Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Say My Name, Say My Name, Say My Name. . .

There is a lot to be said about a name. Ralph Lauren named his company Polo because he thought it brought to mind a certain sense of class, cache, and luxury. And many know the story how Oprah Winfrey was to be named Orpah after a woman in the bible, but a nurse misspelled the name on the birth certificate. Could you imagine if we were instead watching, "The Orpah Winfrey Show"? It sounds a little strange. Would she be where she is now if her name had not been misspelled? My mother had decided on the name DAVID for me, but when I was born my father asked her if he could instead name me after him. And she acquiesced. I was teased as a child, sometimes as an adult. But I could not imagine my life as anyone but Wilbur.
When I conceptualized my business, probably 13 or 14 years ago, my former boyfriend and I had lofty goals. Since we had attended cosmetology school together and successfully completed our studies and received our licenses, we dreamt of a "World Of Beauty." This world would grow to include facials, manicures, make-up application, hairstyling (cutting, coloring, etc.) and, of course, fashion. We pondered over many names for our new business venture until finally he suggested Sorta Straight/Kinda Knappy. It was a phrase that I used to describe a friend's hair weave many years earlier. And I loved it! It was fun and unpretentious and just spoke volumes about our personalities. When we split, we squabbled over who would keep the name. I knew I would use part of the moniker for my clothing line as I moved into the next phase of my life. And now the name of my fledgling fashion empire (LOL!) is called Sorta Kinda Enterprises, LLC. When I leave a message or mention it, people will oftentimes smile or chuckle and remember me. "That's cute," is a comment I've heard time and time again. But business people or people in finance don't seem to get it. Over the phone there are long pauses and in person an introduction is met with quizzical expressions. And several times these masters of industry have advised me to change the name of my company. They suggest that the name connotes indecisiveness, instability, and uncertainty. And it implies that I have no idea what I am doing. And my response is always a dismissive, "I am not changing the name of my company." Sorta Kinda Enterprises, LLC is a corporation with history that has been built with my sweat, tears, and a lot of sacrifice. It speaks to moving forward and making progress despite naysayers and obstacles. It is about the inclusion of all women from diverse ethnic backgrounds and different communities who think fashion should be fresh, fun, affordable, and colorful. And for those who don't get it, maybe one day you will. Say My Name, Say My Name, Say My Name. It is Sorta Kinda Enterprises.
Peace & Fashion!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What's That About?!

Remember when Jonathan Franzen, the author of The Corrections, made disparaging remarks about Oprah Winfrey's literary taste? Somehow he felt that Oprah's choosing of his novel for her book club would commercialize his appeal and devalue his elitist leanings. According to the October 29, 2001 edition of The New York Times, Mr. Franzen suggested "that appearing on her show was out of keeping with his place in ''the high-art literary tradition'' and might turn off some readers." Subsequently, Ms. Oprah quickly rescinded her invitation for him to be a guest on her hit daytime television talk show. Well, I recently had a similar Oprah-ish moment. No, she did not call me to do a televised runway presentation, but if ever asked I would certainly jump at the chance.

Over a year ago I spotted the cutest accessory on the pages of New York and Teen Vogue magazines. It is a flower pin, but very unique. Since I am working on a new collection of denim cocktail dresses (see breaking news from the Diva-at-Large), I imagined this flower pin to be the perfect embellishment for one of my designs. I was so excited to contact the designer and immediately went rummaging through my back issues of Teen Vogue. Once I spotted it, I promptly googled her name and found her website. I discovered that Kate C. is wonderfully creative. In addition to the flower pins, she designs necklaces, bracelets, and costumes as well. She is awesomely talented. I was so psyched that I typed her an email which read like this:

Hello Kate!

