Designer Kenya Freeman

Designer Kenya Freeman

Kenya Freeman says she always knew she wanted to be in fashion; she just wasn’t sure how she would express herself. As a freelance fashion designer who worked her way up from a following in her home of Atlanta, Ga., to a spot on Lifetime TV’s “Project Runway” in its 16th season, Freeman was a hot topic. When the show aired in 2017, Freeman’s inbox stayed full — some viewers sent messages of encouragement or requests for commissioned work. Some told her to go back to school. Some sent racist hate mail. “I didn’t think people would respond to me the way they did,” Freeman told us — even of her admirers.

What really compelled Freeman, though, were the people who saw themselves represented in her work, the viewers who wrote to her about their dreams and aspirations to pursue their own callings. “Seeing me helped them,” Freeman said. “I did not know that’s what my assignment was.” Though she has moments where she feels like her job is done, almost two years later she’s still receiving long letters from young designers who’ve seen the show and have been inspired by her journey. Most recently, she received a message from a young woman in Afghanistan. The woman wrote about her dreams of working as a full-time designer. She shared stories with Freeman about sketching in secret out of fear that, in her country, she’d be reprimanded for her gifts and passions. Freeman says these stories remind her to stay grateful. “For me, that was on a whole different level,” Freeman said. “Other people aren’t as free to choose as we are.”

Stories and experiences like these were the push Freeman needed to bring her dreams and plans for a plus-size collection (Curves, coming out this year) to the forefront of her business plan, along with a number of nonprofit ventures, in the hope of giving back to the city that built her. The collection, inspired by the strong women in her life, is just the beginning of Freeman’s passion for design, fashion and community.

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Now CEO of Sylvia Mollie Collections — a collection Freeman’s been ruminating on for nearly a half-century — she’s scheduled as a VIP Guest at Little Rock’s 10th annual Full Figure Fashion Weekend, to be held at the Statehouse Convention Center Saturday, June 23, with a Patio Day Party the night before at The Rail Yard. We talked with her ahead of that appearance.

You used plus-size models on “Project Runway” and received requests for commissioned work from viewers. Besides the requests, what prompted you to shift most of your attention toward building a plus-size brand?

Well, I’m a part of that community, too. I’m not a size 2. I feel like representation matters when you’re dealing with something you’re passionate about. During the season, I received so many emails from women who saw what I was doing and thought I did a good job. It just seemed so needed. So I did my research on other brands and found what was out there. And did you know that there are only about 20 specifically plus-size brands in the world — out of what, a million other companies? It was so overwhelming that I just felt like it was time to give these ladies what they really need. Something that they can be proud of. Something that feels good and looks good. Something that isn’t just a stretchy wrap dress.

courtesy of Kenya Freeman
Kenya Freeman dress, as shown on Season 16 of Lifetime’s “Project Runway”

What was your first introduction to the plus size fashion scene?

Actually, the same year of the show, I was invited to an event put on by Curvy Fashionista, a part of the plus-size community. It wasn’t just women, there were also a lot of men from the “big & tall” community, which was nice. … I was completely mesmerized from then on. First of all, plus-sized women have the highest confidence I have ever seen in my life. They love themselves. And it really is a community.

You recently started a summer camp for kids ages 9-15 that teaches self-esteem, personal responsibility and art through sewing. How does it feel to be a part of that? What’s your favorite part of the day?

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So the name of the camp is “I’m so fantastic.” The beginning is the best part. To me, it’s what makes the camp so fantastic. Every day we begin by sitting in the social circle and we talk about what makes them great individually. Each day before we move on they have to give that to me. They have to talk about what makes them different, unique and fantastic before we do anything else.

We have so many young people committing suicide every day, and self-confidence is just really low. I want the kids to know that they matter. They all matter. They’re unique and it’s on purpose. That’s my favorite part of the day.

And what comes after social circle?

After that, we go into teams and each kid has their own machine. We have about 4-5 kids and a volunteer. They do this every day, so by the end they have 2-3 things to show at the showcase.

We also want to start, every Tuesday, bringing in someone who has an interesting job. Not like a lawyer or doctor type. I’m talking people who make good money doing really interesting things. I’d love to have bloggers like the ones I met at that event. I know a lady who travels, she travels everywhere just testing out hotels. There are so many ways to live. It’s 2019. I want them to know: you’re not all going to be doctors, and you’re not all going to make it to the NBA, but there are still ways to live creatively. The camp is all about sewing because that’s what I do, but I feel like creativity breeds creativity. We tell kids the sky is the limit, but we don’t show them what that looks like. So that’s what we’re hoping to do.

Kurvy Kuties has helped grow a plus-size fashion community here in Little Rock. It also focuses on building self-esteem through body positivity and plus-size representation. How do you see organizations like this and like your own impacting the community?

I think that by default, it will impact the community. Not just for representation, but I think pushing and encouraging the young people is crucial. With the tools we give them, we’re setting them up for success. We need to set these young people up for success. When I look at how things are going to be in the future, I look at the youth. They’re the ones that are going to be building and taking care of our communities. We’re going to get old and they’re going to have to keep it going. So I think anyone who is giving and teaching the kids is doing good.

Your company Sylvia Mollie has been actualized for almost 10 years. How do you hope to see it grow?

I hope to keep pushing forward. That’s all I really can say. I can never predict what’s going to happen with clothing because it’s such an iffy industry. I’m mainly concerned with the community work. Even if I try different things — like a fitness line — there’s a lot of stuff I’m going to do, but all of those products are going to be providing capital for these nonprofit and humanitarian ventures. So I want people to know that when they’re purchasing something from Sylvia Mollie that it’s going to these nonprofits.

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So investing in Sylvia Mollie is investing in the community.

Yes, absolutely. It’s not just a clothing brand. I want it to stand for something more than a pencil skirt.