Black fashion designers, talent advocate for ownership and opportunity

Taijuan Moorman
The Columbus Dispatch
Event organizer Bobby Couch, left and Alison Carter, owner of Public Hanger, browse during a "Wine Down Wednesday" gathering at Hosful Collective on Parsons Avenue in Olde Towne East.

Every Wednesday in February, Bobby Couch hosted a variety of Black fashion designers and talent at Hosful Collective, a clothing boutique in Olde Towne East.

The art and lifestyle director is a familiar face in Columbus' fashion community, from his work with the Columbus Fashion Alliance to Columbus' Black Fashion Expo.

Couch hosted the expo for the first time in February 2019. Unfortunately, the expo hasn't occurred for the past few years because of the pandemic.

He wanted to ensure the 2022 event had the largest turnout yet, especially after 2020's social justice protests and how increasingly isolated people had become. However, new COVID-19 variants caused the organizer to push the expo back again to this summer.

To keep the momentum going, throughout February Couch partnered with Parsons Avenue clothing boutique Hosful Collective and owner Lindsey Drahos to spotlight Black fashion talent. The boutique, itself community-minded in its effort to house small brands without their own storefronts, seemed like the perfect place to spotlight Black fashion designers.

In their experiences and challenges, Black fashion designers and other talent have a unique experience in the industry, especially in Columbus, where fashion plays a big role in the region economically but can take a backseat culturally. Whether they're preaching the importance of ownership or advocating for opportunities to progress, their challenges are a reflection of issues facing the Black community at large.

More:Bake Me Happy owner on buying building: Black-owned businesses "shut out" of opportunity

Handcrafted, African-inspired pieces from Armana Embuye's collection Embuye Jewelry were on display during a "Wine Down Wednesday" event at Hosful Collective on Parsons Avenue in Olde Towne East.

This smaller, retail-specific installment of the Black Fashion Expo has been an opportunity to build community while highlighting Black creators in the fashion industry, such as Kiera Chatman of By the People. Chatman, a real estate agent and former fashion buyer, started By the People in 2020 originally as a marketing tool for her real estate business.

The line, with items like T-shirts and hoodies, features slogans addressing generational wealth, supporting Black businesses, and encouraging would-be Black homeowners while also highlighting systemic obstacles that have and continue to stand in their way.

There are also cultural references related to real estate and building community.

"There's a lot of people that aren't in our community...that come in and say, 'What does 40 acres and a mule mean?'" Chatman said, referencing one of the many slogans featured on By the People's clothing. "So it's meant to inspire people to ask questions and to dig deeper."

Like By the People, Love Savage is also featured in Hosful, as the shop highlights small, local brands and designers, giving them an accessible and affordable space while also increasing their visibility.

Scott Keyes started Love Savage a little over a year ago. The Cincinnati native went to school in Columbus, and after over a decade returned just a few years ago.

He said he's always been interested in fashion but didn't really understand the story behind what he wore, making it important to him for his own brand, he said.

There's a duality in the message he's trying to get across — love what you do, but approach it relentlessly.

"Part of what my brand is, I'm just being a savage about what I love. And this is what I love, you know, my clothing line, and I'm very passionate about it," said Keyes. "I'm just working my butt off really to get it out there."

Black fashion designers champion ownership

As a business owner, Couch said business development has kept him going in an industry where ownership is of the utmost importance.

After a situation in which he says a "large fashion organization" tried to stop him from starting his business, he was able to take the experience as an opportunity to really study intellectual property and understand what it means to be a business owner and an entrepreneur.

Event organizer Bobby Couch browses during a "Wine Down Wednesday" gathering at Hosful Collective on Parsons Avenue in Olde Towne East.

He is also the marketing lead in the My Brother’s Keeper Village and Columbus Fashion Alliance's Future of Fashion program for Columbus youth, which launched a clothing collection last year. Even in that project, where the Columbus teens started a line initially dubbed Industry Plant, the group pivoted to its Made to Grow line as the former name was already a business.

