By Becky Bratu, NBC News
As his first New York Fashion Week show slides into the past, Mychael Knight, 33, is already contemplating how he can outdo himself in his next collection.
“I always like to pick up where I left off,” he said, on the rare occasion of a day off following New York’s week-long fashion frenzy and a well-received collection inspired by dinosaurs. Knight says his fall/winter 2012 collection slated for February will be “super sexy and super feminine.
“Bigger, badder, better. Hell yes.”
Propelled to national fame after winning Project Runway’s Fan Favorite award in season three, Atlanta-based Knight boasts a lingerie label and a unisex fragrance along with his flagship fashion label. He is part of a small but enterprising group of African-American independent designers who have understood that a brand cannot be built on creativity alone.
Building a brand is like raising a child, Knight said. “I’m raising it and I want to make sure its integrity is maintained.”
Business acumen and long hours are essential ingredients – though not guarantees for success in the cutthroat fashion industry.
“No matter who you are, this industry is a roll of the dice,” Tim Gunn said in a recent article published in Essence magazine. The former chair of the fashion design department at Parsons’ New School For Design, Gunn now mentors budding designers on Bravo TV’s Project Runway.
While success in the fashion world may not display a racial bias, Essence writer Robin Givhan notes black designers seem to have a tougher time reaching international acclaim. “Considering that African-Americans are voracious consumers of fashion and rich sources of inspiration,” Givhan writes, “one can’t help but wonder why there aren’t more entrepreneurs like [Tracy] Reese.” Reese, 47, reigns over a successful and critically acclaimed fashion label donned by First Lady Michelle Obama, among others.
Emerging designers such as Knight and 28-year-old Brooklynite Samantha Black are hoping to fill this gap.
Black, whose New York Fashion Week show was attended by celebrities and trendsetters such as Solange Knowles and Gossip Girl’s Tika Sumpter, says she designs for the “tomboy in pumps,” the woman who likes to wear comfortable but feminine clothes. “I always like to play on the masculine/feminine,” Black said.
A Pratt Institute fashion design alumna, Black interned for fashion heavyweights Jill Stuart and Michael Kors and the late international fashion icon Alexander McQueen in his London design studio. But she didn’t just absorb their techniques and aesthetic — Black also developed a plan for the kind of brand she hopes to one day build.
Knight, who grew up in Germany, looks up to fashion giants Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren for brand-building inspiration, and calls Gianni Versace his “fashion fairy godfather.” He still remembers seeing Versace’s famous safety pin dress — the saucy black dress that propelled Liz Hurley to tabloid fame – for the first time in the 1990s. “It was the neatest thing ever,” Knight said.
Custom orders from artists such as Keri Hilson, Ashanti, Patti LaBelle and actress Jennifer Hudson have brought both Black and Knight’s designs into the limelight, but the success of their brands will be judged by their presence in retail. As Tracy Reese has learned, “there has to be a lot of value in the clothing for people to part with their money.”
Black, who worked as head designer of Aeropostale’s now defunct women’s denim line Jimmy’Z, said she’s willing to work hard, and that she got into the fashion business for the long haul.
“I don’t think Ill get sick of it,” she says.