If you don’t immediately equate eastern Iowa with a high-end fashion hub, you’re not alone. That’s why Andre Wright—the designer, activist, and community builder behind the global fashion phenomenon Humanize My Hoodie and the Black Liberation Space in downtown Iowa City—is creating a fashion accelerator this year at […]
That’s why Andre Wright — the designer, activist and community builder behind the global fashion phenomenon Humanize My Hoodie and the Black Liberation Space in downtown Iowa City — this year is creating a fashion accelerator in the former home of Varsity Cleaners, 910 S. Gilbert St, a business that closed after 106 years last January.
The goal, he said, is to build an ecosystem that builds underrepresented voices in the community by teaching them critical skills and providing a space to create community members.
Interested participants aged 14 to 25 can attend educational courses at night, and apply their skills during the day in the incubator’s dedicated space.
“It’s tough because there aren’t a lot of resources here in Iowa City,” he said. “But what I hope to do is change that and provide resources that have never been provided here before. I think if we can build a core … I think we’re going to be shocked at how much talent we have here.”
Fashion for social change
Originally from Waterloo but living in Iowa City since 2003, Mr. Wright has been heavily involved in the arts and fashion scene for years, starting first as the Marketing Coordinator for Shive-Hattery and then working as the Director of Mentoring Relations for the Iowa City Area Development Group .
He organized fashion shows and workshops in Iowa City and around the country, but he is best known for Humanize my hoodie campaign in 2017, a fashion brand created with longtime friend Jason Sole and after the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Since then, more than hundreds of thousands of tracksuits and other merchandise have been sold, and the brand has even received cheers from celebrities such as singers John Legend.
“We’ve been very organic with the build,” he said. “I think when people are emotionally driven, they want to share things and be a part of it. We didn’t have a marketing team pushing the brand. By talking about the humanization of blacks and indigenous people, they gravitated towards our movement.
“We were fearless and unapologetic,” he added.
He is also the founder of Born Leaders United (BLU), an organization he said has been sidelined by recent efforts, but said they want to rebrand in 2023 to attract youth.
Now he envisions Wright House of Fashion as a place that will empower young people to take responsibility for their own future.
The space will give students access to graphic design tools such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Some students may use the space to test the brands and products they design in the pop-up retail incubator and screen printing and manufacturing space, while others may choose to hone their skills in the podcast room, sewing stations or multimedia studio.
Only 3% of graphic designers are black, Mr. Wright said, noting that he hopes the fashion accelerator will begin to shift those numbers in the other direction.
There will be workshops available begins in February and runs throughout the year in topics including circuit design light shows, 3D printing, branding and painting basics. Cey Adams, graphic designer and founder and creative director of Def Jam Recordings, known for his work with the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Jay-Z and others, will host a workshop in July.
The first quarterly fashion show in the space will be held on March 31.
The Wright fashion house was a natural development, he said, of a similar area in downtown Iowa City that was called the Black Liberation Space.
Donated by Revival’s former owner, Mr. Wright and members of the Iowa City community used the space to talk about freedom of expression, economic liberation and education in the wake of George Floyd. The group made clothing, had art exhibits, created a podcast, offered training opportunities on unconscious bias, and created documentary which was screened at the Paris Independent Film Festival and the New York Independent Cinema Awards.
Warner Music Group invests in Iowa City
Wright House of Fashion will be home to an intimate 10-person class taught in fashion design and entrepreneurship by industry professionals.
The first group of students participated over the summer with Warner Music Group Artistic Director Gordon Thomas, who has worked for artists such as The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, John Mayer, Foo Fighters, Lizzo and more.
Through two weeks of Zoom sessions, quizzes and certificates, students learned about graphic design concepts and worked on creating merchandise for Atlantic Records artists. Students designed merchandise for Canadian-American artist Grandson for his concert in Chicago in October, and all students received stage passes to experience the event.
Their merchandise was the number one selling apparel item during the tour, Mr. Wright said.
“This was extremely revolutionary in our community,” he explained. “We had the number one record label in the world working with kids in Iowa City for a major artist selling our tours all over the country.”
For Warner Media, the project was an opportunity to diversify marketing efforts by understanding the purchasing preferences of different segments of the population, he said.
Outlook for 2023
Mr Wright said he hoped the fashion accelerator would give people a space to escape from everyday life, as he did when he was younger.
“[Art] it allowed me to alleviate poor situations because I could re-imagine myself doing something else, whether it was through murals, painting, drawing or fashion,” he said.
The Wright House of Fashion building was purchased in partnership with the non-profit organization Resilient Sustainable Future for Iowa City (RSFIC), an organization that shares his vision of implementing sustainable practices.
Currently, the accelerator is trying to raise up to $100,000 in building improvements and operating expenses.
AND a larger capital campaign will be launched this year, where the nonprofit hopes to raise $1.5 million in fundraising to continue operations; renovate the building and add screen printing space, a multimedia studio and a retail incubator; and hire three black women, as reported by The Gazette. The final renovations will not be completed until 2024.
“I have never run a non-profit; I worked only for them,” he said. “I don’t think I knew what to do at first, did I? I just kind of jumped in…now I’m in the process of developing a board and creating bylaws. It was an interesting process.”