Behind the Atelier is a fashion-focused series that examines the unique backstories and design processes behind the fashion industry’s most captivating talents. Pulling back the curtain on each designer’s creative space and practice, Behind the Atelier will highlight and give an inside look into the industry’s most exciting names.
For the fourth installment of the series, HYPEBAE tapped Los-Angeles based designer CheyenneKimora to take us behind the scenes of her atelier, where our team documented her workspace and time in quarantine through a Zoom photoshoot. In a candid conversation, Cheyenne shared how she made the jump from studying aerospace engineering to launching her eponymous line in 2008, the intricate process behind how her ornately-designed pieces honor Black beauty and Black culture and the ways her brand is rewriting the narrative and changing the perception of Black people through powerful messaging.
Throughout fashion’s lengthy history, its myriad of historical, cultural and artistic references have played a powerful role in shaping the sartorial creations of modern-day designers. In an effort to reclaim the past and make way for the future, a womenswear renaissance led by Black designers has begun to uproot and propel the industry, forcing fashion executives and major fashion houses to pay close attention to the overwhelming need for inclusivity and representation all throughout the industry — not just on the covers of magazines or on the runways of fashion shows. At the forefront of this movement is designer Cheyenne Kimora, who has used her burgeoning brand to lift up the Black community through the creation of her wildly-extravagant designs that harken back to the decadent and dramatic styles that defined the Baroque and Rococo periods.
Since launching her eponymous label in 2008, Cheyenne has harnessed her Trinidadian upbringing as a form of inspiration, employing valuable lessons on how to build a meaningful brand. She honors her roots through the knowledge and insight of her grandmothers who were seamstresses and her father who was a highly-skilled designer himself. Utilizing her richly imaginative vision for design and skilled hand to embellish vintage denim, handbags and her “You Are Adorned” durag collection with swirling incrustations of luminous crystals in all shapes and sizes, the Los Angeles-based designer has made it her sole mission to design garments that highlight and represent the multi-faceted beauty of Black people and Black culture.
Through the grandeur of her awe-inspiring designs that meld fantastical, luxurious elements of the past with modern reinterpretations of the present, the self-taught talent has developed an ornate design aesthetic that is uniquely her own. It places emphasis on craftsmanship, attention to detail and allows her identity as a liberated woman of color to shine through in every way possible. Using hip-hop and the power of messaging to fuel her emotionally-driven designs — which range from couture-like, crystallized jeans brimming with an abundance of hand-placed crystals that mimic the shape of a regal butterfly, to a beautifully sculpted cocoon jacket that incorporates denim from two distinct decades along with a majestic display of glittering crystals — Cheyenne has built more than just a promising fashion brand. She is fueling a cultural and artistic movement with a mission of always finding a sense of self with each piece she creates and honoring the beauty of Black culture.
With a firm grasp on reshaping the narrative of people of color continually mistold by the media, Cheyenne is rising above the noise by using her voice and otherworldly creations to spotlight Black stories, Black love, Black beauty and the Black community. To get to know the independent brand and designer, HYPEBAE sat down with Cheyenne Kimora to discuss her detailed design process, her stance on inclusivity and representation in the fashion industry and how the community she’s formed around her is a vital part of the CheyenneKimora brand.
As someone who wasn’t formally trained in design, at what point did you realize you wanted to become a fashion designer? How did you make the jump from majoring in aerospace engineering to launching your career as a designer?
I think looking back, I’ve always known I wanted to become a fashion designer. Growing up watching the Style channel on television, I was so inspired by all of the different looks that would come down the runway and even, with two minutes left before I had to rush out of the house to go to school, I was always so eager to see the end of the fashion show. When I was younger, I remember laying my clothes out for the week to wear to school. I knew how to get my homework done, but my priority was making sure that I laid out my outfits to-the-T.
Going back to my childhood, my dad was incredible with leather work and screen-printing. He would make the craziest bags and shoes that were clogs with wooden heels. It was so inspiring to see fabric turn into an actual item — it was always something that captivated me. Even though I was insanely into fashion, I also had a passion for aviation and, as I got older, my mom and my sister sat me down and told me that they really saw me as a fashion designer.
Talk to me about your Trinidadian upbringing. How has your family and Trinidadian culture influenced or changed the way you perceive fashion and design as a whole?
My family is the hardest working people that I know and everyone in my family is clothing designers as well as seamstresses, including both of my grandmothers on my mom’s and dad’s side. My dad was also a photographer. His mom was also heavily into photography and macramé along with making bags and chairs. My family has always used their hands to design their lives. My family is very prideful for sure. Everything about Trinidadian culture is so prideful and you can’t tell a Trinidadian that they aren’t the sh*t — there’s just this pride to them that instantly boosts your confidence as an individual. For me, I feel like being around that my entire life has allowed me to be secure with who I am and also has made me be able to dream with no boundaries. We also like to have a good time: There’s carnivals where we’ll be able to dress up and be really extravagant and those designs and colors definitely come into play with my work.
