The urge to always be “best dressed” carried NYC-based Shauntelé into an unexpected career in fashion design. Her sharp lines and bold color accents give professional women a boost of confidence and a shot of self-respect, fusing business and fashion together for fresh outcomes. EBONY.com spoke with Shauntelé about her fashion inspiration, her future goals and the struggle to reconcile mainstream practices with personal preferences.
EBONY: We know you’re a self-made designer, but did you have any formal training in fashion at all?
Shauntelé: Actually, not really. I grew up in a family where my mom sewed. She had two sisters, and they both made their own designs for dances they would go to. So from a young age, I always had a sewing machine in the house, and I’ve always had a very creative sense of expression. I got my degree in English, but after I graduated, I just found I was always creating my own outfits. I decided to start pursuing my passion more.
From there, I took maybe one or two classes at FIT to get the lingo down, learn a little bit more about how to illustrate an actual design idea. Then I threw myself into the actual industry. Sometimes when you’re in school, you’re trained to critique, and you lose the fun in actually appreciating the creative process.
EBONY: Were you always very fashionable? Did you get compliments before you started doing this as a career?
Shauntelé: Oh definitely! I was always, not to be cocky, gunning for “best dressed” in school, and when I didn’t get it, I would be really upset. I went to a really preppy school, and I would come in my New York off-color this and bright-colored that. And they, of course, were in a very preppy, neutral world. So it was definitely like “I’m so fashionable,” and I would always get compliments. I’ve always been confident about my style, and people would always comment on how into fashion I was. So I started listening to that more and realized that was my true passion.
EBONY: What kind of woman would wear your clothing?
Shauntelé: The new corporate woman, who is basically finding that the corporate environment has a bit more leeway in terms of self-expression now. Before, it was a very regimented uniform that you had to wear: a button-down and a pencil skirt. Now, as people are finding that home/work balance in their lives, we need wardrobes that are basically going to act as a great compliment to both worlds.
EBONY: How did you strategically build your brand?
Shauntelé: I started interning with different design houses. For anyone going into it, I recommend that they do that first, because you learn a lot and you make a lot of connections. I took classes in pattern making and sewing from the Garment Industrial Development Corporation. They offer free courses in sewing, pattern making for people looking to get into the industry. There was a huge wait list, but it was something that was really integral in making me feel confident and capable in going out on my own.
So after that, I started making capsule collections, from five to seven pieces, and then I just started letting people know what I was doing. The hardest part is competing with all these humongous luxury brands. I think that’s the scariest part.
EBONY: Have you run into people who have been very helpful towards your career?
Shauntelé: Yes, but I think it’s who you surround yourself with, you know? There’s a side of fashion that can be very competitive and cutthroat. But I think there’s also a side that people don’t see all the time, where designers are really sharing with each other and trying to all make it together. I think the main thing is getting your name out there, trying to develop your style, and working with people who are going through a similar experience. It really helped me develop my collection.
EBONY: What has your experience been thus far, working as a Black designer?
Shauntelé: I have a very heavy, diverse amount of mentors. I’ve also had Black women in the industry who are very encouraging. We kind of gravitate towards each other. It’s making me realize that there is this really core set of women who are close-knit and are there to encourage us.
One thing that has stood out to me is the process of creating look books. All of my look books use White models. I do have people asking me why don’t I use Black models. I use Black models in all my runway shows, that is a given. But for the type of thing that I’m pursuing, I need to have this White face in front, so that boutique owners can see their customers in it more.
I do think that a lot of designers of color struggle with that. Because in the end, I’m not only dressing Black women, I’m dressing all types of women. It’s been hard to separate my image from the actual collection. Even on my website, I don’t put my image up because I don’t want people to think, “Oh, she’s a Black designer” and then subconsciously put me into a separate category that I can’t break out of.
I love the Black community, I love the support I get and there’s nothing like it at all. But at the same time, I’m trying to do something bigger that’s universal. I just want to be seen as a universal brand. I don’t want to be seen necessarily as a Black designer.
EBONY: So what are your goals for the future for your line?
Shauntelé: My goals are definitely to be in one of the major department stores that I think will respond to my aesthetic. I think sales are extremely important for any designer, and I’ve begun developing a lower priced line called She for Shauntelé. I would love to exist in that arena where I can divide my collection, to have a contemporary bridge collection for the higher priced line, and then also for my peers who are looking for something a little more affordable.