How do you go from a 9 to 5 job to New York Fashion Week, Couture Fashion Week, become the first American designer to showcase in Cuba since the embargo was established, AND accomplish all of this in under 3 years?? Meet Kelsy Dominick. Did I mention that she just received an exclusive invitation to showcase her designs at the Cannes Film Festival? (Do check out the link. Kelsy is designing custom made dresses and gowns to help fund this experience). Part 2 of an in depth interview with this fascinating lady.
DC: From here we go from high school to college. You go to Virginia Tech at the start. Move in freshman year. How was the college transformation?
KD: I did this thing called the Corp Cadets. Virginia Tech is one of two military institutes that is mixed with civilians in all of the United States. Texas A&M is the other one. It was rough. I mean working up at 4 o’clock in the morning to do drills. And then you have to be back in your room by 7 o’clock at night. You have at least a few hours of mandatory study. Then you have to go to bed by 11. There are so many things that are restrictive. But the deal is I was a fashion major. So when we would do like room inspections and stuff and I’m sitting there sewing a dress I would always fail. But I kind of got some grace from my cadre sergeant because he was telling me that he could see what I was doing and really appreciated that. Eventually I migrated out of that program because I wanted to be able to be unrestricted in what I was doing and honestly be able to wear something other than a uniform.
DC: Obviously. You’re a lady of style.
KD: Yeah, I would go to my fashion classed in my uniform and would always get funny looks.
DC: They were looking at you like, “What’s she gonna do?”
KD: Yeah! I’m gonna make a dress. I know how it looks right now (laughs). That year I did my very first fashion show.
DC: This is your freshman year still?
KD: This is my freshman year spring show. There is big fashion show that happens every year in the spring. Basically they only allowed upperclassmen to enter. I think because I was in uniform and I didn’t really talk to the fashion director, people didn’t know who I was. I was like yeah…I’m a soldier. And I competed in the fashion show and I won. And I won every single year that I was there. That was a whole nother level of building confidence that I never thought I could tap into.
DC: Was the change to college life difficult? Aside from the cadet experience, being away from home?
KD: The cadet experience was much worse. Not only were you dealing with being homesick but also being knocked around and being beat up every single day. It’s just not a really good feeling. But my freshman year, what was really good about it, is that I learned about this tailor shop that was on campus. They tailored all of the military clothing, all the different uniforms for police officers, and everybody that was on campus. So I did a work study with them for the first year. Had I never been in the Corp Cadets I never would have known that there was a tailor shop on campus. BUT I started working with all of these women who had been sewing for 30 years plus. I didn’t just end up doing it that first year. I worked for them all four years of my college. Anytime that I was challenged with something new I had this support group or these mentors that would look at what I was doing and be like, “You are doing this all wrong.” They taught me honestly more than my teachers did. So navigating my way through that, keeping your ties, not trying to burn bridges… kept friends with all of the people that were in the Corp Cadets and every time they went to a military ball I had customers that I could make different dresses for and do tailoring things for. It was a really awesome synergy I found afterwards. It was a very interesting transition because it was different.
DC: Ok, I’ll come back to this but you brought up something that triggered a thought…. You said you learned more from your work study than you did your classes. So what are your thoughts on an apprenticeship experience versus a school learning environment? Do you think for you specifically that it would be more beneficial if you could go from high school and apprentice under a fashion designer instead of being in school?
KD: Yeah. I think for trade skills it is essential. I hate saying this but there is a reason why people teach. Especially in my senior year, I definitely knew I wanted to start a business. I kept asking my teachers… “How do I do this? Do you know where I could get this manufactured? How do I approach these manufacturers? What do they want to hear? Do they want to hear about minimum order quantities? What kind of quality control do they have?”. They couldn’t answer a single question that I had. They’re not doing it. So, I think there is a lot of value in experience.
DC: Going into you sophomore year and forward was your direction and mindset already focused on being a fashion designer or was it scattered or maybe you had other ideas?
