The designer behind the viral "Trust Black Women" T-shirt talks to PEOPLE about her "pandemic pivot," making clothing as a call to action and what she hopes for the future of fashion

By Brittany Talarico
August 27, 2020 09:01 AM
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Credit: Reggie Cunningham

Like many entrepreneurs right now, Dionna Dorsey knows how important it is to be nimble with your business strategy, as she was forced to make her own "pandemic pivot" due to the unprecedented effects of COVID-19 on many small businesses.

Dorsey is the founder of Dionna Dorsey Design, a boutique design company that offers consultation on creative direction, brand strategy and graphic design.

Unfortunately, she experienced the crippling financial affects of the pandemic, leading her to switch gears and focus more full-time on her side hustle, District of Clothing, a lifestyle brand "encouraging progression, inspiring action and supporting self-love."

Credit: Reggie Cunningham

You've likely seen her inspiring designs pop-up on Instagram — District of Clothing's "Trust Black Women" range reflects on the current mood of the country in the wake of Breonna Taylor's murder and the racial unrest spreading across the nation.

And while wearing one of Dorsey's designs feels like a small act of social justice, it's also an endorsement of her Black-run business, something that she says humbles her as she reflects on her decades-long career in design, over the course of which she's had many highs and lows and experienced the effects of systemic racism.

Credit: Reggie Cunningham

Below, Dorsey opens up about running her own business in the pandemic climate and what she hopes is next for the future of fashion.

Have you always been interested in fashion? 

Yeah, absolutely. I think I was as young as maybe 7 or 8 years old when I first saw Audrey Hepburn in a film and my entire life changed. I wanted to know everything about her. That and having a love for coloring books sparked my passion for fashion.

I attended fashion design school in Milan. I was a fashion designer in New York City for almost six years until the economy tanked in 2008. I was eventually laid off and moved home to Washington D.C. where I thought I would be able to get a job quickly. That just wasn't the case. Since I couldn't get hired, I sort of had to hire myself.

How have you adjusted your platform to stay afloat, financially, during the pandemic? 

During the first week of March, I noticed a quick downturn in client requests and business at my company Dionna Dorsey Design. By the second week, I would say I was down 50%, and by the third week, I was down about 75-80%. I was like, "Okay I have to quickly do a pivot here." I was grateful that I had positioned myself years earlier with this side hustle, District of Clothing, to be able to have something to pivot to.

My first thought was, "Well, let's adjust the website." But I had this idea for a collection back in 2019 that I hadn't yet released. I thought to release it now because there's no time like the present.

What was the result?

I get emotional just thinking about it, but obviously we never imagined that we would be experiencing a global pandemic in 2020.We never imagined that people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor would be murdered. But seeing people wear Common Purpose, Trust Black Women, Dreamer/Doer and Do Not Touch the Artwork apparel lines that I've designed — while marching and protesting in the streets is such an honor.

Credit: Reggie Cunningham

District of Clothing is what I consider my little side hustle baby; the side hustle that's not a side hustle. It's very much a living, breathing, entity for me.

As a Black woman in the fashion industry, how have you experienced systematic racism?

I think there's so much to unpack here. I would definitely say that I remember being in my office and my coworkers confusing me with the other young Black woman every single day. I remember hearing the N-word multiple times on my first professional retreat.

Credit: Reggie Cunningham

I also remember not being paid appropriately, especially for some of the things that I was a part of. With that, I grew and learned. I understood what it meant to eventually own my own business. I'm just so thankful I had so many allies that were constantly helping me through each day as a designer in New York City.

How can the industry do better? 

If there's anything that needs to be retired right now in the fashion industry, it would be cultural appropriation and this performative sense of giving back and helping. Sometimes I see some of these brands that are making donations to various organizations or movements and I just chuckle. It's great, but I also know that's probably their party budget for 2021.

It is my hope that young women and young People of Color will continue to feel encouraged to keep moving forward from a creative perspective. And that they will see that if I did it, you can do it too.

What's something you would tell your teenage self? 

Oh my goodness. The first thing I would say is, "Whatever it is girl, you got it. Just keep believing in yourself and keep going." I would also probably tell her to stop plucking her eyebrows. I'm still trying to get these eyebrows back.

I think I would really tell myself, "You're going to be okay but you have to keep going. Don't let the fear stop you. And it is okay to pause, it is okay to sit down. It is okay to be still, it is okay to take some steps back but you just have to keep going."

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.

• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.