Thursday, July 5, 2018

Independent Designer Stitches Perfect Fit in Fickle Fashion Industry


Cherika Hart-Ratchford, owner of "Designs by Estell" models one of the recent editions to her summer collection. Her inspiration to launch the business came after being mentally and physically exhausted but energized by her skills and support. "My husband said my health was more important than anything and with that, I started my plan." 
Photo by:  Darrell Moye.

Gone are the days of Black History Month at schools and churches around the country being the only time you catch a glimpse of Afro-centric or Afro-inspired designs. It is not uncommon to see celebrities at events throughout the year going outside of the norm, opting to flaunt elaborate and electrifying designs that give even some of the most renowned fashion experts breathless.  “When it comes to fashion, everyone wants something not everyone will have on,” said Cherika Hart-Ratchford, owner of “Designs by Estell.”  

The gap in the retail industry for clothing with an Afro-centric twist for the fashion-savvy and frugal shopper who wants the allure, specific, regal tones, and red carpet awe, designers like Nicole Miller, Vera Wang, and Tory Burch consistently deliver, is no secret.  It is exactly why Hart-Ratchford has no problem balancing the supply and demand, successfully. The independent business owner personally sketches, sews, and ships exactly what her customers want and what she knows they cannot get at signature retail outlets. “Trendy African prints are easy to just make.”
Hart-Ratchford models her original design of a female version of a necktie. The Pinkie Belle is one of her most popular items. Photo by: Darrell Moye. 
Statement T-shirts, monogrammed clutches, flowing or fitted skirts, wraps, scarves, pants, dresses, if you can wear it or accent it, she can make it. The Pinkie Belle is by far the most popular piece she’s designed. “It looks like a skirt around your neck,” Hart-Ratchford said.  “You wear it with a collard-shirt. I wanted something women can wear like a man and I started drawing and cutting from there.”

“I was always crazy about clothes,” she said. She was not as excited about the process she’d seen her grandmother Estell, a well-known seamstress, precisely do flawlessly. “I was afraid of the sewing machine,” Hart-Ratchford said. “Looking at it as a kid, seeing the fabric go through the machine terrified me.” Being terrified of not fully tapping into her passion and potential pushed Hart-Ratchford out the door of her 9-to-5 in 2016. “While working at the insurance company, I felt myself sinking mentally,” she said. “I wasn’t able to do things with the kids because my mind was always at work.”

Feeling marginalized in a cubicle set the tone for the momentum to step away and do what seemed impossible on some level. She was strategic.  “I had to have my house in order financially,” she said. “For two years I saved.”  Also, during that period, unlike some small businesses that use crowd-sourcing, investors or grants to start their road to success, Hart-Ratchford took a different route. “People sent donations to me just because to buy things I may need,” she said.

While she had family members willing to wear anything she made, to get to the next level and expand her brand, the Bethel University graduate faced a hard fact. The fashion industry is brutal, especially when it comes to a new or emerging designer. She named the company “Designs by Estell” in honor of her late grandmother. “I owed it to my grandmother,” she said.

To minimize skepticism about the quality and originality of her work, Hart-Ratchford took two major steps. “I wanted to perfect what I didn’t understand and learn how to create my own patterns and not just use commercial patterns.” A six-month online sewing class also helped sharpen her skills and introduced her to the art of personalizing each garment.
After Hart-Ratchford signs handwritten thank-you notes and seals packages, Josh, Hart-Ratchford's 9-year-old son, routinely stands in line and ships packages to customers. 
The intense training coupled with her intuition to give customers an experience and not just an electronic transaction is a combination of her acute understanding of the fashion industry and a commitment to exceptional customer service. “I give every customer a handwritten thank-you note,” she said.

She may want to thank Marvel Studios one day.  Her business model and popularity met exceptional profits in February that surprised Hart-Ratchford. When “Black Panther” hit theaters, sales tripled for anything Hart-Ratchford created.

According to the Small Business Association, women own nearly 10 million businesses across America. Add that encouraging statistic to what experts predict is an emerging billion dollar e-commerce market with an unprecedented need for African-themed fashion, it’s easy to see how and why “Designs by Estell” has an impressive chance of avoiding becoming a dream deferred.
Satisfied "Designs by Estell" customers like Tyrecia Dawes often proudly pose and post photos on social media promoting their latest, hottest, jaw-dropping haute couture. Photo courtesy of Cherika Hart-Ratchford.
Who are you wearing? Whether it’s the red carpet, the runway or the royal court, the Memphis native hopes one day, when a celebrity is asked that question, “Designs by Estell” is the answer. In the meantime, while she continues to succeed by filling a garment gap, Hart-Ratchford’s considering evolving into the skin care world with a line of beauty products. To see a full inventory or perhaps inquire about your distinctive look, log onto

Cherika Hart-Ratchford’s story is one of several weekly stories you’ll see here throughout July,  as part of “How Did She…?” The series will focus on women who are defying the odds in various industries.

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