Building a fashion label, the Wright way

Andre’ Wright, shown in his workspace at MERGE in Iowa City. PHOTO ADAM MOORE


By Dave DeWitte

To many Iowans, the fashion world can seem remote and daunting – hardly the place they’d expect their son or daughter to capture the limelight unless they moved away to New York or Los Angeles for a decade or two.

Then there’s Andre’ Wright of Iowa City, who made a mid-life transition from being a graphic designer at an architecture firm to launching a fashion line and working in economic development. He’s made his Born Leaders United label an extension of his bold views on life and leadership since launching it in 2013 as BLU Collar.

“Our message is, everybody’s a leader in something they’re passionate about,” said Mr. Wright, 39. His own passion, he said, is “being a leader in the fashion world, going out and trying to make things happen.”

Exemplifying Mr. Wright’s approach is the Humanize My Hoodie project he launched just over a year ago with friend Jason Sole. It is helping carry on the “hoodie movement” that arose from the shooting of hoodie-wearing teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was ultimately acquitted on a claim of self-defense.

Mr. Wright and Mr. Sole designed hooded sweatshirts with the simple words “Humanize My Hoodie” in bold letters. They are a conversation piece, Mr. Wright said, with wearers telling him they often spark a dialogue on topics such as irrational fear and stereotyping.

“We wanted to shine some light on a situation that needed to be shined on,” Mr. Wright said. “It’s a good example of fashion empowerment. It has probably been our strongest collection.”

Despite limited distribution, the line has been more than a flash in the pan, typically selling 20-30 items a week at $40 retail.

Mr. Wright hasn’t quit his day job, directing entrepreneurial advancement and community connection programs for the ICAD Group in Iowa City. That’s just fine with him, because his interests in the fashion business and entrepreneurship are so closely connected. He helped organize the Iowa Fashion Project, which aims to elevate Iowa-based designers and labels, and mentors local entrepreneurs trying to break into the industry.

“A lot of student entrepreneurs come to Andre’ to talk,” said Mark Nolte, president of the ICAD Group. “He’s a natural mentor.”

Mr. Nolte said Simeon Talley, Amanda Lesmeister, Mr. Wright and others have been at the forefront of a local fashion movement that is exemplified by about a dozen fashion shows in the last several years. That movement includes not only fashion designers, but models, hair stylists, makeup artists and photographers, Mr. Nolte said, and shines a light on the creative entrepreneurship in the region for those who might be considering starting a business here.

BLU’s Humanize My Hoodie project on display at a recent Iowa City fashion show. PHOTO JONAH TERRY/THIRD SHIFT

The idea that you can’t launch a fashion line from the someplace like the Corridor is outdated, if it ever was true, Mr. Wright said.

“I’m involved through the entire creative process,” he continued. “I’m sourcing fabric, getting stuff from New York, and even talking to overseas suppliers. I talk to seamstresses and get templates to them. Then we send the pattern of the garment to a manufacturer who produces a limited run, then a larger run.”

Mr. Wright’s designs are primarily street-friendly casual wear with bold graphics and messages. The latter create an emotional connection with consumers, and having inspiring messages is part of the advice Mr. Wright gives to aspiring designers.

“With anything, designers need to have a sense of accomplishment, whether it be sustainability or equality,” he said. “These are the things you will find are attractive to the masses, more than just wearing clothes.”

Mr. Wright clearly has a higher profile in the Corridor than he might in one of the larger metro, and he’s received good community backing for his initiatives. He doesn’t think that’s because he’s an African-American entrepreneur or an economic development professional, but because he’s trying to make a difference.

“People support me because I’m out in the schools talking to kids,” Mr. Wright said.

His conversations with students often roam outside of his work in fashion into the realm of what they want to do when they grow up. He urges them to be authentic, follow their own dream and not just the path popular culture expects them to follow because of their race, gender or socioeconomic status.

“Don’t feel like you have to give up just because you’re not the best athlete,” he said. “There are other ways to earn a living than being LeBron James or a hip-hop artist. I was an art guy.”

While creativity isn’t a big part of everyone’s DNA, it’s often possible to see where it originates in those who have it.

“Finances” is Mr. Wright’s easiest explanation for his own creative spark. His family had little money to spend on toys or sports equipment, he recalled, leaving him to take up drawing and other creative pursuits to express his imagination.

Since childhood, Mr. Wright has seen his share of loss, including the death of his brother at the young age of 28, but he believes his future in fashion and life rests with his own creative vision.

“I’m not one to sit back and let things happen,” he said. “I’m pretty aggressive.”

We’ll be able to see before long where that vision takes him. Born Leaders United’s next clothing line is due out in October.