A career in fashion design was far from Tamara Lytch’s mind when she called her mother from college in 1995 wanting to borrow a sewing machine.
“I wanted long, flowy maxi skirts that you couldn’t find in the store,” the former North Carolina A&T State University student recalled. “I told her that I wanted to start making clothes, and that’s how it began.”
As this story goes, the “it” refers to T. Shanell Designs, a Charlotte fashion house that boasts of making custom clothing for entertainers and ordinary folks alike. Lytch said her celebrity list includes Erica and Tina Campbell of the gospel duo Mary Mary, gospel singer Tasha Cobb, R&B recording artist Fantasia Barrino, comedian Sommore and celebrity stylist Goo Goo Atkins (Mary Mary’s sister).
Although Lytch has been in business for 16 years, she doesn’t have a storefront. Instead, she works inside a sewing room in a large building on Albemarle Road. (She sells her clothing from a website: http://www.shoptshanell.com.)
Over the years, Lytch said, she has shut down the business several times because of burned out. But now that she’s delegating more, she said, conditions are much better.
Q. How did you come up with the name for your brand, and how important is it to select a name that clients will respond to?
Well, the new name is my birth name. I always loved my maiden name. …You go through 70 transitions when you’re young, trying to find yourself and your voice. I went through a lot of different names. I was Venus Phli for a long time. That was my first designer line. I was doing the young, fun, funky stuff—the wow factor for the young girls that’s going to the club, and that transitioned as I got older. I wanted to do something that I stood for at that age, and that’s when I came up with T. Shanell. I think a solid name is really important because it creates a signature for yourself. That’s what I’ve learned over the last 3 years when I started branding my name and my business — that’s what people relate to. They can see it, and they relate to me and my product.
Q. How did celebrities find out about your designs?
It’s always been word of mouth and a blessing since I’ve been in this business. It’s never been me like searching or looking for anything. It’s definitely that someone told this person and then this person told someone else. It couldn’t have been anything but God. I really didn’t know how people were finding me. In the beginning, I was in a small corner store in Charlotte.
Q. How did you meet Goo Goo?
At the time, my ex-husband was getting on me because he said that I didn’t pay attention to client detail pertaining to my website. So I went in and did a catalog of all of my buyers and realized that most of the purchasers were from the gospel market. I said aloud, “Wow, we need to get into the gospel arena. We need some of these singers to purchase my products.” Literally, less than 48 hours from that, Kym Lee called. I didn’t even know that she placed an order on my site. I didn’t know who she was. Turns out, she was Mary Mary’s make-up artist. She mentioned my name to Goo-Goo, and Goo Goo contacted me needing orders immediately. We hit it off instantly. She contacted me for the Steller Awards red carpet ceremony. I was right on the red carpet. I ended up dressing Group Therapy, and they won 10 awards. Next thing I know, all the artist started following me on social media.
Q. How do you select your materials? Do you use a local manufacturer?
It’s a combination. I do have manufacturers that are local, and then it depends on what the products are for the season. Currently, I’m working with a lot of stretch knits and ponte knits. Most of my stuff is coming from up North, or Atlanta. I’m very hands-on in that department. I like to pick out my own fabric. I want to make sure that it’s good quality. I have a lot of plus-sized clients, so I’d like to know if it’s something that they love. Can they wear all their undergarments under it? I think about that whole process when I’m picking out fabrics.
Q. Are plus-size designs something that came along with the territory?
It just came along with the territory. I’ve always had plus-sized women since I started sewing. They’ve always come to me because it’s difficult to find a clothing line that carries quality clothing. I make up to a certain size, so if the person goes to my website and the size isn’t there, they can get it customized. That’s worked out really well, giving them the variety. It’s been a natural progression.
Q. Why don’t we see mainstream in African American designs like we see Tori Burch?
I honestly feel like African American designers might not know how to market themselves sometimes or the proper way to get their foot in the door. I’ve researched blacks a lot, as far as being designers, and I feel like somewhere in the process of becoming what we think is the ultimate, or the icons and fashion houses, I think we lose a part of ourselves. We try so hard to try and fit into stereotypes of what fashion is, that we lost the very thing that made us in the first place. Sometimes we feel we can’t put a black girl in a dress because it’s urban. But if you put a white person in the same dress, it’s considered fashion. I also believe that blacks are trying to survive and take care of families—they can’t afford to get the things they need. I also think that we under-sale ourselves.
Q. What’s your definition of fashion?
Being authentic to yourself. …I feel like it doesn’t matter where you are in your personal growth experience; you have to be true to that. Don’t follow the trends. The trends will be here today and gone tomorrow. If you stay true to what you love and what you feel good in, it’s going to always look good on you.
Q. Describe your personal style?
I feel that it’s eclectic. I can go in my closet and sometimes I may pull out the classic black dress, Louboutin’s, and other times I may pull out the dashiki dress and wooden heels. I have a good variety. Now, especially, because I have my own pieces, I feel I’ve transitioned through style. I went through the stages of African print, spikes and chains. It just depends on what my personality is in the moment. I think it’s good because you’re creative and when you create, you’re all over the place.
Q. What can we expect from your summer and spring collection?
Bright and big ruffles. I’m coming down off the ruffles because, for the last few seasons, I was a ruffle fanatic. Everything was big and dramatic. Now, we still have a little touch of ruffles on the sleeves, back of the dress or on the collar. Now, we’re getting into what I’m thinking about for the fall. I’m so over fringe. I think that I was doing fringe for the last two or three years. Although it might not have been out as long, I was doing it then. I think fringe should be done as an accessory. That’s what my thing is now. I know that we’re going to be really heavy with it coming out of the summer and into the fall.
Q. You said that you had a store before, so why downsize to a sewing shop?
It was time to make that transition. My sewing shop was doing so much volume compared to the store. At the time, it was too much. I was sewing to keep inventory. I was sewing to keep up with orders online as well as wholesale orders. It was a lot. At the time I didn’t have manufactures. I had Fantasia, which took up 70 percent of my time, and five boutiques that ordered from the site. Now that things have gotten under control, I’m looking to get another store.
Q. What other projects are you working on?
I have a mentoring program called “She Speaks.” I’ll start working with young girls and finding their voice. It’ll be different people in the industry. I have a lot of girlfriends in the industry, and that’s their same focus. We’re finding the common thread through everybody… We wanted to come together and help these young girls think better and beyond their circumstances. This started at the storefront when I was on the Plaza and off Eastway (Venus Phli). I heard some of the most interesting conversations. It was a blessing for me to be there, and then again, it was heartbreaking because it put you right in the middle of what’s going on in your community. We’re also working on Southeast Fashion Alliance; it’s a resource center for young and aspiring designers.