Why this up-and-coming fashion designer moved from NYC back to Charlotte

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Take one step into 27-year-old fashion and textile designer Victoria Strayhorn’s home studio and you’ll get workplace envy. Light streams in through skylights and spills across a spacious desk and table bordered by inspiration boards and sketches, then spills farther across a plump couch and racks of clothing cut into high-fashion form.

Strayhorn just competed in Charleston Fashion Week last week, one of 16 emerging designers selected from 600 applicants. She has a bachelor’s degree in fashion design from Savannah College of Art and Design and has worked with fashion companies ranging from Ralph Lauren, to LF USA, to Calvin Klein. Not to mention a history of working insane hours.

Victoria Strayhorn

So why did she move back to Charlotte at age 25 to start her own small business, Victoria Cullinan?

“I think I needed a more sustainable lifestyle,” Strayhorn said. “I mean New York is wonderful, and it is great for a creative mind, but I also just needed a space to breathe and explore again. Because it can be a little overstimulating and Charlotte just created a safe space for me to calm down, relax.”

It helps that Strayhorn is a Charlotte native, and she was able to slip back into her parents’ household — for the time being. Her studio is above her parents’ garage (it has lived other lives as a playroom, dance room and workout room) and is filled with the contents of her former Brooklyn apartment.

This is a good space to be. Charlotte is where her love for fashion was born.

“My mom always challenged me in the arts,” Strayhorn said. “She always knew I wanted to be a working artist.”

She used to get creative with her ballet costumes.

“I would take them apart and put them back together and make all these new ideas,” Strayhorn said.

At SCAD, she studied fibers and textile design, learning how to create the fabric as well the garment.

“In order to create what you really envision, you sort of have to start from the ground up,” she said.

With her female-focused brand, Victoria Cullinan (Cullinan is her South African family name), she wants women who wear her clothes to feel empowered, beautiful and confident. The brand started with a focus on custom clothes and custom couture for special events, tapping into a niche market.

“I want you to feel that you are exactly who you’re meant to be,” said Strayhorn, who operates as a one-woman show.

Her vision for the eight fall collection looks she presented during Charleston Fashion Week last Thursday was inspired by a rough stretch in her life, coupled with her admiration for kintsugi, the Japanese art form in which broken pieces of pottery are glued back together with a resin and a gold dust.

“I love the philosophy of taking something that’s broken and making it whole, and also adding more value to it,” Strayhorn said. “I felt like my clothes would be able to relate to others in that sense.”

Her angle-heavy, pieced-together fall looks speak to her love for natural fibers, too, featuring silks, wools and a focus on sustainable fashion.

To sustain her business, Strayhorn also juggles freelance technical work, mostly focused on athleisure, for other companies in Charlotte and Atlanta.

She’s uncertain how long she’ll stick around the Charlotte fashion scene, which is a lot smaller than New York’s. But she sees a lot of change happening here.

“People are coming here, moving here, and they are seeking fashion and they are seeking high fashion,” she said.

Regardless of where she ends up, Strayhorn has one other vision: Using her work to connect people nationwide, even worldwide. She dreams of finding ways to work with artisans in other parts of the world, from weavers in India to beadworkers in Uganda.

“The brand that I would like to establish is something that creates ripples within the community of women,” she said. “Fashion can make such a positive impact, including people that need work, or want to work, or want to create.”

Photos: Johnathon Baillet, Rockie Nolan

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