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How Designer Fhonia Ellis Went From Unpaid BET Intern To A Sought-After Tailor To The Stars

With clients like Diddy, Missy Elliott and Marsai Martin, this tailor to the stars is weaving her own destiny.

BOSS UP

Pulling up in a lime green Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Fhonia Ellis, all of 5'7", jumps out of the driver's side. She walks around to the back seat of the passenger side and pulls out a pair of white boots and slips them over black distressed jeans paired with a white "Queens Get SHIT Done" tee. She doesn't even curse— much.

"She Has Incredible Tenacity," she explains. "It's my t-shirt line. It's inspired by powerful women that I encounter and I'm inspired by every day. All of the shirts are centered around empowerment, freedom, and confidence."

I offer my help as she pulls out a garment bag, and I'm instructed to carry what I later find out is her sewing kit as we make our way inside a beautiful white bungalow-style home with black trim. Downstairs it's tastefully decorated with modern furniture— chic, but cozy. We clomp up wooden stairs that lead to a den and through a door that opens to a massive closet that would please even Carrie Bradshaw. Ellis drops off her kit and warmly greets her client, Dr. Jarrett ("Doc"), like an old friend.

"Some people when they get to a certain level you would think they'd move on," Doc says. "But she's very down to earth."

Ellis certainly has a roster to boast about. Her list of tailoring clientele includes the likes of Diddy, Missy Elliott, Cardi B, and Marsai Martin, just to name a few. An impressive Rolodex considering that she's only in her third year of full-time self-employment.

But not all success stories sing the same tune. Some start off in a low hum that, with each and every obstacle overcome, grows into a steady crescendo. For grit always comes before glory, and Ellis' story is one with a promising ending.

Becoming a Designer

Growing up Ellis didn't have visions of grandeur as a tailor. "I used to say in high school all the time, I'm going to be a designer," she says. "I didn't even know what a designer was, but I just knew that that's who I was going to be."

A first-generation designer and tailor, Ellis picked up a needle and thread at the age of 15, at first to add some flavor to her "Mom" jeans, which she'd cut up and cut out to reflect her unique style. As her passion for fashion evolved, so did her skill sets. Inspired by the bold and daring details of clothing designers like Betsy Johnson and the late Alexander McQueen, Ellis' own threads never failed to impress. Her custom creations caught the attention of NBA player Derek Anderson, who owned a clothing store and sought Ellis to design a line of jersey dresses for his clientele. "That's how I made money in high school. I was making jersey dresses for people and costumes. I made my prom dress. I would wear all of it."

As word got around town about her hand-stitched designs, the requests started flowing in and her waitlist grew a few months out. But there was one caveat— she didn't know how to use the sewing machine that her stepmom had gifted her. But as she would later learn, there was no problem that she couldn't stitch.

"I called [my friend] and was like, 'Hey, I think my machine is broke.' I didn't want to tell them I didn't know how to sew because at this point everybody thinks I know how to sew on a machine. So I was like, 'Hey girl, I think my needle broke but I don't know how to fix it. Do you think you can come and show me how to fix it?' And she was like, 'Oh girl, don't worry about it. I'll fix it for you.'"

A self-proclaimed visual learner, Ellis watched as her friend threaded the needle and worked the machine, which was all she needed to see to take over the reins. "As soon as she started out, I was like, 'Bingo! I got it.' And I took a Sharpie marker and highlighted it on my sewing machine— the way to thread it like one, two, three, four. Then I started [machine] sewing everything."

As a local socialite, Ellis hit the ground running— showing off her designs to anyone who would pay attention and often hosting pop-up fashion shows at nightclubs and bars around the city. "I always had a mentality of even if you don't let me in the door, you're going to have to see me eventually, and once you see me, you're going to come to me," she says. "You may not give me your money now, but eventually, you are going to want me because I'm going to make myself so marketable that it's going to be hard for you not to want to know who I am."

With a taste of success under her belt, Ellis' dream of being a world-renowned designer could no longer be confined to her small town in Louisville, Kentucky. She had a bigger vision for herself, which required a big move and bigger faith. With her eyes set on New York City, she cold-called the wardrobe department at BET and requested to send over her design portfolio for review. They didn't have opportunities for her at the time, but she kept in contact with the supervisor of the wardrobe department.

Nearly a year later, she landed an unpaid internship in the wardrobe department, which meant moving to a city where she had little money and no friends. "I remember my brother called and he was like, 'You need to figure it out because if you don't get out of here now, you're never going to leave.'"

"I always had a mentality of even if you don't let me in the door, you're going to have to see me eventually, and once you see me, you're going to come to me. You may not give me your money now, but eventually, you are going to want me because I'm going to make myself so marketable that it's going to be hard for you not to want to know who I am."