My name is Wilbur. I am a fashion designer based in New York. I fell in love with your pins when I saw them last year in Teen Vogue and New York magazines. I am designing a one shouldered denim cocktail dress and immediately thought that your creations would be a lovely touch. I checked out your website, and, unfortunately, you don't offer any in the shade of blue that I would need. Would you consider doing 3 in 2 sizes to adorn my sample? Please let me know. My contact info is listed below. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

I anxiously awaited her reply, but by 3 the next afternoon I had heard nothing. Maybe she had not received my email. So I called her. I was thrilled when Kate C. answered the phone. I introduced myself and relayed the story of how I found her and explained how great it would be to collaborate on this project. After all, Murakami worked with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton on handbags and they had a best seller! The possibilities for me and Kate C. were endless. But I soon learned that she was less than thrilled or impressed with my offer. In fact, she informed me that she had indeed received my email, but was still mulling it over. She confessed that since the flower pins were all handmade she was overwhelmed by the idea of mass production. Silly girl, once you get orders there are factories that can manufacture in large quantities! She continued, "I checked out your website, but there is nothing that resembles a cocktail dress." After I told her that this was a new endeavor, a launch in fact, she asked me to email her images. And I obliged. But my bubble had burst. Her cool reception caused me to recoil. I am no longer interested in working with Kate C. I will employ somebody else who is interested in working with me to create that perfect accessory. I am not sure if she was having a Jonathan Franzen moment or if she was scared of the potential income that this could bring her. All I want to know is, "What's that about?!"

Peace & Fashion!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Let Your Fingers Do The Walking

When I was a kid I remember watching the commercial for the yellow pages that advised viewers to "Let your fingers do the walking." It was a television moment that has stayed with me throughout my career. Looking to establish my own company was unchartered territory. After all, I'd never even worked for anyone in the fashion industry. So it was a moment of reinvention (Hello Madonna!). Dutifully, I began to make a list of things I needed and let my fingers do the walking. I found clothing label manufacturers, shoe companies, sample makers, fabric stores, etc. The Yellow Pages held a treasure trove of potential contacts. But when I started searching for a financial backer to assist me with taking the company to the next level, there was no listing for Angel With Lots of Money. Up until that moment, it had been my go-to guide for problemsolving. One day about 5 years ago, I was commiserating with my diva friend Josette when she suggested a new kind of yellow pages. "Divo," she said, "why don't you put an ad on craigslist? It certainly can't hurt." Nothing beats a failure but a try, so I wrote my ad and posted it on craigslist the next day. The response was not overwhelming, to say the least, but I did manage to get three bites. One person sent an anonymous message which strongly suggested that I go back to school, take some business classes, and get my head out of the clouds because I obviously had no clue. Ouch! I actually met with the next prospect and he suggested that I just copy designs that were already in the marketplace and sell them. Clearly, he did not share my passion to bring something innovative into the retail landscape. Buh-bye! I was a little worn out when I met with the next dude. He was fresh faced and a little young. He was from Pakistan and had no money. But he had a connection to someone with lots of money who was also interested in building a fashion brand here in the U.S. Serosh (that's his name) and I shared a similar vision for our futures. Jackpot! So even when this financial backer backed out, Serosh and I have continued to try and rub two pennies together to see if we can make Sorta Kinda Enterprises a bonafide success story. But we have to remember to let our fingers do the walking.
Peace & Fashion!

