In 1985, when I was four years old, I remember sitting in the living room of my mother’s two-bedroom duplex watching music videos on MTV. As a kid, I was notorious for zoning out in front of the television, and this time was no different. As the next video appeared on my mother’s Zenith television set, I saw a woman in a dramatic, post-apocalyptic chrome, chain-mail jagged dress with large shoulder pads—as if they were taken from football equipment—and wild hair. I was mesmerized. Tina Turner had a presence about her that I had never seen before. Her soulful rock ‘n’ roll music, edgy costumes and public image were fascinating to me. “We Don’t Need Another Hero” became my favorite video. This was the first time I had ever felt such a strong sense of pure passion, visual stimulation and excitement. A door was opened, and on the other side spontaneous day-dreams of mystic places, spiritual epiphanies and beautiful people wearing magical garments.
During my senior year at Bauder College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was asked by our fashion department director to be interviewed by Scott Waldon—a journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—for an article about our upcoming fashion showcase, alongside four other amazing senior fashion design students. One of the questions that I was asked is, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” My response was to become a costume designer for motion film and theatre.
And that was the direction after graduation.
I took a costume design internship at Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Virginia. For those months, I was thrown into a whirlwind of cutting, draping, stitching and altering costumes and garments. My days were filled with consignment shop scavenger hunts and endless wardrobe changes. The long hours in front of a sewing machine and late nights after the last show cleaning and mending worn costumes only furthered my curiosity for this art form. When the internship was over, I wanted more. I applied for an internship at The Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York City, and after my interview and tour through the costume shop, I was confident that I would get accepted and this would be my journey.
But life had a different plan for me: My application was rejected.
I was 20 years old and had no plans of going back to live in Atlanta. I had made the decision on the flight to LaGuardia Airport that morning that New York would be my home. Suddenly without direction, I found myself in a whirlwind of decisions. Determined to thrive in New York and steadfast in my resolve to create fashion, I took an internship with Betsey Johnson. I was immediately attracted to Betsey's design aesthetic: whimsical, fantasy garments that smacked of the theatrical costuming I still loved. My work with Betsey, however, put me on a new path toward design and product development for many notable ready-to-wear and contemporary fashion brands for the next 10 years. But this new path also took me away from my own creativity and the narrative of my own invention.
By May of 2013, feeling weighed down by the endless demands of the fashion industry, I had lost my way. Working for other designers with their own vision and ambition had obscured my own creative journey. I had been daydreaming about and planning a move for a year and a half, and every time I thought about change, it made me anxious and restored my childlike excitement. The monotony and comfort of the rat race did not feed my creative mind, I realized that I was losing the small remainder of that fire that prompted my move to New York initially. And losing the one thing that kept me strong and alive was not an option. In my personal life, too, I had become nomadic and flighty, because I was uncomfortable with my purpose and true identity. I knew I had to return to loving the adventure of life instead of a heavy ball and chain imposed by the necessities of New York living. So, with only the goal of stoking my own creative fire I embraced the shift.
I went on a soul searching quest that took me down to San Antonio, Texas, to Leipzig, Germany and back to my hometown of Quitman, Georgia. During this two year sojourn, I was faced with many challenges and hard decisions that forced me to reveal what was most important to me creatively. While in San Antonio, I experimented with mixology and bartending for my sisters' event planning start-up company 89 Wishes. This was entertaining, fun and gave me a sense of calmness and peace of mind. Not to mention working with my sister and supporting her dreams was a gratifying detour, while I figured out my plan. Considering 89 Wishes was a start-up, the events varied in size and details, so there were times where a bartender wasn’t needed or the budget didn’t allow. So I started the search for a new creative outlet. Shortly after, I landed a position at Alamo Advertising, where I was the Design Department Coordinator.
Working closely with graphic artists, on-site silk screen printers and consulting with production managers in various departments gave me the income that I was seeking to stay in Texas. That was short lived, however. Although the creativity was satisfying, it quickly started to remind me of the demands at my previous position in New York. I made a vow to myself that if I was going to seek holistic fulfillment, this wasn’t the job for me. I resigned after only two weeks.
A few days after I quit Alamo Advertising, my parents needed my help with their 25 year old cleaning company. This was nothing new to me considering I started working with my parents when I was nine years old. So six months into Texas, I moved back to my hometown. For the next year, I was fully invested in daily window cleaning of the finest homes and offices in South Georgia and North Florida. This was the most humbling phase of my life: I had just turned 30 and my decisions took me from major independence to depending on my parents. It was something I was not completely comfortable with, but I made a bed for myself so I had to lie in it and see this obligation through.