A Fearless Move

A girl from a small town with big dreams, New York City greeted Ellis with open arms and its infamous struggles. During the day she worked at BET as a fashion assistant, and after leaving work she'd transition to Starbucks to put in a few more hours of work on her designs, taking advantage of their free internet since she didn't have it at home. Eight months in, she felt that she was no longer growing at the media company, and knew soon she'd have to find something else. "It was a good position, but not a great position," she says in an interview with Blog Talk Radio.

Shortly into her time there, she got a call from her brother with devastating news. Her mother— who was battling cancer— wasn't doing well. Reluctantly, Ellis packed up her belongings and moved back to Kentucky. A few months later her mother passed, but not before leaving her a message. "She was like, 'I want you to know something. I want you to know that I'm proud of the woman that you became, not for everything that you've done.' And I know now that she was speaking to my future self, where I am now."

Her mother also predicted who her next celebrity client would be. "My mother used to watch BET Awards and she would be like, 'Oh, you're going to be there one year. My daughter's going to be a designer for Mary Mary.' And when my mother passed away, the next person I designed for was Erica Campbell."

Ellis continued building her design business in Louisville, despite dealing with the grief of losing her mother. During this time she would be a guest on 106 & Park showcasing the 2013 spring and summer collection of Rebirth, her clothing line launched in 2007 that caught the attention of celebrities like Trina and Diamond. She'd also lead sewing classes and host a motivational workshop entitled "The Life You Want To Live." Nearly three years later, she heard a voice nudging her to move again. "God told me that you have to get out of here because somebody's going to try to do something to you because they think that you have more than what you have. So you're going to have to go to a place that I'm going to show you."

With $1,200 to her name, she left home and traveled down the road to Atlanta. With no job lined up, she began visualizing what her next position would look like at the advice of a spiritual advisor. Wanting a break from the designer's life, she desired something without the stress and with more stability. "Literally Macy's came out of nowhere; they didn't even have my resume. [The manager] was like, 'Somebody's watching out for you.' And he hired me."

For the next three years, Ellis worked in visual merchandising while taking on new clients on the side. Though she had the urge to leave and pursue design full-time again, she felt in her spirit that she wasn't ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship due to her history of depression, PTSD and suicidal attempts. "God was basically saying mentally you're not strong enough to handle the highs and lows of entrepreneurship right now," she says. "I knew God was trying to protect my peace, and He was saying that you're not strong enough for the industry. You're still too emotional or very offended with things. You're going to shut down and this will break you."

Thanks to therapy and an invitation to the gym, she was able to start the process of healing. "I just was so tired of my own shit. I was so tired of being depressed and broken. I was like, I've got to try to save my life because if I don't, I'm afraid I'm not going to have one. The gym has kind of been my saving grace."

"I just was so tired of my own shit. I was so tired of being depressed and broken. I was like, I've got to try to save my life because if I don't, I'm afraid I'm not going to have one. The gym has kind of been my saving grace."

Finding Her Purpose

India Arie plays softly through the iPhone speaker as Ellis flips through her red alteration cards, reading the notes from her session with Doc, who's currently changing into another outfit. Thus far the client has decided to have a pair of plaid pants taken out ("they're a little too tight around the rear") and pair of floral pants taken in and hemmed up half an inch. She reappears in red sweatpants, awkwardly grabbing at the crotch that's been cut out and takes her position in front of the full-length mirror. Ellis crouches into position and does a duck-like walk around her legs, expertly pinning and outlining areas with fabric chalk for sewing later.

"You can tell she's very passionate about what she does, and I'm all about hanging around passionate people," Doc says. "I feed off of energy and she has a really great spirit, and you can just tell that she loves what she does."

Later in a Starbucks coffee shop, Ellis admits to me that having the right attitude was something she had to develop over time. "People don't like being around people they don't like, so if you want to keep the money rolling in you have to learn how to have a certain type of energy and a vibe."

She also admits that she's still getting used to accolades from clients, in part because this wasn't the career path she imagined for herself when she was designing clothes at 15.

While at Macy's, Ellis quickly learned that she didn't want to pursue a career in visual merchandising, and felt a strong calling towards alterations. There was only one problem— she had no desire to be a seamstress. "As designers sometimes we may look at people who say oh you're a seamstress as de-valuing in some way. So I felt like I'm not a seamstress, I'm a whole designer out here!"

Despite her disbelief, the cards were saying otherwise. There was the confirmation from her client Karleen Roy, who encouraged her to pursue alterations as a career. Then there were the angel numbers that began to appear, and that when researched indicated that she was about to walk into something new. And after driving by multiple alteration shops on her ride home one day, she could no longer ignore the signs. She finally surrendered to her calling. Shortly after, she landed her first major client, NBA player Kevin Garnett. "I had never made that much money even as a designer. Here I am trying to reject something God is telling me to do, but it actually blessed my life."

