The Crystal City DoubleTree ballroom is dizzy with hand-stitched sequins, denim panels and silk kimono fabrics. The air is perfumed by spider-legged models and freshly cleaned carpets. Clicking cameras harmonize with clicking heels.
It is the first and only fitting for designer Brittany McCoy, a University of Maryland senior marketing and supply chain major, whose fashion line Dynasty walked in DC Fashion Week’s Emerging Designers Showcase. In true fashion-industry style, she rushes to set up her rack of designs on the side of the room, pick her models and fit all of her clothes to their body shapes in a matter of hours, all while keeping a piece of her mind on her neglected schoolwork.
At a university so often associated with scientific and technologic advancement, designers and creatives like McCoy often go overlooked. Few know that the University of Maryland is full of fashion-industry hopefuls, designers, stylists and more.
The process of developing a brand is no small feat. It can take designers years to create strong names for themselves. Building a brand while still working on a degree, maintaining a social life and, in most cases, holding additional jobs is just that much harder to accomplish.
A few students on this campus represent the Washington region in the fashion industry while still going to class, writing 10-page essays and cramming for midterms. These are their stories.
Still near the beginning of the developmental process is Oru Wonodi, a sophomore business student. Her brand, NOVA Prints and Apparel, was once a screen-printing business she started as a high school junior.
“At first, I was going to do just streetwear,” Wonodi said. “I had a line last summer where it was just screen-printed tees and tank tops.
In October, Wonodi got the idea to turn the line into a social venture in which each purchase would buy “a vaccination, or a net or something like that.”
After converting her brand, she started building an image.
“When you start a business, it’s honestly mostly about just messaging people,” Wonodi said. “Getting your logo out, finding people to help you design stuff. … All of the business classes I’ve been taking have shown me that while everyone thinks that it’s a straight line in business, it’s just a yarn ball of confusion and mistakes.”
While developing her brand, she saw a need to partner with a company and find funding.
She participated in the Do Good Challenge, an annual competition to fund the most beneficial and profitable companies and projects university students create. Additionally, she received a seed grant, which went to buying her materials.
“Right now, I’m partnered with Johns Hopkins,” Wonodi said. “In Nigeria, they have a place where they provide vaccinations to people. That’s my cause.”
To further aid her effort, she traveled to Nigeria to buy fabric from local marketplaces.
“I’m trying to do at least 80 percent locally sourced stuff,” Wonodi said. “I’m trying to buy fabrics and materials from vendors within any country that I’m trying to help. And I’m trying to keep the cost down so I can sell the clothes at normal prices.”
Thus far, it has required a massive collective effort to convert NOVA to a social endeavor. About 30 people have pitched in, she said.
“My aunt, who helped me with the John Hopkins stuff,” Wonodi said. “People in the business school. Even my high school art teacher, because she used to tell me I should sell my stuff. Maybe even 50 people, if I really start thinking about it.”
This spring, Wonodi will compile a pitch to give to angel investors, backers who support small ventures and then gather a team to help with production.
“I’m putting my first line together all while doing schoolwork and maintaining my job and my internship,” Wonodi said. “It’s been crazy, but I know it’ll be worth it in the end.”
ABOVE: Jordan Greenwald holds one of his creations for Meta Cartel. (Photo courtesy of Robert H. Smith School of Business)
Senior economics major Jordan Greenwald founded Meta Cartel, an urban streetwear brand currently specializing in headwear and commissioned art.
Like many young creatives, Greenwald has always been ambitious.
“I had always been interested in doing something different, just really crazy and extraordinary,” Greenwald said.
Growing up in New York, he faced a lot of opposition toward his dreams. He found moral inspiration in Toronto’s Drake.
“I look up to him,” Greenwald said. “This dude talks about a lifestyle that he actually made even when people were telling him, ‘You can’t do this; you can’t do that.’ My whole life, that’s all anyone ever told me. No one believed in me.”
That changed, though, when Greenwald traveled to Barcelona, Spain, for a study-abroad program a couple of years ago.
“It literally changed my life,” Greenwald said. “Everything about it. The people were so cool; the culture is so open; everyone is very progressive. People can do what they want.”
“I sublet for him while he was in Spain,” said Mauricio Garcia, Meta’s human resources director. “We were just sitting down and hanging out, and he brought up this idea about [how] he wanted to start his own brand because he was so inspired by the arts and street culture in Barcelona. He loved the political and provocative pieces, the thought-provoking pieces that you just wouldn’t see anywhere else.”