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Remember George Michael's song Faith? George is really singing about having faith to stick with a woman who puts his heart through the wringer just because he loves her. My relationship with Lady Fashion is a lot like the one in that song. And so I have adopted it as my anthem. Oftentimes when I find myself stuck in a work situation that threatens the flow of creativity I will start singing, "'Cause you gotta have faith, faith, FAITH!" And it does not always quiet the storms, but I have learned to be patient with myself.
Several years ago, a very dear woman named Joan Mansbach who is in public relations approached me about creating an original design utilizing interior fabrics from a company called Robert Allen. I had informed her of my endeavors in the world of fashion and she immediately thought of me for this project. So I just let my imagination rip. As a result, I received my very first mention in a publication. I was so psyched! It meant that I was doing something that was actually of interest to someone other than my friends and family. Never mind that it was in an obscure trade newspaper called Home Fashion Network that nobody but industry types read. It was a start. But when I went to the publisher's bustling and cavernous office to request a copy of the article, I felt inconsequential like a little fish in a big pond. My self-doubt got the best of me. The woman who pulled the issue for me said, "Congratulations." I told her that it probably wasn't such a big deal and that I was sure she had seen many who had done a lot more than me. The mother in her surfaced as she reassured me that this was just the beginning and there were going to be many more times when someone would write about me. Wow. If this woman whom I had never met could have this kind of faith in me, then I could certainly muster up the faith in myself. As my fashion journey has led me down a path to some career highs and some lows, I try to never forget the lesson that I learned from that experience. I gotta have faith.

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
- Hebrews 11:1
Holy Bible (KJV)
Peace & Fashion!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Essence of Fashion

My mother has subscribed to Essence magazine for as long as I can remember. With its tag line "The Magazine For Today's Black Woman", I knew that when it landed in the mailbox each month I was going to be schooled in beauty, fashion, lifestyle, and fierceness from a modern diva's perspective. And I would be introduced to glamorous sistahs who were breaking barriers and climbing the proverbial ladder to success. Oftentimes, I would hover waiting for my mother to finish reading so that I could dissect the content from cover to cover. Essence really is just a darker version of Vogue. So when I started my clothing line, it was one of the first magazines I targeted. In my heart of hearts I was convinced that once my pieces made it onto the glossy pages of Essence, I would be a bonafide success. I pleaded with one of my connections, Deborah Gregory who would later write the Cheetah Girls book series, to make the introduction. A couple of weeks after my very first runway show, I proudly hauled all my samples to the offices at 1500 Broadway where I met the most wonderful fashion team. I will acknowledge that this collection was not the greatest. After all, it was my very first foray into this new and magical world. But everyone treated me with kid gloves and encouraged me to continue and return once I had completed my next collection. And return I did. But it would be a few seasons later. It was when I picked up my own copy of the September 2000 issue that I noticed it had a new look and attitude. Host unlimited photos at slide.com for FREE!After gazing at the very slick, polished photos, I glanced at the masthead to see who was responsible. There was a new team and I knew them! How serendipitous! The fashion director was now Pamela M. whom I had met years earlier at Henri Bendel when I was shopping my dresses around. She didn't think they were right for the store, but she urged me to try Lord & Taylor since it was known as "The Dress Address." I remember thinking that she was so helpful and possessed an easy smile. From time to time, we would bump into each other on the subway platform and exchange pleasantries. This was all before her rise to one of the top spots at the magazine. Immediately, I dialed her to see if I could schedule an appointment to meet with her or forward a press packet with photos of my new collection. She wouldn't believe how far I had come. "This is Pamela M. in the fashion department at Essence. Please leave a meesage after the tone," was her outgoing message. I knew it would only be a little while before my "friend" would call me back. She didn't. Sometimes I would reach her and she would tell me that she was on deadline, but promised that we would get together soon. She expressed excitement to see what I had been up to. But most times I got the voice mail. It was maybe a year later when I bumped into Pamela M. and Susan L. Taylor, the editorial director, on Madison Avenue coming from a bridal show. "Oh my God," I shouted. I could not believe my luck. I told them both how I'd been trying to set up a meeting and that they should really see my stuff. Susan didn't know a thing about me, but seemed interested in learning more. Pamela M. said she would tell her all about me and I handed them both business cards as they eased into their Lincoln Town car and sped off. Still I heard nothing. It was not until years later, after Pamela M. left (or was ousted, depending on who you ask) that I learned that she was not feeling my line and made it her mission to make sure that anything to do with skwilbur would not appear in the magazine. And all this time I played the fool. You live and you learn.
Peace & Fashion!