While back in my hometown, I was able to do a lot of reflection on the last ten years of my life and the career I created in that time. I had no distractions from looking at myself in the mirror. And while I wasn’t really happy with the decision, I dealt with it and made the best out of it. When I wasn’t cleaning, I would work on my brain-child “East Lafayette Street,” a children’s clothing start-up focused on young boys lifestyle, that I created back in 2011. This kept me motivated and creatively stimulated.
One Sunday afternoon, I was searching for something in one of my mother’s closets, and I found a large board with my signature on it from my first fashion show at Walker Street Auditorium when I was 16 years old. This board was the backdrop of the runway, and I began reminiscing. This board reminded me completely of why I started sketching and designing one-of-a-kind garments. This moment of clarity gave me just enough of what I needed to make a plan for my next excursion.
In the fall of 2015, I traveled back to New York with newfound inspiration and the freedom to explore.
Stephen Earley Jordan II and I have been good friends for many years. We met on a Jersey City PATH train, one morning on my commute to Manhattan. Jordan is a published author, writer and marketing genius—who also paints in his leisure—was trying to collaborate his two passions: combining fashion and words together to make experimental visual art that would tell the story of our present moment. I had attended one of Stephen’s spoken word performances and was familiar with his shocking, provocative and unapologetic lyrical play. I knew that whatever we created together would shift viewer’s perspectives on whatever topic we chose as our focus. Stephen introduced me to Marlon Saunders, who is a musician, vocalist, record producer and former professor at Berklee College of Music. Marlon sent a track he’d composed to Stephen, and our creative process began. The soundtrack Marlon produced was mysterious and tangled, sinister but gracious. The dark 808 beats, subtle spiritual piano melody delicately hanging in the background, and the stutter of the snares took me on a mystical journey. Stephen’s lyrics, completely raw and uncensored, spontaneous yet honest, adorned with April Hill's audacious intonation; carried me from very deep emotional regions to high, redemptive plateaus.
I began designing.
With a background in music and playing the alto saxophone throughout my teenage years, my ear is trained to hear music differently. Translating sounds into words—and this is exactly what happen while creating “Grown Past You”—a fashion film—with these three amazing artists. I allowed my intuition to guide my body and flow naturally. My designs were inspired by three scenes: a woman scorned by a man; her realization that she was ready to accept that she was done with the love she once knew; her final release of the hold he once had on her.
With the first design, the Cage Dress, I wanted to convey a visual of a woman trapped in mourning and seeking escape once she realized she had the strength to overcome her fears and leave a love that once was—tied together with the image of a ribbon that would express her freedom.
The Rag-Doll costume was a late night epiphany. The vision was of a mystical creature that was afraid of change, blinded by love and trapped in an alternate dimension, trying to get through a never-ending maze. Tired of her loyalty and emotions being manipulated, she peels the layers away by the end of film to reveal her face.
The Phoenix costume was bright yellow silk parachute gauchos and ethnic printed bustier, styled with red suede fringe earrings and neck piece handcrafted by jewelry designer Lynore Routte. Added the perfect element of fluidity and freeing movement. I wanted to send the viewer the message of optimism and the power of struggle using colors and airy garments that physically express liberation—to show that nothing is impossible.
“Grown Past You,” my first collaborative project back in New York with my newly discovered desire to step from behind-the-scenes, was a life-changer. Ultimately, the title of the project exemplifies growing past a relationship or someone that no longer serves you and rising to clarity. The experience also allowed me to celebrate other individuals who were struggling to understand their own voices. Kenneth Ofosu, a first time model, said of the experience, “I had never really considered myself to be artistically inclined in any way, let alone considered the chances of me ever acting on camera. However, from the moment I arrived on set I was treated as a professional and given all the feedback necessary to feel safe and comfortable. When I saw the finished product for the first time, I was amazed and proud of not only my presence on camera, but the efforts of everyone involved in the making of the video.”
Personally, “Grown Past You,” has been an subsidiary factor in me growing past my own demons and insecurities; allowing me to step into my truth.
During this project, my true child-like excitement, creativity and passion for costuming and expressing human emotions through my designs was ignited and the thought of working a 9 to 5 did not provide the outlet or the satisfaction for me to chase my dreams, because this race is more rewarding than money or comfort could ever provide.
Director/Cinematography: Adolphus Amissah
Lyrics/Creative Direction: Stephen Earley Jordan II
Music Production: Marlon Saunders
Music Artist: April Hill
Vocals: Kimberly Marable
Costume Designer: O'Neal Wyche
Make-up Artist: Oscar Caballero
Jewelry Designer: Lynore Routte
Behind The Scenes
[Special thank you to Noah Ballard at Curtis Brown, Ltd.]