got away from what I originally intended it to be. In 2018, after a pretty rough year financially, I decided to focus on fun and bold women's workwear. The business has grown significantly. We are redefining modern workwear.

Courtesy of Undra Celeste New York

What inspired you to establish your label?

UD: Growing up in Brooklyn and as a child of immigrant parents, I would watch my mother and aunts get ready and literally transform into what I can best describe as Diana Ross and Donna Summers impersonators. After college, I moved back to New York and started a handbag label, that ultimately didn't survive. However, I always know that being a fashion entrepreneur was ingrained in me and I needed to pursue that dream. Talent is like 10% of what you need. The financing, the experience, education, mentorship are all difficult to obtain, especially if you're a designer of color.

What's your advice to young Black designers looking to create their own business?

UC: Get started regardless of what you have; allow yourself space (mentally and creatively) to grow and stay the course. Keep your finances and credit together because it's going to be hard to get money. Spend time and effort to learn your customer. Lastly, work on the highest level of quality and excellence that your budget would allow.

Akudo Iheakanwa, Founder, CD Shekudo

What's the most formative fashion lesson you've learnt throughout the years?

AI: Stay nimble! Be able to adapt with the changing trends but stay true to your design focus and brand identity. Also, don't write something off because you're not happy with the design, many may actually love what you hate, which is what happened to one of our bestselling earrings.

Courtesy of CD Shekudo

What inspired you to establish your label?

AI: The need to promote an area of craftsmanship that I felt needed to be highlighted, in turn contributing to a new narrative for our footwear industry. I also wanted to create a sustainable brand made in Africa, which could push the barriers locally and internationally and draw in a community of women who enjoyed knowing the story behind their products.

What's your advice to young Black designers looking to create their own business?

AI: Stay determined, stay nimble, and stay joyful. Starting your own business looks cute from the outside but obviously a lot of work goes in. I do believe that staying joyful and nimble will allow you to remain energized. One big thing I learned in the beginning was to also manage my expectations. There's nothing wrong with being focussed, driven, and hopeful, but if you are too rigid in your expectations, this can cause unnecessary conflict internally and within your team. Oh, and have a plan A, B, C and Z

Chelsea Bravo, Founder, Chelsea Bravo

What's the most formative fashion lesson you've learnt throughout the years?

CB: Stay true to your creative expression.

What inspired you to establish your label?

CB: I wanted a place for me to explore and express my ideas and to have autonomy over how and when those ideas came out and are expressed.

Courtesy of Chelsea Bravo

How do you balance creativity with commercial pressures?

CB: I give more precedence to the creative. This is why the label operates in the manner that it does. Commerciality can hinder the full expression of your creative voice. With the garments, the only one or two requirements I have is that the piece functions as a garment and can be worn comfortably on the body. This is where the balance between creativity and commerciality is established.

What's your advice to young Black designers looking to create their own business?

CB: Stay true to your voice; this will pay off in the long run. Be determined and have patience.

Rebecca Henry and Akua Shabaka, Co-founders, House of Aama

What's the most formative fashion lesson you've learnt throughout the years?

RH and AS: Endurance. When we started, we had no idea of all of the intricate details of this business. We did have passion, a focused narrative, and legal and business skills. We've been told that if we had known everything to launch a fashion business, we may have not started it. But here we are establishing a noteworthy fashion brand and thrive in the process.

Quil Lemons/Courtesy of House of Aama

How do you balance creativity with commercial pressures?

RH and AS: Authenticity speaks for itself and resonates with our expanding customer base. We do want to be commercially viable and we are grateful for the increased sales and attention. However, we are going to continue to remain true to ourselves and hope to evoke dialogue, social commentary, and conversations around heritage, remembrance, and shed light on nuanced histories.

What's your advice to young Black designers looking to create their own business?

AS: It's important for young Black designers aspiring to create their own business to find what makes you, you. What is your voice, regardless of the naysayers? What feels the most authentic to you? You will need the drive when nothing seems to be working. Starting a business is by no means easy but it can be worth it when you feel it's coming from an authentic place. Also, never feel intimidated to ask for help, this will cut out a lot of roadblocks that may come your way. It's okay to not know all the answers.

Asata Beeks, Founder, Asata Maisé

What's the most formative fashion lesson you've learnt throughout the years?

AB: Get out of my comfort zone by challenging myself and exploring new ways to refresh my craft.

Courtesy of Asata Maisé

How do you balance creativity with commercial pressures?

AB: It has been difficult finding balance between staying true to myself and meeting a more commercial demand. I make everything by hand from start to finish, which is naturally time-consuming. My approach to this challenge has been to observe what sells best, such as hats, bags, and sets. After making my observations, I began implementing more of these pieces into what I create.

What's your advice to young Black designers looking to create their own business?

AB: Take advantage of every opportunity, especially now, that helps support your business and craft. Apply for grants, crowdfund, be transparent with your needs and struggles. You deserve to be successful in what you do. People, more than ever, are willing to help.

Dechel Mckillian, Founder, GALERIE.LA

What's the most formative fashion lesson you've learnt throughout the years?

DM: Focus on sustainability and style over fashion. Fashion and trends come as fast as they go.

What inspired you to establish your label?

DM: As a celebrity stylist I began to see the negative impact fashion has on people and the planet. I also realized my responsibility to bring ethical and sustainable brands to my clients. I launched GALERIE.LA to make it easy for women to shop their values and discover sustainable clothing, lifestyle goods, and clean beauty.

Courtesy of GALERIE.LA

How do you balance creativity with commercial pressures?

DM: It is 100% my vision and company so I don't have the pressure to be commercial. I set out to create a platform that was what I wanted to see in the world. What has carried us far as a brand is our authenticity to be in a space that's geared towards one demographic of women and showcase sustainability, style, diversity, and inclusivity. The brands we work with are more about making an impact with their sustainable production practices than fitting into fashion for a trend or marketing (greenwashing) purposes.

What's your advice to young Black designers looking to create their own business?

DM: Dream big!

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