KD: In terms of what my professional life would be like I still was teeter tottering with am I going to take fashion seriously. But it really helped, my sophomore and junior years, the number one prize was being to be able to sell your stuff in a store downtown. For us that was a really big deal because all the students, tens of thousands of students are going to see your work on the main streets. From there I had people ask me about different things and it really inspired me to say I could kind of do this thing. But still it was never that much to push me to start doing it full time. Obviously I was a student. I think what really segued into doing it full time… keep in mind I did double major in fashion and international studies so once I graduated I got a government job working in Washington D.C.
DC: So you graduate with a double major. Graduation day comes. Your decision process then? What’s your mindset? You walk off the stage and then… did you have that torn feeling already?
KD: I was confused. I think because…. I was in a business fraternity too in college. Everybody’s goal in that fraternity, everyone’s in school was to get a job at one of the big four accounting firms. A lot of my friends they had offers. I just knew that’s not what I wanted to do but I was applying for those jobs at the same time. I was really conflicted. Everybody at the time like, especially in the graduation class were like “What are you gonna do now?”. And you know you’re like, “Well, I’m thinking about doing this.” So it was a really confusing time because I knew what I loved. And I think that I’ve been blessed in that regard. A lot of people go through life saying, “What do I love? What do I want to do the rest of my life?”. I already knew what that was but how do you monetize that? How do you make money? How do you live? That was the question that I was faced with. So I kind of subsided that whole passion that I had and I took a government job.
DC: Is this immediately after school or did you take a few months off?
KD: It took me like 7 months to find a job after school. I would say that I took the job and at first I was ecstatic. Making good money. Ok, this is great. Finally, I know what I’m going to do. This is going to be fine. And I was going crazy. Just even a few months in. What am I doing? This is insane. Every single day was kind of mundane. It wasn’t that creative. It did not push me. A lot of it had to do with the people that I worked with that you surround yourself with every day who also kind of have this negative connotation. So it literally took my life. I would say I became a completely different person. I was going into work not wanting to walk through the doors. And it was the energy in the room. It was like everything. And then I started to become a negative person. And I’m not. If anything, I will work to the depths of the night if I really believe in what I am doing. So yeah, it really changed me as person.
DC: It’s kind of like you said. Your environment is going to have an effect on you whatever you choose to do. And your environment obviously had a negative effect on you as a person.
KD: We were responsible for really big projects with very short deadlines. You know, just that stress level, and the people who didn’t really process it well took it out on other people. It was that kind of environment. And of course me being the quiet, usually positive person….. I felt like I got a lot of that heat. So it was only amount of time before I was like yeah, you’re right, this sucks. If you start trying to participate in this negative kind of mindset…. and I can’t.
DC: From the time you started, you were ecstatic, and after a few months you can tell. So how much longer did you go through this?
KD: Probably a year. Even when I got accepted to Ney York Fashion week, I had to take off from work to go to my own fashion show. And a lot of people don’t know that either. I think at the time I could really only see that you are putting all of these things out on the runway. Yeah that’s great. But there was still part of me that was latching on to that practicality in life and that white picket fenced idealism that people have for an American Dream. Everyone just wants a job, they want a family and they want a house. And then, once you get that, then that’s it. That’s all you got. And I was still kind of attached to that. And not only that. I was funding a lot of what I was doing with my own money that I was working through the government for. But again, there was a necessary season for that and for me to realize how my roles were merging at that time and which one was I going to choose. And I chose what I was passionate about and I am very, very glad that I did.
DC: While you are in this negative environment, negative situation…. going on in your head that whole time is there still the fashion side going on? It’s still kind of burning? And that side of you is kind of like….”What are you doing?” You know you want over here. Why are you over there for that whole year?
KD: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. And I had a lot of people ask me, people who knew me, they were kind of asking me…What are you doing? Are you going to move to New York? Are you going to do fashion there? Maybe you should move to Los Angeles. And I was like, no, I’m good. I’m going to stay in Haymarket and I’m going to make fashion come to life. And that was when people were like….Really? That’s what you’re going to do? (laughs) Yeah. Very unlikely too. I think that was one reason it took so long also. To think in my head…. that’s what I want to do! I didn’t think that…. now in today’s age where it is so easy to create a business and put up a website and do all of these different things, have customers in different area codes and different countries…. I can do all of this from where I am. So, I kind of put it to the test and… yeah, I was right! I was right. There’s no reason why you couldn’t!