The project successfully navigated the name reorganization and incorporated Industry Plant as a collection under the brand, but it showed firsthand how important trademarking and protecting intellectual property are.

"It's like, how do you roll with those punches when it comes to trademarks and licensing and making sure that you have the appropriate ownership of your name?" said Couch. 

Yohannan Terrell, founder of the Columbus Fashion Alliance as well as the marketing firm Warhol and Wall St., said between the cycles of fashion and no idea really being a new idea, the fashion industry can be tricky.

For its part in helping budding business owners navigate the industry, Columbus Fashion Alliance has teamed up with intellectual property lawyers to teach business owners how to protect their name and ideas, and plans to have workshops to get more in-depth, including trademarking and how to navigate partnerships with large brands.

Terrell himself made his introduction into the fashion business by working with a number of small fashion brands and collectives. His work with the Creative Columbus Commission inspired the creation of the Columbus Fashion Alliance, which in its mission provides opportunities for people to grow and succeed through the lens of fashion in Columbus, he said. "Not just for the retailers, fashion is for everybody here."

Black fashion talent on support from big retailers

Terrell points out that even as Columbus is the third in the U.S. for the number of designers working in the region, the city's fashion community is very disjointed as compared to the top two cities, New York City and Los Angeles.

"If you look at other markets, like New York and LA, there's a symbiotic relationship between the culture and the brands," he said. "The creative class and the retail industry, they work hand in hand."

Where organizations like the Columbus Fashion Alliance focus on building opportunities as well as infrastructure, there is room for Columbus' big names in the fashion industry to help support Black creatives.

"By first of all starting to break down those barriers and get out of those silos and start to integrate with the community much more," he said. "There's a huge opportunity for our retailers here to realize and embrace the wealth of talent that we have here."

Model Genevieve Effa, for instance, did not realize the number of fashion retailers that were founded in or have headquarters in Greater Columbus until she got here.

The Maryland native moved to Columbus in 2016. She was first signed to an agency in Akron before finding footing with Columbus' fashion community, eventually leading her to sign with Heyman Talent Agency, a Midwest talent agency with offices in Cincinnati, Louisville and Columbus.

Effa speaks highly of the Columbus fashion industry, and Heyman specifically, which has connected her to different opportunities and has so far kept her booked. "That's when things really took off," she said.

Effa would go on to meet people like Couch, who helped introduce her to Black fashion creators in Columbus. She said most of the first fashion designers she was initially meeting were predominantly white, and Black creators could use more shine as well as opportunity.

"I think that not only does it inspire other Black models and creatives just like myself, but I feel like it also goes to show that you can do it too," said Effa.

Terrell said the problem is there aren't very many pathways between Black designers and entrepreneurs, and large retailers. And from Black creators' standpoint, they may be hesitant to work with a large retailer for fear of control over their designs.

But there's opportunity there, especially in unique partnerships or hiring designers who took nontraditional pathways into the industry, he said.

Designer Scott Keyes shows off garments from his label "Love Savage," to Lindsey Drahos, the owner of Hosful Collective during a "Wine Down Wednesday" event at the store on Parsons Avenue in Olde Towne East on Wednesday evening, February 16, 2022.

Columbus retailers have exhibited some of that, in Lane Bryant's partnership with artist April Sunami, and Abercrombie & Fitch's work with artist Francesca Miller and hiring of Columbus lifestyle boutique Madison USA's marketing director LaVelle Stillwell as a designer.

"Especially in today's day and age where you want to create things with more meaning," said Terrell. "I think there's a huge value in our retailers here locally to tap in and partner with those designers."

Keyes believes larger retailers giving Black creators opportunities will help them move on to the next level.

"I think that'd be really dope, to highlight the dope people that's in Columbus doing great things. It gives us the opportunities that we never had before," he said. "Just give us an opportunity, just a shot, especially in Columbus."