I just feel like a pixie goddess floating through life sometimes. No one believed Michelle when she told her friends and family back home in Providence, Rhode Island that she was going to pack her bags and move to a city she knew nothing of. She didn’t have any friends, she didn’t have any family, but she had the intuition that Chicago was going to be where dream as a fashion designer would begin. Five years later and a double bachelors degree in fashion design and fashion business from Colombia College, Michelle Janayea has made Chicago her home as well as her mark as the “Queer Black Pixie Goddess Fashion Activist.”
Tell us about your necklace collection.
Well they’re made out of oyster shells, and they’re all separated by the seven chakras. I was on vacation last summer and I was in Ocean Island, North Carolina on the beach, and it was a very spiritual experience because the people I was with were very spiritual. They told me how every time they came to North Carolina they could hear the slaves voices come out from the water. So I’m with this very spiritual black family, having a good time on the beach, and one day I literally see this ear on the ground and I’m like, woah that’s a shell. After I kept finding more and more I decided to pick up one or two. When I went to the beach house I was like, I can actually do something with these, so I went back to the beach and collected 200 shells.
Explain how you have them aligned with the 7 chakras.
So them being shells themselves the whole point of them is to listen to your inner spirit, listen to your heart, listen to what the universe is trying to tell you. So the ear is literally listening. I wanted to make jewelry, necklaces specifically, so they can hang over your throat chakra and heart chakra to enhance that. I didn’t want to just settle with just those two chakras because I wanted to be able to open up all the chakras. So I made a collection with 7 different sets of the 7 chakras, one of each color. Each set had a group of 20 inch necklaces, a pair of earrings, and a choker. The earrings and the chokers went fast! So now I have a bunch of 20 inch necklaces left. So the purpose was the way I had them set up for display. I set them up on a wall so you would see them all together as in a unit and the colors in rainbow like, and you would literally pick the one that resonated with you the most. So when you walked up to the one that was light blue, that would mean like, hey, maybe your throat chakra needs to be opened up more and that’s what’s calling to you; or you might walk up to an orange one and it might mean you need to open up your sacral chakra.
Are you currently doing in the fashion industry?
Well my interest in fashion is from a designer’s standpoint. I’m not into the fashion industry like high-end designers because for me a lot of that seems like corporate or big businesses taking ideas from people of color’s culture and making it into a trend. What I’m doing in fashion, specifically as a designer, is I’m trying to recreate what fashion looks like on an identity standpoint; where wearing things to express ourselves and for people that look like us. I wanna be able to put out a line of clothes for young people of color of all identities and to be like, this resonates with me more than that Gucci bag. So with that I’ve been doing a lot of reconstructing thrift store finds, things from people’s closets and painting on them and turning them into different pieces, all for the purpose of reusing fashion and not polluting the earth.
Explain what you mean when you identify yourself as a “Queer-Black-Pixie-Goddess-Fashion-Activist.”
I feel like at some point in my life with my personal identity being human was no longer interesting. I felt like real life was this fairy-tale, and me being a 23-year-old black woman living in Chicago none of it seemed real. I felt like I have pixie goddess powers! [laughs] I don’t know, I’m young, I’m black, I’m never gonna change my face, I’m always gonna look like I’m twelve and will always have this bouncy energy. I just feel like a pixie goddess floating through life sometimes.
When did you first get into fashion?
To me, I don’t know, but my mom always tells me this story of me being in kindergarten and after maybe the first week or so I had “threatened” my teacher saying that I was going to make her wedding dress “or else” because she was getting married [laughs]. And I guess that was my moms first account of me really wanting to be a designer. But I’ve always been drawing clothes my whole life and was the friend sitting on the bleachers drawing all of my friends’ future wedding dresses and brides maids dresses. That was me as a kid [laughs].
What made you be like, fuck it I’m gonna pursue this as a career?
