When it comes to building a more inclusive environment in the fashion industry, some routes are certainly easier than others. Take Black fashion designers, for example. The word “easy” is neither in their vocabulary nor their experiences. And even though these fashion artists continue to set trends and the industry daily capitalizes off Black talent, systemic disenfranchisement within the fashion industry continues to stifle them.
Yet, still they rise.
During the Black Lives Matter protests against the killing of George Floyd, the world witnessed what would be a global reckoning for major companies and brands who claimed to be outspoken for diversity and equity within their industries via the inclusion of Black people. Many of these corporations were even quick to align themselves with the movement through lots of lip service, but unfortunately, very little action.
Today, many brands have since fallen short of their pledges, and although this might look as though there’s no hope for change, several Houston-area Black designers are coming out on top by being and creating the change they want to see.
The Defender interviewed three Houston Black fashion designers, who are at different stages of their career and lives: Gwendolyn Davis of Alexandria Lee Designs; Tacharra Perry, founder of the luxury womenswear brand CHARWorkroom; and Kameereo Crisp of Designs Kymareo.
These ladies have all experienced the ups and downs of the fashion business, but share the common goal to push for more representation in the industry.
Defender: When did your passion for fashion first begin?
Gwendolyn Davis: I first started sewing in the 9th grade. I took a home economics class and I learned how to cook and sew, and I liked it. Fast forward, I got married, had kids and began to sew all of their outfits. I eventually took a break and got into corporate America, and that took about 20 years away from me. I eventually got laid off in 2007 and I told myself that I went to Houston Community College to learn a trade, build on my skillsets and do what I truly love, which is designing clothes. I got my associate’s degree in fashion design and it’s been a rollercoaster ride since then.
Tacharra Perry: My history in fashion started at a younger age. My mom dressed me as a younger child. Once I got to middle school, she gave me the freedom to channel my creativity and get more experimental with my style. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. So, my grandparents had an upholstery company and they reupholstered furniture for people. My grandmother was an educator and I challenged her to make some clothes even though it wasn’t her niche. She made clothes for my cousins. She even made clothes for my doll that I brought to show and tell at school. All the designs were unique and it always intrigued me about how fabric can turn into a masterpiece. In high school I worked in retail, and that’s when I started repurposing Levi’s jeans which made me a lot of money. From there, I knew I wanted to own my own business and study fashion.
Kameereo Crisp: I started in 2012 after getting out of the military. I had no outlet, no other training and as I was looking through magazines, I saw something I wanted. I went out, saw a sewing machine and worked my way through it. I taught myself through YouTube videos. I had a friend who had experience, so if I needed anything I would call her. After serving 15 years in the military, I wanted to do something for fun. I did mirror chronicles, took pictures in front of my mirror and post them on social and people would reach out asking me for my availability to do fashion shows. Since then, I’ve been running with it ever since.
SLIDE SHOW DAVIS 1-5 HERE
Defender: If you could describe your brand in one word, what would it be?
Davis: I would describe my clothing as elegant. I try to add class to my designs. When I do anything, I stand back and say if it looks good on the mannequin, it will look amazing on the person that’s wearing it. Even my ready-to-wear outfits, for example, would be a whole one-piece jumpsuit with a bad jacket to go with it.
Perry: Unconventional. We are an unseasonal women’s wear brand. We don’t focus on seasons. The brand was launched in Texas, and in the winter, we have two good months of cold weather, so why would I push out fur coats in November when I live in Texas? I could be pushing out summer outfits instead. Also, one of our biggest regions outside of the state is California. Also, we take into consideration that people go on vacations and are leaving for warmer states, and most brands aren’t thinking like that. I want be inclusive to all women considering some brands can be a bit performative, especially during the George Floyd situation, and how major brands thought it was trendy to support the movement but didn’t follow through.
Crisp: It’s fun. My designs are eclectic and all over the place, but it makes sense. One of my popular pieces is my Demin patchwork. I would go to the family thrift outlet center and they would usually have 25 cent days. So, I would go and pick up a whole bunch of Demin, cut them into squares and make my own fabrics out of them.
SLIDE SHOW CHAR PHOTOS 1-4 HERE
Defender: What do you want your brand to be remembered for?
Davis: I want people to remember me for not giving up on my dream. Not matter how old I am or when I started in my journey, I never gave up. I’m competing and I’m standing toe-to-toe with these young girls.
Perry: We are also kicking off a mental health and wellness sector under CHAR this summer which focuses on building a sisterhood in a community within the brand where we do quarterly events focused on these topics. More specifically, how fashion impacts our wellness and our mental health. I know what challenges I faced internally as an entrepreneur. I think people should show more grace to emerging entrepreneurs, especially the minority ones, because we don’t have those resources like our counterparts. I want to create space for people who want to be in my position.
Crisp: I want to be remembered for bringing that feeling of fun. No matter what I’ve been through I’m a happy person. I’m a giver. I love to see the glow on the faces of people who walk in my garments. There is no better feeling, and it makes me excited.
Defender: What are some challenges you’ve experienced in the fashion industry?
Davis: There are quite a few and I don’t want to be negative, but for some reason society thinks that if you aren’t a gay man or a white woman then you are not a designer. I know it’s kind of crazy, but you can’t get anyone to name six top Black female designers. You can name a few whites, and if they didn’t get a launching pad like Project Runway or Making the Cut, and all of these different shows, you wouldn’t know about them. Some might not agree, but that is the stigma that I see. Also, when it comes to the shows, we’re stuck doing shows that Black promoters do, which have been great, but when you try to get into the shows that the elites do or with the white producers, you just can’t get in. Even in the struggle to expand my reach, Black people have always been so supportive and I can never forget that.
Perry: Everything isn’t going to happen overnight. I’ve been designing since 2014. I’m pushing over a decade in my brand. I really started getting recognition two years ago. Continue to be consistent because we have to work twice as hard to get far in this industry. Make sure your business is in order; especially the legal side. I had to play catch up in the midst of having so much demand and had to take a step back to regroup and restructure. Learning how to finance and raise capital and putting a proper business plan in place.
Crisp: When I first started, I didn’t have any goals, so I wasn’t looking for an end result. I just wanted to create. But now, I want to be able to get my name out there, hopefully dress a celebrity or be a stylist for one. But in order to do that I need more visibility and that has been the biggest challenge for me. My mom helps me out a lot. I do everything by myself and I don’t have a team, and the demand keeps me sitting in front of the sewing machines. I do my best to be consistent on social but it’s tough. I do what I can. As far as representation in this industry, we don’t always get the accolades we deserve. We get overlooked by this fast fashion industry. The structure of the industry makes it harder for us to get in front of the right audience.
Defender: What trends do you keep up with and what should people look out for?
Davis: I don’t trust trends. Trends come and go. We might set a trend today and then 10 years later, it will return. If the style works for you, don’t change it.
Perry: As far as my brand, we have a leisure look, items for women who may not be into fashion, but still want something a bit more elevated. We recently dropped four new pieces and my team is in the process of working on a 15-look resort collection and that will be released in Miami this summer.
Crisp: I don’t follow trends, nor do I follow seasonal colors. As a designer we set them, and that’s what I believe creators do. It is basically up to the people to design what colors or styles fit your personality and body type. What might look good on one person might not be the same on another, if that makes sense?