Dallas fashion designer Venny Etienne draws from both the strong and soft aspects of femininity in his work—look no further than the custom blazer he made for Beyoncé to wear in her Black Is King visual album, which was released this summer. “It’s a great combination of my DNA and what I appreciate,” says the 33-year-old former Project Runway contestant (he made it to the final seven in the seventeenth season of the Bravo show). A cross between a military coat and a sundress, with exaggerated shoulders and a floral pattern, the yellow garment inspired the designer to build the latest collection for his Levenity label around vibrant, structured jackets and bold separates. The new line is influenced by Etienne’s Haitian and New York roots as well as Dallas, where he has lived for nine years. Texas Monthly talked to Etienne, who has designed for the likes of Cardi B and Michelle Williams, about creating a custom piece for Queen B, what’s next for Levenity, and how Texas has inspired him.
Texas Monthly: How did you get into designing clothes?
Venny Etienne: I grew up going to church, and they would put on a fashion show every year. One year they wanted to change it up a bit, and the organizers asked us who wanted to do a show of their own, so I and a couple others raised our hands. My mom and I went to the Salvation Army and bought a couple of blazers. We deconstructed them and bought some fabric and added the fabric on the lapel and the pockets—just arts and crafts, DIY-type of design. But when I finally dressed the models—when it was time for the fitting and seeing my vision—that was when I was like, oh, wow, this is pretty cool.
TM: You ended up moving from Brooklyn to Dallas to attend Wade College. Why did you make that leap?
VE: Wade College plays a very big part of my design journey because they’ve always been supportive. It’s a very hands-on type of school. It’s not a huge school, so the professors know you by name. Also, when I was looking for a school to continue my education, I was trying to find one that had evening classes because I still had my day job doing accounting work. They know how to work with someone who has an everyday life.
TM: How did moving help you evolve as a designer?
VE: When I moved here and went to school at Wade, I got involved in a lot of competitions like the Fashion Group International Student Competition. It helped the competitive side of me. I developed that sense of drive while living in Dallas, just wanting to make sure that I excel at whatever I do. And I was able to focus here, too. In New York there’s a lot going on—there’s a lot of designers, there’s a lot of industry people. Here, of course, there’s still amazing talent, but it’s not like everyone’s on top of you. You’re able to breathe here. You’re able to find who your client is, find who your customer is, and build the brand. Those are the things that I do credit Dallas for because I don’t think I would have been as clear and this focused at the stage I was in had I stayed in New York.
TM: Has Dallas itself influenced your designs?
VE: The inspiration that I get from Dallas and from the women who live here is that they’re in touch with their feminine side. I always tend to go very edgy with what I make and need to know how to soften it up. I always look toward the women here to see how I could incorporate details that are more feminine and brighter.
TM: And where do the edgier parts of your designs come from?
VE: New York City. It’s inspired by where I grew up. I get it from living in New York and just being inspired by the streets, by the culture—Black culture as well. And also, it’s to symbolize that although you’re feminine, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t also have a strong look.
TM: How did the project for Beyoncé come together?
VE: At that time, Zerina [Akers, Beyoncé’s stylist] and I were working on something for Niecy Nash. It was a piece I made the day she asked for it. I don’t think any of this would have happened had I not called off of work, went to the fabric store, went home, sewed that bad boy, and shipped it that night to Niecy—I drove thirty minutes to the last post office that was open at ten to ship it that night. The next day, [Zerina] called me and said, “Oh my gosh, it fits Niecy like a glove.” And she texted me right after, “Okay, I’ve got something for you for B. It’s for a music video.” I didn’t know it was for Black Is King because this was a year ago. I just knew it’s Beyoncé, so whatever it is—if she wants to wear it to the bathroom or to walk the dog or whatever—as long as she takes a picture in it, I’m good.
TM: What did it mean to you to design a piece for Black Is King?
VE: It meant everything. It represents how one person could uplift a whole community, because Beyoncé has her team, and then her team had the task to seek out people who could fulfill this vision and Zerina reached out to me. And now I’ve reached out to my interns. It brings everyone into this community bubble where we have the ability to portray an image of excellence, an image of Black culture. The reason I love the album so much and why I’m so grateful to be part of this project is because she allows us to focus on not seeing what is portrayed of the Black community but to go back to your roots. Go back before we were brought here as slaves. Go back before all of that and see who you really are. You are kings and you are queens. Once you feel those things, you have to have chills.
TM: The jacket spurred you to build your latest collection, which was influenced by your mother as well, yes?
VE: She’s like a gentle giant. She’s very short—I’m five feet eleven, and she’s probably like four feet eleven—she’s a firecracker but also so sweet. I wanted to let that be part of the inspiration as well and make pieces that are vibrant, sweet—reminiscent of how I feel about my mom. And [I wanted] to convey that strength that I know that she always has.
TM: What aspects of this collection are nods to your heritage and your culture?
VE: I focused on elements that I saw when researching traditional Haitian dresses. There are some trims that they use in some of their dresses. For example, in one of the blazers that I created for this collection, the lapel on the blazer is not straight; it has the curves like the ones from a Haitian dress. I always want to make sure Haitian culture [comes across] throughout any collection that I make, whether it’s the cut or it’s the vibrancy of the colors. Whenever people think of Haiti, they think of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and how bad it is. But when you go visit yourself, you can see firsthand its beauty. I always want to portray the vibrancy, the richness.
TM: What’s next for you and Levenity?
VE: We’re still in a pandemic, of course. We’re wanting to do a capsule collection of loungewear that people could actually wear at home on Zoom meetings that could easily transition to something if they are going to go out. That’s what’s in the works right now. The thing is, with what’s going on with the economy and this pandemic, we are still figuring out just like everyone else what our next steps are. We’re selling face masks—we have them on the website and those are going pretty well. We want to always make sure that what we’re doing is responding to the times and that we’re providing whatever we can to address it.