DC: With the internet your market is not just Haymarket, Virginia. It can be nationwide, worldwide.
KD: For instance, with custom dresses, I’ve had people from Virginia Beach, Richmond, Nashville, Florida. I’ve had California. I’ve had brides from all over the country. If people really want something, they will make their way to find it. That is something that I realized. The market is so huge too. If you think about the billions of dollars that the clothing industry makes yearly, all you need is that small fraction of that to be able to make it. Less than 1%. That would be enough to make your living very fruitful. When you put it into perspective and look at how much opportunity there is: there’s always somebody getting married, there is always someone going to an event, and they always need something to wear.
DC: I want you to take me to the jumping point, the leap of faith, where you have your job. You’re there and you decide I’m leaving. Personally I went through something similar and I have a job, and it’s steady, and you have a paycheck, and this is what adults do. This is what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to have jobs and pay taxes and etc. But to get to that point… I went through that for a couple of years actually, to say I’m not happy. I don’t want to do this. I’m leaving. And I’m just going to take that risk, that chance and go follow my passion. And if I make it, I make it. If I don’t, I don’t. But at least I will know. Can you tell us about your mindset going into that day where you make the decision where you say, “I’m gone”?
KD: I think it was a very pivotal moment. For me, particularly, I was 22 at the time, maybe 23. I was old enough and young enough for people whenever I told them about the dream I had or something I wanted to do that they would say, “Honey, you’re too young. Just go ahead and work. Get a feel for what that is. Then you’ll realize.” And I was like realize what?! What are you talking about?! There is a part of your soul, a part of your heart that just needs to be going in the direction of what you really love to do. And you have to be able to listen to that. Because people will be quick to tell you that you can’t do something because they can’t.
I can’t say that it happened right away but I do remember my boss pulling me into her office and she kept all of the doors open in her office to the almost 50 employees outside and yelled at me in front of everybody. It was just disrespectful. And she also kind of a bi-polarish person and I will say this: the best form of leadership is consistency. You can be consistently crazy or consistently sane. But whichever one… just choose! For her, one day she would be so nice. “You are doing such a good job. Keep it up.” And then the next thing you know it would be moments like that (the yelling incident). And I had a feeling that the aggression that she had was not towards me but for some reason this is how she was dealing with it. That’s when I was like, “Man! I would much rather be broke!” (laughs). So, that was the moment. I think that is the moment when I started to conspire in a different direction. I didn’t quit right away but every moment I came home from work I was doing something else. And I feel like that’s another reason people get depressed too. They built that American Dream. They have the kids, the house, the job, and whatever, and once they check all of those things on their list…they come home and they just watch TV. They catch up on the news and usually it is rather depressing. But they don’t focus their efforts on what they love. Even if it is on a hobby level. If you love to do wood burning, do wood burning. Or you like to basket weave, basket that weave! Or whatever…weave that basket! (laughs). That’s what you need to be doing when you go home. Do something for yourself. And so I started conspiring with one of my friends she was going to go into the Peace Corps at the time. And she was supposed to leave in March and this is August time. And I told her that I was going to quit my job and travel. I had my savings and I was going to jump. I was talking to her on the phone and was like, “Dude, quit your job with me!” She was working in a hospital somewhere and she said no I can’t do that. And I said, “What? You have less worries about quitting than I do. You’re going to be in Madagascar in March. Just come with me.” Literally within 24 hours she calls me back and she says OK I quit!! And I was like, “No!! I don’t mean today!! Don’t quit today!!” (laughs). So, that’s when you have someone conspiring with you. A big part of that back packing trip that I went on was to find production. To go to Vietnam, to go to Thailand, and see where was the best place I could source these things and get really good prices for them. It was like a mission. But it was also like a self-discovery thing. When you realize how many other people are on this journey… you meet a lot of people when you are traveling. As you know. I’m sitting here. I met you in England at Stonehenge. You meet a lot of people who are kind of in that limbo. And for me after I came back I felt like I had a new type of spirt, a new motivation. And now I use however I felt in that job to motivate me. I never want to feel like that again. I never want to have someone have the power over me to make me feel that way on a daily basis. So, yeah, if I have to work until 4 am, I will. And love doing it.