What inspired you to start your eponymous line?
When it came to launching the line, a few things led me to start. I started my brand back in 2008 when I was right out of high school and I was going down an aviation track and Obama had just become President. It was such an interesting time and I felt like it gave me the confidence to be anything that I wanted to be in this world. It propelled me to take fashion design a little more seriously. Even at that time, I was creating these intricate sunglasses with Swarovski crystal detailing and it was fun for me and my friends to wear. It was honestly just play time for me. I remember the turning point being when a publication asked to sit down with me and wanted to know what I was going to school for. I told them aviation, to which they replied that they kept seeing my sunglasses all over town and suggested that I start exploring fashion more because they thought the sunglasses were so cool and caught their attention. That was definitely an eye-opening moment for me and forced me to look at the steps that led me to this point.
How did you realize that aerospace wasn’t for you?
I actually ended up getting a customer service representative job at a private airport because I wanted to see if aerospace was really the industry I could see myself in for years to come. I found the culture to be very strict — as it should be — but it just didn’t fit me. I had the ugliest shift from 2PM to 10PM and it was terrible. I would go home, take a shower and I would set myself on a schedule where I would work [on designs] until 6AM and go to sleep for a few hours. I operated as if I had two jobs. I did that for four years, and decided that this was enough. It came to another turning point where I couldn’t really tend to my fashion business because of my job [at the airport] and it allowed me to focus on my brand.
How would you describe your design aesthetic and ethos to people who are unfamiliar with your brand?
I would say my brand is definitely couture, especially with all of the intense detailing and use of denim. I find my pieces to be extravagant, because I’m extra even though I’m introverted as a person. The people who are in my hub — my team and family — know that I’m the most extra person and, through my work, you can see that. I find tones of nostalgia, which relies heavily on just being Black and my Black experiences. So I would say my pieces are definitely extravagant, luxurious and inspiring.
What is your design process like when creating a new collection or garment?
I know my design process is definitely not like many other people. I know that a lot of people are heavily reliant on sketching and planning, but for me, my process is very natural and usually it just starts with being present in the world and in conversation. Especially through my team and when they come in or when we link up it’s important to just talk to one another, see what everyone has going on and try to really understand or figure out what’s disrupting us or bringing us joy. It could be about worldly matters, theories, politics, Kanye West or really anything.
I feel like through those conversations it just evokes thought and usually, at the end of the day, I’ll stay up all night because I’m a major night owl and I allow myself to feel and take in and reflect on the things that I experience throughout the day or in conversation. [My process] has to be accompanied by a major playlist of all of my favorites like Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Otis Redding. Based on that feeling, I’ll decide whether I want to design a bag or a cocoon jacket or a bucket hat and then I ask myself, “How ornate is this feeling?” and then try to marry the [design] with that feeling. This is usually before I even establish what the piece will look like. It’s more feeling-driven and when it comes to the crystal placement, it’s all free-flowing.
How does your affinity for materials play into that?
Once I gather my materials and decide it’s going to be a bucket hat or a jacket, I then infuse it with denim that was created in the ‘70s and then maybe I infuse it with denim that was created in the ‘80s. It starts with a feeling and then it morphs into production. Somehow, someway my pieces tend to hit this whimsical note and become very emotional to look at. As far as the crystal selection, some are more obscure than others and it definitely lands on Baroque detailing. Being in college and studying art history, I was so into the Baroque and Rococo periods and the paintings and the fabrics that they used. It all influences my work. The denim becomes the canvas and then my needle is the paintbrush.
Each of your signature pieces are heavily embellished with crystals and feature intricately beaded designs. What inspired you to start working with these materials and how long does the process typically take when adorning something like your crystallized denim jacket?
These pieces can take up to two weeks to a few months. My last piece, the cocoon jacket, I literally felt like I was putting myself into a grave. It took me months and I redesigned that piece about four times because it just didn’t feel right and I just needed it to flow. I take my time and I understand how fashion works and the need to put out so many different collections a year — but something about slowing it down, I just really enjoy. The amount of time that these pieces take is the same amount of effort that I want people to be able to feel when they look at it.
Walk me through the inspiration and meaning behind your newest collection as well as how music and the power of messaging has played a role in shaping your designs.
Hip-hop has definitely inspired me and it just resonates with who I am and my experiences. It’s expressive, it’s freeing and it’s an art that you can rely on no matter the vibe. When you’re down, hip-hop can remind you of who you are when the world feels tough and it feels like you’re getting beat up in every direction. It has all the feels and artists are so vulnerable through their art. But if you really take the time to listen to what they’re talking about, you can really relate to it. It’s like diary entries to me. It’s taught me the power of messaging and I feel like, with my collection, my designs reflect my Blackness and my culture.
As a female designer forging new ground within the fashion industry, how is your brand aiming to capture the beauty of Black culture as well as change the perception of how Black people are viewed?