That atmosphere, along with a personally abundant appreciation for art, inspired Greenwald to come home with a head full of ideas.
“We started talking about what he wanted the brand to look like, and we came up with this sort of Renaissance imagery,” Garcia said. “That’s how we came up for the first images to put on the hats.”
Greenwald landed in the United States and within a week, he began making arrangements to register the company in the state of Maryland.
“Things were moving,” he said.
The first step was finding a graphic designer to help create all of his promotional and digital content. He put fliers up all over the business school asking anyone interested to contact him. Insert Rachel George, the brand’s current creative director and a Diamondback photographer, whom the rest of the team has come to consider Greenwald’s right-hand woman.
Within a few short months, he compiled a core team of six members: the founder, Greenwald; the creative director, George; the brand manager, Michael Bregenzer; the digital content director, Brandon Aksteter; the human resources manager, Garcia; and the brand artist, John Ortiz.
The team recently added two new members, Ornelle Chimi, the production designer and a Diamondback photographer, and Lucas George, the business development specialist. Together, the eight of them, along with models and manufacturers, develop the brand on a daily basis.
Even though Garcia officially joined the team only recently, he has been with Greenwald since the beginning. He endearingly recounts seeing the first batch of hats delivered to their apartment and shakes his head at the fact that the two once bought a sewing machine, thinking they were going to sew all of the tags onto their hats themselves. Working with Meta Cartel has revolutionized their lifestyles.
“Our apartment used to be so barren; now there’s art everywhere,” Garcia said.
The team has experienced its fair share of complications trying to get itself off the ground. After attempting to launch his first set of designs in November 2014, Greenwald experienced a six-month delay due to manufacturing complications.
“We submitted our designs to the manufacturer and waited, and when it came in, it was not what I ordered,” said Greenwald. “It was just wrong.”
The group has since released multiple collections, including nearly a dozen snapback and five-panel cap designs, as well as a beanie. Their most recent collection, the “Cognoscere” series, includes two five-panel hats featuring commissioned designs by university student Lucas Perrella on the under-brim. The two hats feature two halves of the same artwork printed in opposite colors to represent how “position affects perception.”
Art has now become a pivotal part of the brand.
Today, Meta Cartel is more or less a conglomeration of fashion, art and digital content developed through personal and collaborative efforts and exhibited on social media. The brand recently announced it will now be selling art commissioned from local artists, available for purchase through its website.
“We went to a lot of events specifically for fashion, and we saw that art was kind of always right next to it, so we decided to incorporate it into the brand,” Greenwald said.
With perhaps the largest team of on-campus designers, the company’s production value relies on employees’ ability to work together. Garcia ensures the eight members feel less like colleagues and more like close-knit friends by planning events such as potluck dinners, a Secret Santa exchange and the company’s one-year anniversary party.
Greenwald has devised his own methods for keeping all of his team members aligned. He creates “playing cards” for each member, index-card-sized pieces of paper on which he lists responsibilities and things to check up on. He updates them through each meeting, which he holds in the Dingman Center (he even made one for this reporter when we were arranging meetings).
In a year, Meta Cartel has become more than just a headwear brand; it is an artistic and cultural breeding ground for creatives with dreams of breaking out of a 9-to-5, Greenwald said.
“I think the hardest thing currently is maintaining your vision and your focus when everyone is pressuring you to do a ‘regular’ job,” he said. “Just do you.”
ABOVE: Models wear Nonich creations (Photo courtesy of Illicit Tales)
A couple of swipes through rising urban streetwear Instagram pages will probably lead you to this next brand.
Nonich is a year-old company started by sophomore marketing major Damar Bess, Henry Blanco, a sophomore enrolled in letters and sciences, and Rodrick Campbell, a junior photography major at Towson University. What started as a small shirt-screening company in Bess’s sophomore year of high school has now become a widely recognized and dynamic brand with one mission: to make clean, quality clothes.
In December 2014, Bess’ original company underwent a grand rebranding, developing a new name, Nonich, from the words “No” and “Niche.”
He wanted the name to represent the fact that the company “didn’t really want to have one main market.”
“Brands like Hood by Air are really out there and are kind of stuck there,” Bess said. “If Hood by Air made a suit, you’d be like, ‘What is going on?’ No one would buy it.”
Nonich seeks to remain uncategorized to prevent people from pigeonholing them. The brand is all-encompassing.
“Nonich is for everyone,” Campbell said.