After two seasons of working with Garnett, Ellis knew it was time to take another leap of faith and leave her job at Macy's. She turned in a 60-day notice feeling confident about her future job stability, but just two days shy of leaving, she learned that her client was being moved to Los Angeles, and that her services were no longer needed. Thankfully, she had nearly $10,000 saved to help cushion the blow of losing a major client.

"I sat there and I was like, God, you've got to give me a bigger client to let me know that this is still what you're calling me to do," she says. "Because at this point I'm confused."

A few days after leaving her job, she landed Diddy as a new client. "I knew that was God telling me that was my confirmation."

"It's funny because [Diddy] circled back around this year," she continues. "His stylist hit me up one day and was like, 'Oh, I got your number from the Ritz Carlton.' And I was like I've never been to the Ritz Carlton. I don't know who has my number here, but again, it's not for me to know, I didn't even question it. And [Diddy] was also saying, 'I think you really should do this. There's not an African American woman that is on the forefront that really has a tailoring agency. You could be big with this.' He was the second person that put out that feeling of you could be the black Martha Stewart. You could have a whole situation going on here if you do this the right way."

The confirmations didn't end there. In fact, Ellis has an arsenal of stories that indicate that there's a divine calling over her life. There was the trip to ESSENCE Festival, in which she only agreed to go if the stars aligned— a few days later she was in New Orleans tailoring for Marsai Martin ("when you're supposed to go somewhere God will line all of that up."). There was also the BET Awards, in which she took a leap of faith by flying to Los Angeles a couple of weeks before the show with no jobs lined up, only to end up the lead person over one of the wardrobe trailers for the show. And shortly upon her return, she picked up a gig with Cardi B for her baby shower. If life was a movie, Ellis' story would be filled with plot twists.

Yet despite her success, she still finds it hard to embrace that she's working the job of her dreams. As an entrepreneur, a steady paycheck isn't always guaranteed, and when the flashy lights turn off, reality shines bright. "The world sees that you're doing all of these wonderful things, but your money still hasn't changed that much. But I can't not go do my job because the money is not all there; I've still got to keep moving forward. And I think for me it was hard to understand not attaching money to success because again, just from my own trauma that I had experienced, money made me feel validated, and so if I didn't have it, I didn't feel successful."

Trauma is often associated with physical experiences, but sometimes it's the words that are said— or unsaid— that dig the deepest roots. For Ellis, it started over two decades ago, when she was told her dream wouldn't pay the bills.

"I have a very loving family, but I didn't grow up in an environment that was encouraging," she says. "I didn't have the blueprint of you can be anything you want to be. It was like, 'You just need to get a job; that's not a real job.' So that was instilled in me practically my whole life. I feel like it's also crippled me a lot in my life now because I'm constantly trying to prove to myself that this is a job."

It's part of what has led to her idea of opening an alterations shop and starting a temporary agency under the Touched by Fhi umbrella in an effort to help other women of color gain exposure and opportunities in an industry that didn't easily open the doors for her to walk into. After all, she wouldn't be a legend if her legacy stopped with herself.

"The world sees that you're doing all of these wonderful things, but your money still hasn't changed that much. But I can't not go do my job because the money is not all there; I've still got to keep moving forward. And I think for me it was hard to understand not attaching money to success because again, just from my own trauma that I had experienced, money made me feel validated, and so if I didn't have it, I didn't feel successful."

Building a Legacy

As a high school graduate who was unable to afford the tuition at American International University in Atlanta, Ellis had picked up the curriculum from the Art Institute of Indianapolis, found a local sewing teacher, and alongside her godmother who was also a seamstress, taught herself how to sew. Where she lacked in formal education, she gained in experience, even if it meant taking unpaid gigs at different levels of success in her life, just to learn a new skill.

It's those same skills that she's hoping to pass down to generations after her. While she doesn't believe that everybody should know how to sew, she does believe that everyone should have the opportunity to learn. In the meantime, for those interested in getting into the industry, she recommends studying your craft, developing your knowledge on everything from sewing patterns to body types, and always looking for ways to improve your skills.

"You really need to go invest in yourself and really want to be the best at what you do," she says. "I don't even feel like you should touch it if you don't want to craft it in such a way that you operate in nothing but excellence."

One thing's for sure, we're witnessing the making of an icon living. The Elizabeth Keckley, Zelda Wynn Valdes, or maybe even Ann Lowe of this generation— true pioneers that altered and redefined what it means to be successful in fashion.

"Where I'm at now in my life is that I really just understand trusting the process. Everything that God has given you is not in vain. It's still a part of your story, but it might be a different chapter. You know what I mean?"

Featured image courtesy of Fhonia Ellis

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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