That was a really complicated experience. Growing up in Rhode Island I went to a really small school that was technology driven. It was all math, science, law etc. So any art classes I wanted to take were usually after school programs. So I was at this technology school for seven years with literally no art classes! I was always taught that making clothes wasn’t always something to pursue as a career unless you’re some white person with a lot of money. For a long time I pushed it off, I was just going to get a business degree and my mom wanted me to go into banking because she works in the field. Then I tapped into a few other things; I did poetry for a bit and got into writing thinking that I would get into non-fiction or something. At the end of the day, my passion was always in what I wore and how I expressed my identity through clothing and physically creating things. With all those other avenues I tried out, there weren’t any tangible manifestations. I couldn’t create anything. With fashion its like a birthing process, I’m creating something new and it felt real. So I was like fuck it, I’m going to Chicago.
How did your family feel about that?
No one believed me at first! They were like, yeah sure Michelle is going to fashion school in Chicago. Then I flew out to orientation with my mom in June and when I got back everyone was like, yeah I’m sure you didn’t like it; it was too hot, you don’t wanna be out there it’s gonna get cold. Then I had a little going away party and packed up my mom’s Jeep and my cousins were like, you’re really getting on the road huh? I’m like, yo I have a whole Jeep packed! I spent $200 on a fucking college bedroom set, this is real. [laughs].
Why do you think fashion activism is a good way to deliver a message?
‘Cause I think activism is a lot deeper than the law, than fighting against all the powers that be. It’s a lot deeper than protesting. Activism is embedded in our every day lives. Everything we do is activism. When we wake up in the morning and what we decide to do next, how we spend our money, and what we wear is all activism. So for me it was like, for one, being queer, people don’t see me as that first, they see me as a black woman. I wanted to figure out how I could express myself deeper than that. How do I get people to see the deeper me beyond a surface level. So putting my identity onto clothing just seemed like a good idea. So I started painting on coats. On one of them I put, ‘Black queer triple pixie goddess’ on the back with my zodiac sign and random things. It felt good wearing it around and for people to look at me and know who I am. From there I wanted everyone to feel like this and to be able to put on their identity with pride.
What got you interested in activism?
What got me into activism would be my queer identity and when I first came to terms that I was gay. Living in Rhode Island I expressed that by joining Rhode Island’s marriage equality headquarter throughout my senior year of high-school. I did a lot of canvasing door-to-door, participated in Town Hall meetings, a lot of protests, sit ins and things like that. It felt good to be able to fight for the things that were about me and would benefit me one day. When I got to Chicago it got deeper. I joined the LGBTQ organization in college my first semester of freshman year. By the second semester of my freshman year I was the Political Advisory Chair, so I put together political events, marriage equality walks around campus in fake wedding gowns, you know, just political stuff. By my junior year I was the President of the organization so a lot of my college years were spent in activism in being queer identified person. Then I threw in my blackness when the Black Lives Matters movement happened and the world started going crazy. It got deeper than me being queer, now I got to represent as a strong black queer woman and that is where my activism is right now.
With all that is happening in the black community, what do you think is the best way for us to maintain our sanity?
Definitely to stay grounded. To meditate and figure out who you are on the inside and your most authentic self. For my last collection I did a small collection of denim vests for an AMFM Magazine event, and they had a company called Runway Addicts, I think it’s a fashion blog, sponsor me to have denim sent. So I cut up a bunch of denim in all different sizes and painted on them, but the whole purpose of it was to say, who are you? Who is your authentic self? Do you live in your authentic self? Can you be your authentic self every day? And I think that message is what we really need in order to get back to the real issues, because we really cant do anything unless everybody’s on the same page together. Right now the world is on so many different pages and my goal in fashion with activism is to bring everybody on the same page by first figuring out who you are and wearing that strong, so that you can move on to the bigger issues as a whole.
Tell us about your AMFM Magazine show.
It was my first official show. Everything I’ve done before with my jewelry was pretty small and was part of a collective with other people also showing their pieces; but the AMFM show was my own. It was just me. There were other musical performers but I was the only solo visual designer. It was about a week long process. I got the denim and I spent three days making the patterns for the vest , then two days cutting the fabric pieces, and then two days pinning them onto the wall space and painting them, then the final day was the actual show. The day of the show I was live sewing the pieces together as people picked them off the wall. Each piece had a different motif painted on the backs like, “Who are you?” “I see you” “You are loved.” Just uplifting positive affirmations.
