Ethnicity: African American
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Business Headquarters: Brooklyn, New York
Since its official launch in September 2009, Tennille McMillian’s Nakimuli Inc. has been wooing women all over the world with its jazzy African-inspired prints and eye-dazzling designs. Her bold cuts, colors and patterns put this Brooklyn-bred go-getter in a lane of her own; and boy, is she pushing the limit! No doubt, she’s mean with a pin and a needle, so that explains why Tennille pretty much has the game sewn up. But guess what? This is only the beginning.
CM: ‘Nakimuli’ is a really unique name. What inspired you to give your clothing line that stamp?
Tennille: Nakimuli is one of my middle names. It’s Ugandan and it means flower. My family is from the South but my godmother found the name in a baby book and thought it was appropriate. A friend suggested I use it when designing clothing was just a thought. But I think it was a good idea since my line combines inspiration from African cultures, and of course, American culture.
I think the level of passion you have for creating is evident in your work. Where does your love for designing come from?
I have always had my own sense of style since I was young. And I always loved being creative. (I graduated from college with a degree in dance.) After graduating high school at 16, I began to teach myself how to sew and loved the process of being able to create something from scratch with my hands.
What inspired you to start your own business?
I was laid off in December 2007 and always wanted to start my own clothing line, but I wasn’t sure how and was very scared to since my income was very limited to unemployment benefits. So in 2008, I opened my store online on Etsy and began posting clothing for sale here and there, very inconsistently. Then one day in September 2009, my uncle just said, ‘I’m taking you to get your business incorporated.’ And that was the push I needed to really think of designing clothes as something serious and to figure out, by any means necessary, how to make a living from it.
How long would you say it took before Nakimuli really sailed off?
Even though I was scared, it actually took off immediately. I released a pseudo collection in November 2009, put it up on Facebook, and people began to inquire and then buy things. In March 2010, I released my first real collection and it was a hit. I gained a lot of fans and customers from that collection and began to get emails from women who wanted to intern with me. It was overwhelming because just a few months prior I was receiving unemployment benefits and now I was paying my rent with the money I was earning selling my designs.
How and why do you think your designs became so popular?
I think my designs spoke to people because it was different; I was modeling them and my look was rather unique at the time. I was mixing bright African prints with spandex fabrics and the end result was very Brooklyn, very raw and off the beaten path, and I think people could feel the authentic love I had in my designs.
Speaking of those vibrant fabrics of yours, I don’t think I’ve ever seen your patterns anywhere else. Do you make them yourself, or do you deal with an exclusive fabric-designer?
We make about 25% of our prints, hopefully by next year it will be closer to 50%. The other 75%, we are just very good at finding prints that fit our aesthetic.
What inspired the Afro-centrism in your designs?
I have always had a certain level of ‘consciousness,’ and that is reflected in many aspects of my life, including what I designed [when I first started sewing]. However, a year after I graduated from college, I began working for my mentor, Brenda Brunson-Bey, and her designs are very Afrocentric. I worked for her for three years, so I guess you can say her aesthetic has influenced my work. But because I was already creating Afrocentric garments prior to working with her, I do believe that our vibrations led us to each other. She was, and continues to be, a great teacher and mentor.
As a woman whose weight fluctuates, I know it can sometimes be hard to find cute clothing in your size when you’re on the thicker side. So it’s refreshing to see lines like yours that cater to bigger women, and are fashionable at the same time. What made you decide to include plus sizes in Nakimuli?
I’m not plus-size, but of course, I have people close to me who are. My mentor’s clientele is predominantly plus-size, so when I worked there she allowed me to sell my designs so I would make a few plus-size pieces here and there. But it wasn’t until years later that I decided to include plus sizes in my line. I had a friend, Tammi, who kept asking me to make stuff for her; she was a 1X at the time. So she kinda was my guinea pig. Around the same time, I would always get emails from plus-size fans who wanted me to carry a bigger size range. So it was those two things that made me decide to venture into plus-size.
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