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? Part 1 of an in depth interview with this fascinating lady.
DC: Thank you for your time. We are certainly going to get to DiDomenico Design which is your baby. This is the business you are growing along with several other projects you and I have been talking about (Note to readers: Do yourself a favor and check out Sewing The World). But to get there I want to go back and learn more about your background, maybe growing up…your family life. If you can tell us more about that. Go back as far you want….maybe to your birthday.
KD: Well, I remember the day I was born… (laughing)
KD: I grew up in a biracial family. So my father is Italian and my mother is African-American. They got married during a time where… you know… it was so confrontational. Neither side of their families showed up for the wedding. They kind of had to… well my father especially had to deal with kind of being excommunicated from his family in his decision to move forward and marry my mother. I think growing up that kind of played into a lot of what I do today for cultural understanding and wanting to travel and see the world. I think it is so important, no matter where you come from, to kind of look on who the person really is as opposed to focus on our race. So for me, I have a 94 year old grandmother. I love her to death. She is the person who created my logo for me. She signed her signature over and over again just so I could practically recreate it into our logo but there was a time when she didn’t want to have anything to do with us. And that during the first 5-6 years of our life.
DC: So this is actually your Dad’s mother that you are talking about?
DC: And you are saying she was included in that divide when all of this happened?
KD: Yes. Definitely. And I think looking back on that I think that is something another thing I’ve grown from too. Nowadays her and my mother are best friends. They do everything together. She is always constantly asking me “Where is Shirley? You know Shirley she has been out all day. Where has she been?” And it’s like, Grandma, I’m right here. Why can’t you talk to me? (laughs). But it’s refreshing to see that because I think at a time in our country’s history where it is important to go beyond your own understanding and try to understand more. I get inspiration from that. And just knowing how much I love her and how much she loves me… and being brought up in that influence inspires a lot of what I do.
DC: I would imagine. I was going to say… just from looking at it… I guess to look back at it now, do you know what moment from talking to her what moment that bridge, where they were able to reconcile and become part of your life?
KD: So, she in her older age ended up moving in with my aunt which is my father’s sister on my Italian side. Just in passing my Aunt Joanne, she was always kind of in tune with what we were doing and made an effort. She wasn’t one that decided I don’t want anything to do with them. So in kind of hearing stories about us through her, like living in her house, she started asking questions about us. “What are they like?” And she (Aunt Joanne) was like you know what Mom you’re gonna have to go find out for yourself. I’m not going to answer these questions for you. I think that went on for a couple of years until finally… that was that. Making that first step. I think it was hard on both ends. In the end it became something very beautiful. But it takes a first step. For everyone, it takes a first step.
DC: It does. I was wondering if it was just basic curiosity….like “I wonder what my grandkids are like? I wonder what they act like or what they are into?”
KD: Yeah. Because I am a lot like her. I like to think I can cook like her. You know what’s even crazier….the more I find out about her…her sister, Bessy, used to make wedding gowns growing up.
DC: Oh really?! Genetic trait??
KD: Yeah! But I never would have known that had I never been able to speak to her and kind of play into that part of history or my upbringing that I never knew. Where does this passion in me come out of? Why am I so creative? Or why do I like to create dresses? So, it was a moment for me. It is important to know where you’ve been. You don’t know where you are going unless you do.
DC: That’s true. The history there is quite a big deal. On one hand for her (Kelsy’s grandmother) it was a great step of moving forward and trying to bridge the gap. But also from your mom’s side who was on the enduring side of it for so long to accept that after all that she had been through…and I guess you had been through, you and your family.
KD: Well, you know at my age, I didn’t understand it.
DC: What age were you then?
KD: Maybe 5 or 6. So you’re still young enough to ask why you’ve never met your grandma before but never really understand how complex that answer really is. But for my mother I always look back on that situation and I’m like… ”How did you?…”, That’s amazing! On both sides. The kind of grace that is shown. The sympathy and the empathy felt afterwards for having been so blissfully unaware of what she was missing out on in terms of family.
DC: And you say you maybe get some cooking skills from your grandma?
KD: Oh yeah. She still cooks to this day. Shrimp scampi…She’s fantastic!
DC: So your cooking is Italian based?
KD: Yes. Basta Pasta.
DC: (Makes personal note that Kelsy also cooks Italian). Growing up in a biracial family from childhood going into school did you notice a difference in how kids reacted to you or was it any different for you than anyone else?
KD: I grew up in Maryland. Fort Washington. So everybody was black. Everybody that I went to school with. Going to school I kind of found it hard to find a group to identify with because the black kids are calling you vanilla extract. And you know you aren’t necessarily white because they don’t see you as white. I found at an early age that I really liked Asian people because they accepted me (laughs). They accepted me. My friend Samantha she was Chinese. I grew up with her as a friend. And even today a lot of my friends are Filipino or Vietnamese. You know…even Mollie who you met.
DC: Yes! Hopefully I will get to interview her one day.
KD: She is the definition of the American Dream. Coming over at 15. Didn’t know any English. Watching Disney Channel religiously just to learn English. She has that positive attitude about life.
DC: Yeah. I was asking that because I remember reading a story about Bo Jackson in which he said that he didn’t know he was poor until he went to school and all of the other kids told him that he was poor. In the sense that you might be oblivious to it until someone else mentions it.
KD: Yeah like, Vanilla extract. I never understood that. But I remembered what it was and then put it together… and I was like… that’s creative. Touche`, touche` (laughs).