Monday, March 16, 2009

America's Next Top Model?

My life with fashion models has always been bittersweet. Usually, I love working with women. I have found them nurturing, incredibly forthcoming, hardworking, intelligent, and easy to talk to. But with models I have noticed that the dynamic sometimes transforms into something weird and unfortunate. My experience has varied from the sublime (I can call one model in particular a very dear friend) to the nightmarish (the kind who have given me diva 'tude or not shown up to photo shoots). Anyone who has watched "America's Next Top Model" knows that it takes more than beauty to become the next Kate Moss. You have got to connect both in front of the lens and on the runway. And models are subjected to scrutiny (nose too wide, hips too narrow, lips too thin) that us mere mortals rarely have to suffer through. So it begs the question, "Why do so many young women foster dreams of becoming supermodels of the world?" Does it validate their existence to know that they are considered beautiful? Does the lifestyle seem uber glamorous? Maybe most do not understand that models suffer from low self-esteem because their physical shortcomings are constantly underscored by industry monsters? Or perhaps they have not realized that models are often treated as if they have no brain capacity? And then there is the thing about the level of success - most women do not reach supermodel status so there is a constant struggle to make ends meet.

This weekend past thousands of women lined up for the New York audition of Tyra Banks' next cycle of America's Next Top Model after Ms. Tyra herself announced that the producers would only be accepting applications for hopefuls who are 5'7" and under. Chaos ensued, several were stampeded, and dreams were crushed. Now don't get me wrong, I am the last one who wants to quash anybody's dreams. I'm just sayin'! Beautiful young women should really consider their options before they leap into such a ruthless world populated by sharks. Know that you are fabulously beautiful in your own unique way and work with people who support that truth.

Peace & Fashion!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Celebrity Slippery Slope

Let's face it - most of us love celebrities. They are glamorous and beautiful. They live storied lives in big mansions (I know you've seen MTV's Cribs), fly in private jets, and enjoy the adulation of millions. When we watch them on Jay Leno or Live with Regis & Kelly they share cute anecdotes that cause us to swoon or smile broadly. Secretly we want them to be our friends. But all is not over the rainbow in CelebrityLand, Dorothy.
I once had the opportunity to create an outfit for a rhythm-n-blues legend. She is a diva whose gospel-tinged voice is beyond compare. I have seen her perform live so many times I could recite her every concert move. Our first meeting was in a luxury hotel where she stays while visiting New York. I was so excited that it all seemed so surreal. Subsequent to our introduction, I sent her some sketches. She chose one and I immediately started the ball rolling. But before any fabric could be bought, I needed a 50% deposit for the outfit. She did not want to pay. She explained that Donna Karan gave her free clothes. I had to inform her that I did not helm a multi-million dollar company like DK, but I would be happy to extend a courtesy on the cost. She thanked me and promptly sent me a check for $400. That money was funneled to purchase fabric and pay my seamstress. A week or so later said music phenom/Grammy winner was back in NY and we did her fitting in the ladies bathroom of a midtown Manhattan restaurant. A week or so after that the completed outfit was rushed to her overnight by our very own United States Postal Service. Only problem was that it was lost! What to do?! A couple of days later it turned up, but it was already too late for her to sport it on stage for a concert here in New York. However, she was extremely gracious and comped me 4 tickets for the show. In the end, I am not sure if she ever wore my outfit. There are no photos to prove that I actually had my measuring tape around her waist. And asking her for the remainder of the balance seemed unjust so I just ate the cost.
There are more celebrity stories to share. One story in particular that comes to mind is about the daughter of a beloved tv actress and Tony winner who I asked to be my muse. Long story short, she made off with several custom pieces from me without so much as a "Thank You". And then she refused to take my calls. She is now performing in an off-Broadway play. I might have to head to City Center Stage One and scold her about her bad behavior. Hey, don't be surprised if you see me on the 11 o'clock news! Just kidding. . .

