Black Russian Label: How designer paves way for Black artists

Born in Accra, Ghana, on the western coast of Africa to a Nigerian father and a Russian mother, Joanna de’Shay said the Black Russian Label is a genuine extension of who she is — the “quintessential black Russian.”

“I’m just pleased that I get to do what I love now, but it didn’t start that way,” said de’Shay, a Phoenix resident, international fashion designer and creative director of the women’s contemporary fashion brand Black Russian Label

It’s a clothing line that is filled with beauty and inspiration, according to de’Shay, and so is the story of how it all began.

Joanna de’Shay, founder of Black Russian Label, poses for a photo at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on Feb. 26, 2024.
Kayla Jackson/The Republic

From corporate America to building a childhood dream

When de’Shay founded Black Russian Label, she was in her 30s, but her interest in fashion started when she was a little girl. She said she often drove her mom crazy cutting up pieces of her clothes and shoes to create outfits while she was growing up.

Her appreciation for fashion was often discouraged by her parents, especially once she and her family moved to Phoenix in the summer of 1985.

“You have to understand that I have immigrant parents, and both have master’s degrees in civil engineering,” de’Shay said. “So when you go to parents, immigrant parents that are civil engineers, and say, ‘I’m going to do fashion!” they say, ‘I’m sorry, what?'”

Without her parents’ support, de’Shay eventually strayed away from design and went with a more “practical” approach to her life and career, opting for a bachelor’s degree in family and human development from Arizona State University and immediately entering the corporate workforce upon graduating in 1995. For 15 years, de’Shay worked at what is now AT&T’s community marketing department.

“I worked in corporate America for about 15 years right when I graduated because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” de’Shay said jokingly.

Ten years into the position, de’Shay said she started experiencing what she described as existential anxiety, which stemmed from thinking about working that job for the rest of her life.

“After a while, I was like, ‘What am I doing? This can’t be it’” she said. “When you have to psych yourself up in the car to go to work, that’s when you know it’s time to leave.” 

The anxiety de’Shay felt never went away until one day she thought back to the little girl cutting up clothes and driving her mom crazy and asked herself, “What if I did fashion?” The idea for Black Russian Label was planted in de’Shay mind.

Leaving corporate America to pursue fashion wasn’t easy for de’Shay — in fact, many people thought she was crazy. “I remember people stopping me, going, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but we’re going to pray for you,’” when word got out about her quitting her six-figure job to start her fashion label, she shared.

She overcame her fear and doubts by seeking a degree in fashion. “One thing I knew about myself is I am a student of life. If I don’t know something, I will by the time I’m done.”

She went back to school and got her master’s degree in fashion design from the Acadamy of Art Institute in San Francisco and even used some of her class projects as a way to get her label up and running.

“I would say it probably took seven or eight years of doing the work for it to start,” de’Shay said. In 2013, the same year she graduated with her master’s degree, Black Russian Label was up and running.

Filling a gap in the industry

Not only was the creation of her label a passion project, but also a desire to fill a gap in the industry for women of all shapes and sizes. “I created this brand as a way for women to feel empowered in whatever body they’re in, you know, ’cause life is going to change. You’re not always going to be a … zero or 00.”

After having her first son, her body changed drastically and suddenly the brands she had always worn were no longer an option for her due to sizing limitations.

“(Black Russian Label) started in 2013 and, really, it started because I didn’t find this kind of body type within the fashion community,” de’Shay said. “You were either very thin in one size, which is fine, or you were considered plus size. There was nothing in between for say, women who had an athletic build or women who had a curvier frame, and I found that I was her.”

She created the Black Russian Label as a curated brand for women whose bodies did not fit the mold of the fashion industry in hopes of empowering them to accept and celebrate their curves even when the industry at large did not.

“It is an intentional brand that is designed to not just honor women and their bodies but to empower them to dress the way that they feel and not be imprisoned by their clothes, but to have their clothes be almost a second skin that celebrates them,” de’Shay said.

Beyond that, de’Shay said she is committed to not becoming a fast-fashion staple, making quality garments that would become a cherished piece in a woman’s wardrobe.

“I’m not interested in making 10,000 of something. I’m interested in making 100 of something that 100 women are going to collect and wear,” de’Shay said. “The price point’s a little higher, but they know they have a designer that knows their body and they know that when they invest in the brand, they’re going to keep it in their closets for a long time.”

A beacon of hope for other Black artists

Although she is many things — a fashion designer, professor, mother, student of life — she is also a successful Black woman who took the unlikely path, paving the way for others like her to believe that anything is possible. Her success is not only hers, she says, but also her community’s.

Being a Black woman in an industry that often misrepresents her is always at the forefront of her mind, especially as she designs clothing and teaches courses as a professor at the ASU FIDM school for Fashion Design where she’s been since 2019, and she knows what she represents to those looking up to her: a beacon of hope.

She sees it in her Black students’ eyes whenever they realize that she is their professor. She said that one student even called their mom during class to show her because of how shocked she was.

“Never for one instance do I not understand what I serve as, which is a physical manifestation for what ‘a dream realized’ actually looks like,” de’Shay said.

Of all the things that make her story important, the most significant is representation, she said.

“Representation is just that, it’s seeing yourself in whatever role it is. That’s why it’s so important,” de’Shay said. “The idea of representation in media, fashion and in music, it’s imperative, so that when they look at me, they don’t feel like they’re an anomaly, like ‘I don’t belong here.'”

Aside from her work on campus and at the label, de’Shay also serves as the executive director at the Diversity Leadership Alliance, a Phoenix-based nonprofit working to enhance diversity and inclusion culture across the state, and is working on a book series that chronicles the life of a young Black woman as she ventures into the fashion industry.

She no longer allows the world to put her into a box like she once did. It’s how she’s managed to achieve success.

“I define doing what I love on my own terms, creating beautiful pieces that people cherish. That’s what it’s all about,” de’Shay said.

As a mother of two sons living in Phoenix, teaching them to be unconventional is a no-brainer.

“You can do anything at any time you choose,” de’Shay said. “There’s no time stamp, there’s no age limit. There’s no rules, it’s your life, it’s your journey. You’ll get to cultivate where you go, and if midway through it you want to change and do something else, do that.”

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