From her small studio in downtown Flint, Kala Wilburn slowly is creating a fashion movement through her custom handbag and apparel company, Fannie Lucille.
Transitioning from creating custom special occasion designs for each customer, she is building and manufacturing a fashion line featuring statement pieces for women on the go, such as jackets, wraps and throws a woman can layer on to change her look or give her a unique statement piece. Wilburn also designs handbags for women who want the functionality of a backpack and the style of a designer bag.
After she began her fashion career, she learned she was born into the legacy her great grandmother and great-great grandmother began as seamstresses. They both built successful businesses and were sought after because of their ability to look at pictures women would cut out of newspapers, create patterns and make them into dresses.
That’s where she gets her business name, Fannie Lucille, from her sewing ancestors.
Wilburn believes it’s also where she got her innate skills.
“It’s funny how you think you are just living your dream, and it’s just yours,” she says. “When my grandmother told me my family’s story, I said, ‘This is really something. This is not just my dream. This is something that’s in my bloodline.’”
She learned to sew through another relative. Her grandfather taught her rudimentary sewing skills by using scraps of fabric he cut from old pairs of pants. Then she graduated to sewing together bandanas and other items she purchased from the dollar store.
She learned the science of sewing while majoring in fashion at Central Michigan University. A whole world of patterns, bolts of fabric and giant fabric stores opened to her while in school.
After she graduated, she spent a year studying in London. She returned to the United States and started working for large fashion houses in New York City, where she honed her skills as a men’s fashion designer for urban wear trendsetter Marc Ecko and through a company licensed to design men’s footwear for hip-hop mogul Jay-Z’s label Rocawear.
While she worked retail in a sneaker store that featured urban gear, bags and accessories, a customer, who rushed into the door one day desperately searching for a large handbag, inspired her to make a line of bags.
The woman, a commuter who lived in northern New Jersey and worked in New York City, wanted a bag that was functional enough to package all the items she needed during the day, but fashionable enough to carry to after-work events. When Wilburn suggested she visit a nearby major department store to purchase a designer bag, the offended woman stormed out of the store.
Today, Wilburn wishes she knew the woman’s name and contact information because she created a line of handbags with her especially in mind.
Wilburn loved the fast life in the Big Apple, but when she got engaged her fiancé didn’t. He decided to return home to Flint and she followed. That’s why she’s sold on creating a fashion scene here. Women in smaller cities want to be stylish and own items that are easy to wear and simultaneously beautiful and unique.
She recently hosted the annual Vehicle City Fashion Week, and her signature fashion extravaganza, the Vehicle City Fashion Week Runway Show, at the Ignite Center. The show, which more than 200 attended, featured her designs and apparel and accessories from the Glam Box Boutique.
One aspect of her business is to raise awareness and education about the impact of violence. She created the “Fashion Against Violence” initiative after her brother, Antonio Anthony, was tragically shot and killed in Flint on Oct. 31, 2011. It appeared he was running from someone and attempted to make it to his friend’s house. He took his last breath trying to get through the front door. He was 22.
Supposedly, no one knew or saw anything. His murder remains unsolved and is now a cold case.
Through the ordeal, Wilburn dealt with her own grief. It also was painful watching her teenage sister, Simya Anthony, spiral downhill in the 18 months following his death.
“She didn’t want to go to school. She didn’t want to go to class or she would go to class and not be there (mentally),” Wilburn says. “I thought about it with other kids. Many of them also have lost a brother, sister, mother, father or friend. I know that schools have grief counseling, but everyone has their own process. Everybody grieves differently. I’m still going through my process and learning how to deal with it.”
“We can build on fashion and change the platform and help the city thrive.” -Kala Wilburn
Wilburn decided young people needed an outlet to heal so she created the Fashion Against Violence initiative, a community education program, where she teaches young people how to sew and gives them a safe space to talk about the violence they have experienced in their lives. The organization’s mission is to develop the skills of people interested in fashion and art in urban communities, promote them and give them industry exposure.
“If we help the people who are already here, the people who already are designing, who have online boutiques and are working in the fashion industry, and give them a platform to build on it, we’ll create more jobs and build on the legacy created by General Motors and all the companies that built our city through cars,” Wilburn says. “We can build on fashion and change the platform and help the city thrive.”
Photos by Paul Engstrom