DC: Through that experience I guess you would say you tasted freedom? Where you can say I’m not going back to a place where that’s my life?
KD: And it’s an awesome thing too. I noticed how important travel was for me and especially my brand and cultural diversity. And I made it a point. It’s really fun when you start to build a business you realize what is important and what is not. When I was traveling I would bring back all of these different fabrics that I would source from different countries and I would make new fashion out of it. It was such an awesome partnership in that. And now, nobody can get what I make anywhere off the wall.
DC: This makes DiDomenico unique in the sense that you’re sourcing things from all over the world while others are sourcing things locally, nationally while you are internationally.
KD: Yeah, everything is hand-picked. Now I get to build that into a business. I never realized how my love for international travel could go with fashion. Putting the two together is amazing. They go together very well.
DC: It’s a good marriage. I want you to share on this thought. I noticed after I did this, similar to you… you take your jump, your leap, your risk and you travel and meet all of these people and experience these cultures and you find out that you don’t want to live how you live before. People always ask me about my travels, “What was the biggest thing you learned”? And I said most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty. They would rather be unhappy and know what tomorrow is going to be like than to take that risk of not knowing. Whether it be jobs or relationships etc. I think people will take what is comfortable or what’s the usual because they are scared of what the unknown is.
KD: I love that!
DC: What’s the point that will get you to take that leap? What would you say to people who might be reading who, I think it is a great majority of people who are at that point in their lives, where they aren’t happy, they don’t like what they are doing? They have this passion or skill that they might could exploit but they are afraid of taking the leap?
KD: It may sound harsh but… do it! I think we over complicate it. We really, really over complicate it. I think the hardest part of that jump is getting over that fear. Once you can push past that mental aspect, the doubt and the uncertainty, you will find this amazing source of clarity. If you just take away all of that BS and focus on that one thing. You know it! When you think about it, it is actually very easy to see. But our minds tend to cloud things. That’s probably the biggest reason of how long it took me. “Who am I to say that I’m a fashion designer in Haymarket, Virginia?” You’re building your confidence and building your value which is a very hard thing to do too. When you start pricing out your skill level, who you are and what you bring to the table… you have to take it one day at a time. Don’t over think it.
DC: I think we’re kind of programmed like that from when we are little. They say you model your parents and surrounding environment. Everyone goes to school, now more often than not they go to college, they get a job, and usually for some reason a high percentage of people get married right after college. So you go to school, go to college, get a job, get married and you’re supposed to do this for 40 years and then you can retire. It’s kind of like it is engrained in our mind. So anything that we do to the contrary, people look at us like, “What is wrong?”
KD: You know what is really amazing about that is both of my parents are entrepreneurs but somehow I still felt obligated to take a job because that was the social norm. You have to define what your own success is and go beyond what people can place on you. Again, I was putting those thoughts on myself. I thought my parents would be disappointed in me if I got out of school and didn’t get a job. I didn’t know what they would think of me. But again, both of them are entrepreneurs and that never clicked with me until after I made the jump. It was all a mental thing. You realize how much pressure we put on ourselves because of how we think people might perceive us and how we perceive others. But you know what happens when we assume…..
DC: So you and your friend are gone and traveling for…
KD: 2-3 months.
DC: Ok. You were traveling. Experiencing freedom. Meeting all of these people. New cultures. New ideas. Then when you come back, what was your move then?
Make sure you come back for Part 3 in our series! Kelsy returns home and DiDomenico Design is born! Read here!
Missed Part 1 of the interview?? You can read it here… Meet Kelsy Dominick
In the meantime learn about DiDomenico Design from the lady herself.
*Photo by Lionel Madiou