Peace & Fashion!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dressmaker, Dressmaker. . .

I started my fashion design company when I was 29 years old. And I really could have been pursuing my dream from a much younger age, but I was in serious denial initially. I have loved the beauty and glamour of fashion since I was a kid. But as I grew up I could not even begin to imagine my life as a fashion designer. I was good in art. And sure, I had taken in my pant legs as a teen so that they were not bell bottoms (this was the ‘80’s- HELLO!) and altered a couple of my daddy’s old suits from the attic to wear in high school. But a career as a fashion designer seemed beyond my reach and beyond my realm of understanding. Back then and certainly pre-Project Runway, that career path seemed foreign to me. But then as a young adult I decided to pursue my dream and attend Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) here in New York, yet I lacked the skills and the confidence to finish my first sewing class. My professor was a crotchety, jaded old witch who put us on blast and announced early on in the semester that many of us would not become the great American fashion designers we had envisioned. Was it her way of weeding out the wannabes from the want-it-badly-enough? I am not sure, but soon thereafter I dropped out packing up my sewing gear, pencils, markers, and sketch pads and tucking it away in the closet for a couple years until I got the courage to try and prove myself. To this day, I cannot drape, sew well, or make a pattern. And I even auditioned for Project Runway’s first season before anyone knew that it was essential to the show’s premise to possess the technical skills. But I do not let my handicap prevent me from pushing on through. I just work with tailors and seamstresses who got game.

Today, I purchased the denim for my cocktail dresses that will hopefully be in stores in spring 2010. I am beyond elated! Every single step in the process is a milestone for me! I have been working with someone really closely for the last 5 years or so who I have grown to respect and love that can also sew her ass off. Unfortunately, her path is leading her away from fashion and so I must find someone else who can help me realize my vision. But I still do not look at this development as a reason to try to learn to sew. The hours it takes to create a pattern and construct the garment are hours I simply cannot spare. But I will press on. After all, my dream depends on it.

Peace & Fashion!

Monday, March 9, 2009


Many years ago, over 11, I decided to start my own clothing line. What led up to that a-ha moment is a story for another time. But for now, let's just say that the universe supported my creativity. I christened the line Sorta Kinda because it was part of a phrase I had come up with to describe a girlfriend's oh so fierce new hair weave and my then boyfriend thought it had a nice ring to it. Naturally, I was very excited when I scampered off to one of those federal buildings in downtown Brooklyn on July 29, 1998 and filled out the paperwork for sole proprietorship. It was official! I could see my future unfolding like the movie with the classic "feel-good" Hollywood ending. I was going to set the world on fire, rise to become fashion's next darling, and have women across the U.S. chanting my name as they posed on sidewalks and red carpets wearing my clothes. The question on every woman's lips would be, "Versace, who?" Was I delusional, suffering from feelings of grandeur, or just green? Well it's 2009 and that has not happened, yet I am still in the game.

Fast forward to today, my business partner, Serosh, came up with this fantastic idea to create an accessory that would compliment our tops that we hope to bring to market this spring. I came up with this concept called "tee-bags" that would include a tote and a wristlet style. It's gonna be H-O-T! But right now we are faced with drama from our manufacturers overseas. First, our order was too small so a couple of manufacturers turned us down. They said it wasn't worth their time. Now we've got this French dude who says he can make it happen for us, but then disappears for days at a time without so much of a word. Wassup with that?! Everyday we are learning, but, damn, I am sick of the classroom! All I want now is to have those bags for sale at skwilbur.com. Whoever came up with the saying "Patience is a virtue" must have had me in mind. And since I am being SO virtuous, then you must be too. That's it for today, but check in from time to time just to see where I am in my odyssey. And if you feel like dropping me a line, then post something. Please, NO APPLAUSE! Just kidding. . .

Peace & Fashion!