Added Blanco: “Nonich is for the people.”
“For the grandmas,” Bess joked.
At its core, Nonich began as a merging of creative efforts.
“[Bess and I] had separate brands,” Campbell said. “We had different business partners. We were both struggling with our original brands and then we came together, sat down, and were like, ‘Look, here’s my situation.’ And then we just brought it all together.”
Blanco joined the team shortly after.
Together, the three handle finances and marketing. Campbell photographs the clothes for lookbooks and promotional material and functions as the “background dude that keeps the brand on track,” as Bess put it.
The hardest part about launching the line was finding a manufacturer. They started looking online into overseas manufacturers, which proved difficult.
Prior to Nonich’s rebranding, when Bess was just doing screen printing, the manufacturer he worked with was only a 30-minute drive away. With Nonich’s launch, the trio had to seek out new, higher-quality manufacturers to produce full bodies of clothes.
“In fashion, you’ve usually got to try a lot of times and hope you’re knocking on the right door,” Bess said.
A few months delayed, their first four-piece collection of “survivalist outerwear mixed with really clean pieces” launched this past fall. The line consists of a jersey, a modern tee, a pair of pants and a heavy coat.
“We wanted to mix a rugged REI jacket type of look with the pants and the jersey,” Bess said.
The clothes are a combination of machine- and handmade.
“The jacket detailing is hand-done,” Bess said. “The color blocking across the hood was hard to do on a machine.”
Currently, the only way to purchase their clothes is via their website, but their current stock is completely sold out. Their website’s lookbook features Matt Black, a popular Instagram model and rapper, as well as Bess’ younger brother, who broke his ankle a few days before the New York photo shoot and is seen styled in Nonich with his crutches.
“We had him crutching all up and down New York,” Blanco joked. “Damar had to carry him at one point.”
Their photo shoots have faced other complications. Bess describes one of their most recent as “chaotic.”
After waking up late and arriving to the location behind schedule, the team had to rush to dress all of the models, who had come in from out of town. New to the industry, the models weren’t accustomed to the etiquette of a photo shoot.
“These models brought friends, like an entourage,” Bess said. “We got everybody dressed, but people didn’t even know what they were shooting for. Some girl just showed up. … It was a learning experience.”
Achieving a balance between school and the clothing line has proven difficult.
“Sometimes, it comes down to: Am I going to go to class, or am I going to drive to drop off all of these jackets at our store in Montgomery Mall?” Bess said. “I try not to miss too much class, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Because Blanco and Bess live together, they are able to take advantage of every down moment they have outside of schoolwork and regular jobs.
“We stay up late talking about the brand all of the time,” Blanco said. “You’ve got to figure out what your priorities are and do what you love first.”
Added Bess: “No XBox or PS4 in the room.”
Damar Bess's brother, Damian, models some of the line's clothing (Photo courtesy of Illicit Dreams)
Nonich will be launching its next collection, which currently exists only in messy sketches and notes in Bess’s and Blanco’s notebooks, in spring or summer 2016.
“Everything you see in the front is the result of me not paying attention in class,” Bess said while leafing through a graphite-covered textbook-sized notebook.
Alongside drawings of jackets, shirts and shorts were notes like “have to sublimize and KILL THIS” and labels like “The Bro Outfit.”
The inspiration for the next collection of six pieces came from a bus ride Bess took recently.
On his way to Route 1, Bess encountered a bus with a heavy population of “bros.” Another man on the bus didn’t seem to care for their aesthetic, and as the bros got off at their stop, he said, “Look at the bros in their candy-colored shorts and fucking polos.”
Bess knew then what he wanted to do with the next collection: “put a new take on old stuff to make it really stand out.”
“This collection, we want to make fun of the whole white frat-boy aesthetic,” Bess said. “So we made up a fake frat to be a part of the capsule collections, right after we release our spring stuff.”
The spring/summer collection also includes a cap tentatively referred to as the Abuelita Cap, based on a baseball hat Bess’ grandmother knitted for him for Christmas. Campbell and Blanco like it so much they plan to have her make a few in different colors for the next line.
There are also plans for their take on the polo shirt. They pulled inspiration for this piece from a rather unusual source: the Apple Store.
“We came into a store one day and saw how they embroidered their shirts, and I was like, ‘Yo, that shit is hard. We need to do that,’” Bess said.
One of the primary colors of the next collection comes from a special moment in hip-hop history. Remember Cam’ron’s infamous baby pink mink coat from Mercedes Benz Fashion Week circa 2002?
