Essence Festival marketplace creates community as it encourages commerce

The Essence Festival marketplace is an intimate part of the experience that focuses on black artisans and businesses, a perfect complement to the large-scale corporate presence at the 19-year-old black culture experience.

Amid a series of booths presented side by side with giant brands’ elevated stages, small black businesses are able to access the huge crowds drawn to the popular three-day event.

Charlene Spence, co-founder of Brooklyn-based dress company Michelle New York (which also focuses on bridal wear), finds the Essence Festival to be a huge boon to her bottom line. She and her partner have been making the trek to New Orleans for two years.

“The response is usually amazing,” Spence told theGrio. “We know to come prepared. And it’s a huge crowd. You have to come with a lot of energy.”

Spence said the Essence Festival marketplaces is special, due to the unique opportunity it presents to make black women feel gorgeous. “One thing we make sure of is that everyone feels beautiful in what we bring, because everyone here is so many different sizes, and shapes, and you want to make everyone feel beautiful.

“We have a great time meeting everyone from all the different places,” Spence added.

Lardell Martin, an artist from Atlanta, also travels from a distant major metro to the Essence Festival for the perfect selling atmosphere. Not only does Martin sell a lot of his sculptures of ceramics and glass, he is also able to meet with many of his collectors from the New Orleans area.

“It’s bringing all of us together,” Martin mused about the Essence Festival, “and makes sure that we commerce among each other. For the last eight years that I’ve done it, it’s been a beautiful thing, so I just enjoy it. The people are beautiful. The attraction is nice, and the staff of Essence is just great for us. They make us feel really welcome.”

Bridgeja Baker, 15, creates handmade jewelry with natural gem stones, fresh water pearls and crystals. The New Orleans native started her business at the age of ten, and has featured her pieces at the Essence Festival marketplace every year for the last five years. She is one of many local vendors, Baker said, out of the dozens that come to the Essence Festival every year. These craftspeople sell everything from clothing to soap, jewelry, art and more.

“I love Essence,” Baker said of the experience. “It’s great people.” Baker, who has also been featured in Black Enterprise for her entrepreneurial acumen, added: “I’m inspiring others, and I’m glad that I am able to do that.”

The Essence Festival marketplace not only provides a space for commerce, but also for community and raising black consciousness.

Tameka Selders has had her company Brown Baby for eight years. Founded when she was living in Chicago, the mother and teacher — now based in Dallas — started the clothing brand to empower brown-skinned children.

“I constantly see what little children deal with as far as self-esteem is concerned, and I also know what I deal with myself,” Selders told theGrio.

Selders, who said she had a “very, very light-skinned mother, and a very, very dark-skinned father,” experienced mixed messages from the different sides of her family regarding her beauty.

“One side thought I was too dark, and needed to do something to my hair, and my father’s side of the family thought I was the most beautiful thing to ever grace the earth,” Selders remembered. “So I just decided that I wanted to do something that celebrated brown children exactly the way they are.”

Selders’ Brown Baby separates, emblazoned with positive mottos and cute illustrations of brown kids, sell well to the Essence Festival crowd — and provide a spark for important conversations.

“I had a conversation the year before last with a mother at Essence,” Selders elaborated. “She said, ‘I just need you to help me understand why is it important for me to acknowledge anything brown about my brown children, because I don’t do that. I just think they’re people. We don’t talk about color, or hair. I just don’t do that.’ So she and I had this long conversation. She thought she was rearing colorblind children. I said, ‘Some children can be colorblind, but our children can’t, because somebody is going to remind them at some time in their life about their color.’ It’s just everywhere.”

Selders, through the message of her brand, made an impact on this mother that changed her perspective — and that alone was worth it.

“So she emailed me later saying, ‘Oh my God, you really helped me with understanding this whole thing,'” the vendor said. “She didn’t buy anything, but she and I had a deep conversation just based on what she saw here. So that was really rewarding.”

For Selders, the Essence Festival marketplace, where she has been selling her t-shirts, onesies, and other printed pieces for six years, is the perfect forum for her empowering message. It fits in well with the universal vibe of mutual support that the Essence Festival martketplace provides its vendors.

“Every year it’s just phenomenal to see so many people,” Selders said. “It’s just like a family reunion. I think everybody embraces everybody’s gifts and everybody’s supportive and loving. I enjoy it every year.”

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.