DC: Any interesting developments between this time and middle school, teenage years? Did you notice any passions you already have? Was the fashion design creativity coming out?
KD: I was doing projects when I was younger. My mom taught me how to sew pillow cases when I was like 9. From there I started making the little dresses for my dolls, class projects… There was a cultural day and I think that was a defining moment too because I wasn’t necessarily just one thing so what was I going to wear? I was challenged with this idea. How do I dress myself to reflect who I am? Am I African? Am I Sicilian? Am I Italian?
DC: Sicilian is different from Italian. So they tell me.
KD: It is!
DC: So are you Sicilian?
KD: I’m not Sicilian… I think there is this wonderful type of challenge that always stuck with me when it came to creating garments. It’s never like a right answer. You know what I mean. But you can create it and always be challenged in that area. When it comes to math and things there’s an answer or there’s not. With design, I always go back to the first time I was really challenged, and when you see the end result it is a very satisfying feeling.
DC: I could imagine as you are starting from nothing and are really just limited by your imagination. And then through middle school and high school you continue working on different designs in fashion necessarily or creative and art projects?
KD: Yeah. I used to do a lot of hand dyeing like for jean washing. I started making dresses. I did my own prom dresses through high school. I would always find something. There was this magazine growing up called Altered Couture and they published me when I was 12 years old. I did a project where I took some old clothing and reconstructed it.
DC: Like upcycling… way back when?
KD: Yeah, then they sent me a check for $200 and I was like…I can do this (laughs).
DC: I guess as you are progressing through middle school then were you still in Maryland?
KD: No. My mother was in the military. I moved out of Maryland when I was in third grade. Then we moved to Boston. She was on duty in Germany for a while then she retired and moved to Virginia. We’ve been here for 14 years now.
DC: So you did middle school and high school here in Virginia?
DC: Tracking that…in middle school and high school did you still find the same differences with your biracial ethnicity?
KD: Honestly, I think it had a lot to do with the demographic in the area and lot of growing up. But where we were was definitely more diverse. I think it was predominantly Caucasian but still there were Asians and people from all different walks of life. And it never made me feel like I was the only black girl in the room even though sometimes I was. But I never felt that way. You don’t realize stuff like that until people call attention to it. Then again you can’t let it bother you. Nobody can bother you without your permission. I think I was really blessed to grow up the later part of my childhood in an area that embraced that. And we’re so close to Washington D.C. with embassies from all around the world. If you can’t be culturally blended there, where can you be?
DC: During your high school days were there other things that you got into also? In addition to your designing activities you liked. I did ask you off the record earlier about you being an athlete.
KD: I did track. Then I did ROTC all four years. I did Q club. I was president of Deca. I took dancing classes for salsa. I was on hip hop team and wasn’t any good (laughs). I think I liked getting involved.
DC: So you were involved in lots of activities. It wasn’t like you were just going to school and going home.
KD: I actually really loved basketball. I could shoot a J.
DC: You could shoot a J? What did you play? The 1 or the 2?
KD: Not anymore…I don’t know (laughs). They made me point guard my freshman year and I was not cut out for that job. So my freshman year of basketball I did basketball at school and was part of like a state team or county team or whatever. And between both teams the whole season we didn’t win a game the whole year.
DC: That’s rough.
KD: That’s really rough.
DC: Hard on the psyche.
KD: Kind of had to start thinking about my priorities… should I continue sewing or…
DC: WNBA!? (laughs)
DC: And you figured out I just need to shoot the ball. Y’all just need to get me the ball and let me shoot it?
KD: I don’t want to run. I don’t want to do anything else. Just get me the ball! I could do that.
DC: Well, it sounds like you had a full schedule. All the time you’re doing all of these different clubs and components are you still working on fashion? Are you still keeping a sketch book and creating? I know you said for your prom you did.
KD: I think quitting basketball was my moment….I’m not even kidding. Because the next year I tried out for JV my sophomore year and I didn’t make. That was really crushing for me. I mean like bawling snot crying. So my coach… well he wasn’t my coach. He was going to be my coach if I made the team (laughs). He basically told me… kind of gave me the inspiration. He told me that I was so talented and to kind of focus my energy in those areas… in a very nice, loving way. So then I started coming to class and coming to school showing up in some of the clothes I was making. They started calling me Rachel Zoe. I didn’t know who Rachel Zoe was at the time. She is like a famous celebrity stylist. They started calling me Rachel Zoe every time I walked around because I had these outfits on. I was like… you know, maybe I should focus on this. So I did. And I was lucky to come from a family too that was supportive of it. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs. So at a very young age I was always helping them do different things and to this day help them with their businesses. My mother helped her mother run her business in an upholstery shop so she is very good at sewing. Very, very good. Taught me at a young age and always critiqued my work as I was growing up. Of course on my father’s side then I have this passion through history of creating dresses so they kind of like came together.
DC: It’s like a perfect match
KD: Yeah, they like watching it to. Every time I make a different dress, my mother, I can just see this look in her eye. I think there was a point in time where she wanted to be a fashion designer.
In Part 2 Kelsy talks about her transition to college, continuing her love for fashion design, apprenticeship, and confusion between following her passion or taking a lucrative job offer. What would Kelsy do!? The answer might surprise you…. Read Here!
In the meantime learn about DiDomenico Design from the lady herself.
*Photo by Precious Posh Photography