What do you want to see your fashion business growing into?
I definitely want to build a lifestyle brand. I want to go into more than just making clothes, I like jewelry as well and other accessories. I want to curate an entire wardrobe for identities that you can pick and choose from. I am also really getting into installation art and having fashion as an installation. Like imagine going into a museum and being able to pick your clothes from there, that’s what I want my brand to be.
In what ways are black women shaking up the fashion scene?
I’ve definitely seen a lot more black designers out there. At first it was men but I think women are starting to take hold of the scene now because there were only so many things that black men can design for black women, and so many other things other races can design for black women. We know ourselves better. We know our body shape, what we wanna wear, what’s comfortable for us, and more importantly what looks good on our skin tones.
How important is it for black people to support black business?
OHH MY GOD it’s thee number one most important thing ever. I honestly don’t think there’s anything more important thank black on black businesses supporting each other. It’s the only way for us to build up our community. It’s one thing in being grounded and knowing yourself, but the next step after that is to support other people who also know themselves and other people who don’t know themselves because you want to help them get to where you’re at. We need to support each other on all ends: whether its just personally on a friendship level or taking care of people in your family, or the way you spend money in making sure other black business owners can feed their families. It’s all about who you give your money to. By doing that your also giving back to yourself because we are one.
Tell us about your natural hair journey?
Let me just say that right now it is hard for a girl with an afro and a fashion degree to get a job out here in these streets! My natural hair journey has been an entire process. My entire life I wore my hair straight because the way my culture is, Cape Verdean, which is pretty much African and Portuguese, and my mom very much has that Portuguese blood. So growing up with a single parent and only child, me and my mom went every week to get our hair straightened. So my entire life I had straight hair, I’ve always wanted curly hair but the only time I ever saw it was when I was getting my hair washed. Then I got to college and saw so many beautiful natural women. I started off by not relaxing it. So my new growth started coming in. Then I would do small “big chops” [laughs] cutting of the straight part of my hair because I wasn’t ready to do the actual “big chop.” Then finally one day I was like just do it and cut my hair really really short. So I’ve been wearing it curly and growing it out for the past two years now and havent straightened it for the past four years. I just love it.
What advice would you give young women who are looking to start their own fashion business?
Just go for it. One of the things that I was taught in college is that in the fashion world there only one of two ways to move up: you either start from the bottom up if you have a whole lotta money, or you intern for someone and you work your way to the top. I really think interning for someone and working your way to the top being one of the only options is complete BS. If you have an idea and the motivation to produce it, just go for it. I picked these off the ground, like these are shells *holds up her shell necklaces.* It’s not something I spent thousands of dollars on. They tell you it takes all this money to be a fashion designer when that’s not true. You can use anything around you.
Is this where you imagined yourself at this age?
Honestly I don’t know where I would have pictured myself ’cause for a very long time I was shocked that I was still in Chicago. After I graduated I was like what do I do next? I got a job at Bloomingdales and I didn’t like it. I did not like the big fashion scene and had found other opportunities so I quit my job…but then those opportunities also did not work out. So since the beginning of this year I’ve been freelancing. And every day I wake up like, wow I’m still here. I would have never imagined myself freelancing my jewelry and selling it through my square reader. This is my life now. At some point I might have pictured myself working for a brand or interning for someone but like I said, I feel like that’s the dream that they put into my head.
What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
My 20-year-old self? Oh my gosh…DON’T GET THAT CREDIT CARD GIRL! Don’t let money try to control you. Just follow your dreams and stop tryna be like everybody else.
What’s your favorite thing about Chicago?
My favorite thing about Chicago is how black it is. Rhode Island isn’t very black, and I can honestly say that I didn’t find my blackness until I got to Chicago. So my favorite thing is being surrounded by so many black people who know they are black and love being black and love teaching other black people how to be black. It’s a very positive and loving vibe.
Check out Michelle’s original designs on her Etsy store here, and follow her on Instagram to see more of her work and her cool pixie goddess eyebrows @michjanayea. More info about Michelle on her site here.