These HBCU entrepreneurs’ Afrocentric focus continues to change the clothing game
Three young designers who want to send messages of black empowerment, entrepreneurship and success
In 1989, Spike Lee’s movie Do The Right Thing sparked a national conversation about black pride and prejudice. The movie helped spawn trends in hip-hop music, the development of television shows featuring all-black casts, an uptick in attendance at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and fashion apparel featuring black and Afrocentric themes.
In the early 1990s, the rising popularity of television shows such as Martin and A Different World mirrored the life of black professionals and students wearing clothes such as dashikis, headscarves and T-shirts with messages like “It’s A Black Thing. You Wouldn’t Understand.”
These shows were more than just black entertainment. They gave insight on everyday highs and lows of family, friends, couples and college students during the decade and since. Viewers got more than the message — they saw black empowerment.
As a result, students on HBCU campuses started to pick up on this fashion trend, and some enterprising entrepreneurs launched their businesses to capture a portion of the African-American retail market and a slice of the $100 billion U.S. retail e-commerce pie.
In today’s urban apparel market, entrepreneurs continue to produce clothing and messaging through fashion, trying to inspire black youth and promote a positive movement through their clothing.
Here are three examples of the many startups from HBCU alumni apparel brands explaining why they created their brands and what impact they want to have as black entrepreneurs:
HYP KREATIONZ (Hip Creations)
“Clothing for the Culture.” “Kreationz with a Message.”
What started off as a hobby in 2005 for Bethune-Cookman University alumna Krysta D. Winston has become a business. Her e-commerce clothing company, Hyp Kreationz, features T-shirt designs “inspired by black history and meant to spread knowledge through the apparel.”
Winston, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, taught herself how to use Adobe Photoshop in high school. A marching band scholarship to play the tuba took her from Birmingham to Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Florida. From there, she started designing club flyers, student government and royal homecoming court campaign signs, and homecoming promotions.
“I was kind of being known for the girl that does graphic designs,” said Winston. “When I went to college, I wanted to have a different experience. … I wanted to reinvent myself, be myself, but have the freedom to be myself without having to be judged.”
Winston enjoys working with fabric, so she decided to expand her graphic design services within her company to include T-shirt designs. Her goal is to create patterns and phrases that stir the emotions and start conversations.
“One thing I like to do with my shirts is I like to teach with a message,” said Winston. “When people read one of my shirts, it is with hope that a whole conversation revolves around the designs to teach black history.”
Winston’s T-shirts feature Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Martin Luther King Jr., Kwame Ture and Marcus Garvey under the word “NWA” (Negus With Aptitude.) Her prices range from $9.99 to $25.
She also hopes to inspire other black entrepreneurs.
“My advice for future entrepreneurs is if you can’t stop thinking about it, definitely do it,” said Winston. “It should be a passion that you can’t stop doing.”
HGC APPAREL (Haute Greek Couture Apparel)
“All We Ever Did Was Be Black.” “Black By Popular Demand.” “Respect, Protect, Love The Black Woman.”
Actress Zendaya rocked “Respect, Protect and love The Black Woman” on a crewneck during the #WomensMarch in January. The nostalgic feel of the ’90s, black pride and consciousness are all woven into the designs created by Howard University alumna Marcia Smith. She founded her e-commerce clothing company, HGC [Haute Greek Couture] Apparel, in 2008.
Smith, a native of Washington, D.C., said she was inspired by her experiences at Howard to create the company in her senior year. HGC Apparel has since grown to depict images beyond Greek life at Howard. Her current focus is to simply exude unapologetic blackness in an affordable fashion, as her apparel’s price range is between $30 and $50.
“I was always in the vintage thrift stores heavy growing up,” said Smith. “Whenever I saw old ’70s and ’80s photographs of black people and what they wore, I was like, ‘Where is this shirt at?’ I did my research and wanted to revive that culture, bring that nostalgic feeling and bridge that gap.”
Smith’s first design debuted at a Howard step show in 2009. “EDUCATED NEGRO” stood boldly across her shirt.
“Using the word ‘Negro,’ people didn’t like it. … I was met with a little adversity,” said Smith. “It was pretty ironic because at Howard, you have educators on campus call you Negro to your face.”
Her second design, “BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND,” was met with instant success. Since then, her company has expanded in output and outreach, with her target audience being from high school to graduate school students. Windbreakers, swimsuits, sweatsuits, jackets, backpacks, hats and more are now staples in her apparel line, which now serves an international customer base.
At Grambling State University, “I’m So GramFam” is our connection to the historic institution!”
In 2013, Grambling State University’s football team held a weeklong protest against university leaders about substandard sports facility conditions and long bus trips to road games. At a low point in the school’s history, GSU alumnus Robert L. Bailey Jr., who was also one of the six high school students from the Jena 6, was inspired to counter the negative attention with something more positive. His apparel prices for crewnecks, baseball Ts, backpacks and hats range from $25 to $70.
“The mantra ‘I’m So GramFam’ came out of my attitude on whether we were winning, losing, whatever was happening on our campus … I wanted to show how proud I was of our school,” said Bailey.
Bailey was a senior in 2013. His slogan, “I’m so GramFam,” was the starting point for what is now known as TATUM, an e-commerce collegiate apparel company. Students and alumni say the site is known for being the “I’m So GramFam” connection to the institution.
“I believed in the plan and trusted the process,” said Bailey. “I tell my peers and those I mentor that when it comes to creating a business, write down each and every thing you do, come up with a good plan and surround yourself with a good team.”
Bailey’s team was even better than he expected. His first set of shirts sold in 30 minutes. The company became so profitable that it helped him pay for his last year of school.
“I strive to have people look at the company like a Nike or Adidas. I plan on pushing the plan and innovating my apparel company to one day reach out to other schools.”
The success of TATUM has allowed Bailey to build a company and give back directly to the GSU community. He said he recently donated aprons for cooks in the GSU cafeteria and gave iPads to students, and he plans to create some type of scholarship in the future.