First Year Fashion Icon
Michaiyla Carmichael ’21 is a political science major finishing up her first year on the NYC Campus, and she already debuted her original designs at Harlem Fashion Week.
Michaiyla Carmichael ’21 is a political science major and the designer behind For the Culture Couture, a revolutionary fashion brand that celebrates black empowerment with unique, stylish designs. Her work recently debuted in the Harlem Fashion Week show last fall on Fifth Avenue, and her designs rocked New York Fashion Week in the best way possible. She generated a ton of press, sparked a necessary discussion, and inspired countless artists the world over for her enthusiastic celebration of black culture.
We were delighted to get the chance to sit down with Carmichael to find out what it was like to work behind the scenes during Fashion Week, from hiring models to meeting the press to walking the runway. Carmichael’s been busy as a first year student, and we’re so excited to see where she goes next!
Tell us about your work.
Basically, I started painting on jackets for my high school exhibition last year for my art class. I loved working with different mediums, so I thought to myself, “Textiles are different, let me throw that in.” Ever since then, I’ve gotten messages from people asking if I could make them one. It was a little costly at first, but I started thrifting. I’d take thrifted items and come up with this vision in my head of the design, and then I’d just run with it. Most of my paintings are about black history and black empowerment, and my work got a lot of attention during Black History Month. Then Harlem Fashion Week, which was my first show and it was really exciting.
How did you get involved with the show?
It’s actually a funny coincidence! My floormate’s mother was a hairstylist and cosmetologist for the Harlem Fashion Week shows, and she’d been doing it for a couple of years. I had done like two very small intimate shows, so I knew a little bit, but this was a bigger deal. My friend’s mom told him that they were having an open casting call for designers in order to get more local artists involved. For a big show like that, the spots get snatched up from people all over the world, so they wanted to get more local designers in.
I only had a week or two before the actual casting to get my portfolio together and have pictures taken. I asked my friend Nina if she could do a shoot for me, then I created a whole portfolio website the night before I went to the casting. When I got there, it was all really fast, and they were like, “Yeah, we want you in it.” That was right before winter break, and then I was working all day, every day, and it was very stressful—probably one of the most stressful, yet rewarding things I’ve ever done.
When I went to our model casting a couple weeks before the show, I had to line people up and have them try stuff on and walk for me. When I was choosing the models, I thought it was great because I had the opportunity to give other people an opportunity and I thought that was something I could get used to. But it was actually really difficult having to choose between so many talented people and having to say no to some.
The actual show was an unreal experience, and it definitely changed my life. I got amazing feedback, my show sold out (VIP tickets went for $200 to $300!), I had a whole press pit, celebrities attended, and I didn’t even know I would get to walk after my models went out. That was so scary, but amazing. There were all these flashes in your face, and afterwards too because we (me and my assistant) had to go straight down to the press area. I got to choose my friend Lay Paris to assistant me. She was a big help with getting everything and everyone organized. I even had my own personal photographer.
What motivated you to do the show?
Me, wanting the world to see my stuff. I wanted as many people as possible to see it. There was so much exposure. I knew that that was really something I could do to put my name and my brand out there. I think since my pieces make very big statements—a lot of them very political in—it was perfect timing, because that’s another reason why it was grabbing so much attention. My designs are political, and it was making a statement that a lot of people at the show were agreeing with. Even if you didn’t agree with it, it still caught your eye.
What inspired you to start the clothing line?
I have a lot of things that inspired For the Culture Couture, and it all comes from black history. I try to put a piece of black culture into every piece. I’m a political science major, so obviously politics is a big deal to me, and I’m a part of a few different committees and coalitions, so that definitely played a huge role. It was also kind of my journey of teaching myself black history. There’s a lot that’s just excluded from our curriculum, and I see all of my pieces as a learning opportunity because I get questions about my pieces and what they mean. Many of my pieces are red, black, and green, which is inspired by Marcus Garvey, who’s one of the biggest figures of the civil rights movement. A lot of people have seen those designs and said, “Oh, that’s Gucci!” No. It’s not Gucci, it’s Marcus Garvey.
One jacket that caught a lot of attention was orange, and on the back it stated very clearly, “Co-Intel Pro vs. The People.” A lot of people don’t know about where that comes from. Co-intel was the counter intelligence infiltration into all of the black leaders during the civil rights movement.
I’ve been really advocating for the awareness of political prisoners held in the US, and it’s a very heavy topic, so I think that it needs to be talked about. Most of the pieces I create are to facilitate a conversation. Problems don’t go away if you just ignore them—you have to make a change through controversial pieces. There needs to be controversy in order for there to be progress.
If you could give advice to the students reading this right now, what would you tell them?
Don’t doubt yourself. There’s been instances where I’ll take on all of these tasks and responsibilities and I wonder how I can achieve any of it. The fact is: you don’t know, but you do it anyway because you love it. Pursue your passions. Put as much belief into yourself as you do in your dreams. Sell it to yourself first by saying: I don’t know if this is going to work, but I’m going to make it work. You also have to put yourself in a position where you’re surrounded by people who are going to support you and be there to help you, because there’s going to be times when you’re super stressed out and need support.
Tell us a surprising fact about you that most people don’t know.
I love Disney World. It’s one of my favorite places in the world! I could go there so many times and never get sick of it. My family has a tradition that no matter what’s going on, we will make it to Disney World once a year to forget our worries and be kids again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been there, but every time I go, there’s something new that I’ve never done or seen and it never gets old to me and my family. I love it!
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