Going Solo

Black designers unveil the trials and triumphs of business ownership

You may call them hardheaded, obstinate, inflexible or just plain stubborn. These labels are placed on designers who dare to tackle a new business venture when all of the signs before them read: “Stop!” “Dead end!” “Wrong way!”

Experts in the fashion industry wonder why some designers won’t heed their advice. They say there are some strong indicators-fewer financial resources, a reduced interest in tailored, custom-made clothing and an increasing reluctance among department stores to take on newcomers-that dictate that designers choose employment over entrepreneurship.

Still, some black designers are forging ahead with plans to put their labels on the map, insisting that they’ll overcome the odds. Here are the trials and triumphs of six black designers who dare to single-handedly ride the storms of today’s challenging fashion market.

Francis Hendy Inc. — New York, NY — 212-354-4764
You’ve probably seen Francis Hendy’s work on the backs of a number of popular singing artists, including Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliot, Jermaine Dupri, Faith Evans and Genuwine. For the last four years, the 45-year-old has been designing leather, suede and denim suits, as well as futuristic costumes for R&B and rap music videos-a skill that he honed while creating exotic costumes for Brooklyn’s Caribbean Day Parade. After becoming the costumer of choice for videos, Hendy’s sales jumped from $80,000 in 1996 to more than $500,000 today.

The firm’s growth, however, did not happen without some sacrifices. Francis Hendy Inc. was relocated from its Brooklyn location to mid-Manhattan because his celebrity customers needed a more convenient, accessible location. In addition, the work is extremely labor-intensive, and Hendy, along with his team of seven sewers, often stay overnight to process the last-minute orders that are typical of the business. It’s also difficult for Hendy to increase his clientele. “I meet a lot of storeowners, but I have to pick and choose because I’m not set up to do big orders,” he admits.

Epperson Studio — New York, NY — 212-226-3181
A walk through the SoHo section of New York City might lead you to Epperson Studio, a retailer that specializes in made-to-measure clothing, along with a line of off-the-rack Epperson Basic, that is influenced by styles from India, Africa and Asia. Prices range from $65 to $1,200, and items include cross-stitched tops, high-waisted patchwork and classic A-line skirts, tie-waist pants, princess dresses and custom-crafted beaded jewelry. The process: customers select items from the store’s array of samples, then the owners take their measurements and whip up garments that fit perfectly. At this rate, inventory is very low-typically about five of one item at any given time-and each item is unique. As you might imagine, the personalized service that distinguishes this boutique from other retailers is quite labor-intensive and that precludes it from taking on large wholesale accounts. But that’s not a problem for Epperson’s owners. “Our goal is not to be mass produced,” Lisha Epperson contends. “We want our business to grow, but we also want to maintain some of the specialness of our merchandise.”

Everette Hall — Washington, DC — 202-467-0003 — 202-362-0191
Everette Hall pioneered a new

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