In June, following weeks of articles and social media posts calling to support Black-owned businesses, designer Kendra Duplantier woke up to her phone blowing up. “I was at home minding my Black-owned business, still trying to figure out how to navigate through everything that was going on, when I found out I got posted on Black Owned Everything,” she recalls. A platform founded by Beyoncé and Chloe x Halle’s stylist, Zerina Akers, Black Owned Everything is a directory of Black-owned brands, created following protests against police brutality sparked by Minnesota police killing George Floyd. In early June, Akers and Beyoncé compiled a preliminary list of brands and posted it to the singer’s website — and it included Duplantier. “My first response was, ‘Wait, what? Huh? Me?’” she says, followed by, “No! I’m not ready.”
After a decade of crafting her namesake brand in the wee hours of the night after a full day of work and experiencing setback after setback, the designer wasn’t sure how to react. “The day before I found out about the directory, I had a mental breakdown from everything that was going on,” she tells me. “I was crying — I was trying to hold it together.” But as she’s always done, Duplantier rose to the occasion. “I knew that I was going to do this — run my own business — because no, there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me in fashion. When I was doing internships and I would see another Black girl, I’d immediately be like, ‘Hey sis, oh my god, we’re here together,’” she says.
Ten years ago, when the Houston native was just finishing up her undergraduate studies at Savannah College of Art and Design, according to her, aspiring designers were taught to follow a specific path if they were to launch a brand: graduate from design school, intern, freelance or work for a designer or brand, and then, maybe, try their hand at starting their own thing. So, that’s what Duplantier did — or tried to do.
“For me, design was never about making sure my stuff was the best or ensuring that what I create is going to be on runways, because I was never exposed to that growing up,” she says. “I can’t sit here and tell you that I read Vogue as a kid, because I didn’t. I had an older brother. I read Vibe and played sports.” Instead, Duplantier got into fashion because she wanted to make clothes, something she’d enjoyed doing from a young age. “I never knew a career in design was a thing,” she says. “I was always just going to Hancock Fabrics and making garments at home, that or thrifting and upcycling things I already had.”
And because she didn’t grow up worshipping designers or the New York fashion scene, moving to Manhattan and entering into the fashion industry was a shock — one that caused her love of design to temporarily waver. “I was struck with the realization that you have to have the best internships, you have to work for these people, you have to be at New York Fashion Week, you have to dress a certain way, and be a certain way, and your work has to be done a certain way to succeed,” she says. “In that process, I think I kind of got lost.”
Despite checking off all the designer boxes (a design degree, experience, etc.) that she’d been taught were necessary to succeed, it wasn’t long into her career, which included stints designing sleepwear at Macy’s and eveningwear at KaufmanFranco, that she realized something. “I was like, Oh wow, people are starting their own brand. They’re not interning. They’re not freelancing. They’re just starting it. You can just start it, too,” she says.
But unlike some of her fellow aspiring designers, Duplantier didn’t have the luxury of quitting her day job to pursue her dreams. Instead, Duplantier took every design job in the business, with her motivation being that each one was a stepping stone to eventually launching her own business. “I can’t say no to a job because I need the money,” she says of her thinking at the time. “I always have to remind myself: Kendra, you’re taking this job because you need the money to finance your company, to finance your dream, and all that you want to build for yourself. Go out and do what you got to do.” With that in mind, after a full day of work, she would return to her apartment-turned-design-studio to cut patterns and sew samples together for her own line. “I came to New York in 2011, and I have not taken a day off since,” she says.
With the threat of another decade spent juggling her need for a steady income and her creative goals, in 2019, Duplantier finished the samples, some of which were first designed in 2013, for her debut line. Still, she wasn’t convinced it was enough. During one particularly down day, she brought her designs — which, before this, had never been seen by anyone — to a former-boss-turned-friend. “I told her, ‘Honestly, I’m just going to give it up,’” she says, recalling her frustration of having worked for nearly her entire adult life on something that still hadn’t come to fruition. “I told her I was over it,” she says. But rather than allow her to give up, her friend said this: “‘Kendra, what are you doing? What are you talking about? You need to start doing what you can with what you have.’” This advice changed everything for the up-and-coming designer, bringing her back to the thing that she loves most: making clothing.
After moving to L.A. in June 2019 with her husband, she embraced the use-what-you-have-and-ask-for-what-you-want approach to launching her business. “New York really gives you this feeling like you are on your own. Nobody cares. Figure it out. Good luck,” she says. When Duplantier asked a female photographer in L.A. to help her shoot her lookbook, she received an immediate yes. “It needed to be a female photographer,” she tells me. “I’m a female. I’m making womenswear. I want the whole room to be nothing but females.” The model who showcased the looks was a member at Duplantier’s husband’s gym, and, likewise, was more than willing to help a female entrepreneur. “I shot that, and it came out beautifully,” she says. “And thank god I did.”
The capsule collection, which includes a timeless selection of asymmetric tank tops, expertly tailored trousers, and sexy, simple slip dresses, is proof of the years of work and dedication that Duplantier put into creating it. Every stitch, pleat, and fringe detail is intentional. Made up of only four pieces, it’s a lesson in slow and ethical fashion, one full of classic, yet elevated items that can be worn season after season.
With her lookbook in hand, Duplantier got to work building her website, which, in addition to the looks, includes everything from her own personal Tumblr moodboard to studio playlists. She then started cold-calling, Googling, and emailing factories in an attempt to find somewhere, anywhere to manufacture her first round of production at a reasonable price. “One woman that I reached out to responded to me,” she recalls. “She said straight out, ‘I can help you out. I can do it.’ And she did.”
While after years of work, everything seemed to have been aligning for Duplantier, the samples arrived alongside the news of a city-wide lockdown in L.A as a result of the pandemic. “I opened the box, pulled out my size, and tried them on. They were perfect. I took some photos, just for myself, and then I packaged it back up.” Suddenly, in addition to the millions of people affected by the health and economic crisis, the state of fashion and global retail was up in the air, too. “On a personal level, I was just trying to juggle my own mental health and my health overall,” she says. “And then, of course, we know what came next.”
On May 25, the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. His death, along with the deaths of countless other Black men and women, including Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, sparked international protests for racial justice. “My heart has been so heavy these past few days… but I am encouraged by what is happening all over the world, everyone coming together protesting for justice and supporting my brothers and sisters. Praying for continued peace, understanding, and guidance,” Duplantier wrote on Instagram at the time.
Two weeks later, her brand was mentioned on Beyoncé’s website, which has resulted in an instant increase in orders and praise from newfound fans of the brand.
“So now here we are,” she says. And, she’s not stopping anytime soon. “It’s so funny. People are like, ‘Oh girl, I saw you on Beyoncé’s website. You’re making it now. You’re big.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have to go, I’m on my way to work.”
This time, though, she has no doubts about where she is heading next. “I have a plan,” she says. “I know what I want, but I’m taking it one step at a time, making sure that I stay true to why I started my brand to begin with because the minute you start trying to fit into this mold of what a designer is and what your collection should look like, that is the minute you start to get lost.”
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