“Fire,” Campbell said.
As for the release date of the collection: “We’re aiming for February or March,” Bess said, “but we’re not too adhered to this schedule. We just want to work on our stuff and make sure it’s the best.”
“We’re definitely trying to have more pop-up shops,” Blanco added. “We’re just trying to get better. We want to grow globally.”
Hinted Bess: “Just know that we might be shooting at a country club near you. That’s all we’re saying for now.”
ABOVE: Models wear Dynasty designs (Photo courtesy of Brittany McCoy)
Last year’s Black Friday sales included some undeniable price cuts at local fabric stores, and McCoy, owner of Dynasty, just couldn’t help herself.
“I went not wanting to get anything, because that’s when I get the most inspired,” said McCoy.
She left with many yards of heavily embroidered creme-colored fabric, as well as plain blacks, soft pinks and other colors, without realizing they were all in a similar scheme. Soon after, she decided to use her purchases to create her next collection.
“In the past, I’ve kind of had to work my collections around a certain theme of a show that I was doing,” said McCoy, who has designed two African-themed collections for other university shows. “Like cater it to someone else instead of doing what I wanted to be doing.”
With this new collection, though, she wanted to “embody everything [she is] as a designer.”
“Every piece that I’m making is exactly what I would wear,” she said.
Before she’d even managed to put a stitch in the designs, McCoy received an email on an otherwise mundane Sunday morning. A representative of DC Fashion Week asked McCoy if she would be interested in having her line featured.
“I was literally running around in circles in my apartment,” McCoy said. “My roommates didn’t know what was wrong with me.”
Since beginning her fashion journey at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s pre-college summer program, seeing her designs walk in a Fashion Week has been one of McCoy’s biggest dreams. After spending a summer in New York learning to read patterns, use a sewing machine and maneuver the streets of Manhattan, McCoy felt designing a line was something she could see herself achieving.
Many years later, she’s finally able to brand her designs the way she’s always wanted to.
“In the past, with my previous collections, everyone kind of just thought I design African clothes,” McCoy said. “I want to show people who I really am.”
She started creating her collection for DC Fashion Week as soon as she got the news that she would be featured in the event.
“When I started, I had like five pieces in my head that I definitely wanted to do, and then I built my collection around that,” she said.
She went straight to cutting and sewing, skipping the drawing stages.
“I’m not really a sketcher; I think it’s a waste of time,” McCoy said.
This collection is a big leap in a new direction for McCoy’s designs.
“There are some things I have been dying to make that I just haven’t had the time to, so this is my chance to really do it,” she said.
While designing her own collection, McCoy checked up regularly on her favorite designers, usually through Instagram, to see what was in and what was out. She took screenshots of things she liked and kept them in a folder for reference. She loves watching Project Runway for inspiration.
“It just gets me in the zone,” McCoy said.
The name for the brand came later. McCoy gives full credit to her little brother, Xavier, for coining it.
“I wanted something that would embody someone who is ambitious, someone who’s vicious, goes out and conquers the world,” McCoy said.
While She and her brother were brainstorming together one day, he came up with Dynasty. McCoy fell in love with the name instantly, inflating Xavier’s ego.
“According to him, he’s my creative consultant,” McCoy said.
Now that her line has walked in Saturday’s sold-out Metropolitan Emerging Designers & Indie Artists Showcase, McCoy plans to start designing her next collection, for which she already has visions.
“I’ve been dying to make bathing suits, so I definitely want to experiment with those,” McCoy said. “I just want to expand on what I’m already doing.”
The fashion industry is cyclical process, down to the very core of creation. Designing a line is something most designers start from square one on, with nothing but color schemes and fabric swatches to guide a creative vision.
It’s about establishing a brand, producing for that brand and then continuing to put out product alongside promotional efforts to build up the name. But there are dozens of variations that come along with each individual name and designer.
This campus might be known for its science and technology programs, but it is even more renowned for what it promotes: ambition in the pursuit of passion. Few things encapsulate this better than a young college student who works, interns, attends classes and runs a fashion line all at the same time. Every degree-seeking designer should take a well-deserved bow, provided they can fit it into their schedule.
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story stated Oru Wonodi went through interviews with the Dingman Center for Entrepreurship to accelerate through the next round of the Do Good Challenge. It also stated she received a seed grant as a reward for advancing. This is an inaccurate description of the Do Good Challenge process. The article has been updated.