I think the media has this vision and they keep that vision on repeat. Black people are so much more than what gets highlighted. With my collection, I feel like it’s all about showing people that look like me that they are enough in this world despite all of the barriers and the different hurdles we have to go through. It’s also to show people who don’t look like me, just the scope of what it is to walk in my shoes, to feel what I feel and to understand my thoughts — to actually see me as a person and not view me as a criminal because the media does that really well. The media puts us in these lights to either criminalize us or belittle us or to make us feel small, and that’s not the story at all. The story really starts with ourselves and to know who we are and to know our worth and our value, and I hope people really get that through my pieces.
I’m over that when it’s time to tell a Black person or people of color’s story, it’s always so focused on activism and what’s right and fighting for equality. And yes, that’s a major component, but we’re also people too. We laugh, we want to be in love, we want marriage, we want to have families and not have them be thrown into systems like the jail system. We want all of these things. We have grandmothers that we care for, we have nieces, we have sisters, we are people as well and I feel like somewhere along the lines, just because of how the media portrays us, all of that gets removed. Through my brand, I hope to constantly shine that spotlight on Black people or people of color and show what we’re made of, and how our grandmothers paved the way for who we are today and through their sacrifices as well as putting a spotlight on our hard-working moms. I hope to embody that in every bit of what we do because we’re more than just fighting for our rights. We’re also fighting to show people who we are.
It’s no secret that the fashion industry has a huge issue with inclusivity and representation. Especially in bigger fashion houses, for example, where you don’t have people of color as a part of the atelier that are making the garments being produced.
Why aren’t there more people of color in those situations? Especially because, even just looking at art history, we work with our hands. And if you take it back to before slavery and focus in on Africa and the beauty that comes out of there — that’s what we stem from. We are artists naturally and we are of the earth naturally. We’re beyond just one thing and I feel like when it comes to the industry and its lack of inclusion, it’s so mind-boggling to me. Yes, I’m a fashion designer but it doesn’t make me eager at all to join any fashion industry circles knowing the climate of it because it’s not as open as it should be. For fashion to be such a creative industry and so whimsical and theatrical and hit on so many different emotions — I just can’t wrap my mind around the idea of how it’s not open for everyone and only propelled in one direction.
When I went to school for art history, through my experiences, I noticed that a lot of people within the industry have also gone to school for art history and I feel like that could be the problem. While I was in school, it was very focused on European art. So, for the fashion industry — who are all in that melting pot of being obsessed with history and art and using it as a reference — European art is the only reference that they’re using. I feel like that’s why part of the reason fashion is always within that same realm. The entire program was focused on this European standard of art and beauty and that’s why things are the way that they are and it needs to change. How do you tell a story from just one perspective?
How have you been able to cultivate and foster a sense of community between you and the people who make up the CheyenneKimora team?
Building community is such a vital part of any brand. The term “it takes a village” doesn’t just apply to children — it’s the same even as an adult. It’s so important to have people to lean on and to rely on and to relate to. Power grows within communities and love grows within communities as well as personal growth and brand growth. It’s important to know who your audience is and know who’s in your corner, too. The people on my team are literally my backbone. They give me structure and yes, we’re a brand, but it’s like a therapy session when we link up together. When you have the outlet to talk to someone about how you feel and what you’re going through it can propel you into a more positive state and it also just helps you figure you out. With my team, it’s understanding that we’re people first and a brand second.
What is the inspiration or meaning behind your “You Are Adorned” collection and what was the reason for starting it?
The “You Are Adorned” collection is so special to me and I remember reading an article about a school deciding to ban the use of durags because they deemed them to be gang related. There was something so unnerving about that article and I remember walking up and down and screaming about it. What do they mean “gang related”? Are there not enough labels being thrown at us? And now, we have to tip-toe around the idea of us using something to cover our hair or to wrap our hair. It was one more layer of bullshit basically on top of the many things that we are faced with. It made me think of someone who is not the same color as me who may have read that article and the fear that it may have caused them just because of that misinformation. Then you think of that person going into a grocery store or walking down the street and seeing a person with a durag on and automatically thinking after reading the article that the person was gang related, when they could just be trying to control their hair — and we already know hair is such a big debate.
I felt like I needed to create something that would translate so beautifully that it completely removed the idea of what a durag actually was and instead, created an interest in what it was. Going back to my Trinidadian background — always being so ornate with the crystals and the embellishments on the costumes worn at a carnival — it was like, let’s use crystals. And I need them in different colors and I need to make them in all different sizes, because I knew that if I made something so beautiful that it couldn’t just be something that’s gang related. I had no choice but to change that narrative so it couldn’t be used against us.
The “You Are Adorned” collection is a reminder that we are love and we are light. You can look at the pieces and love how adorned they are and, if you allow yourself to take in the message, you’ll realize that people of color are not what the media portrays us to be. It puts our lives in danger with how the media portrays that narrative, and it’s time to control our own narrative for once. That’s my goal with my brand.