words • Jake Krez // photos • Michael Salisbury
Sitting at the poured-cement bar on an overcast early May afternoon, I tried my best not to take up too much of Letesha Renee's time.
"My bad, I didn't realize what day it was when we scheduled this" I said as she ordered a drink, quickly laughing off my concern.
"It's no big deal," she replied, a purple cocktail spritzed with tequila sliding in front of her from the bartender. "It's the second anniversary of my clothing line, but everyone always assumes its my birthday too, I guess in a way that's true."
It's an understandable mistake the two events would be confused. Both unveilings have been full-fledged celebratory experiences, the most recent at East Room in Logan Square on May _ for her Side By Side line which hit the internet last week. With themes as thick as the seams binding her unique garments, this Chicago-based clothing designer and stylist is quickly making a name for herself by working directly with the community around her.
Having existed as a recognizable face on city's scene for the better part of the last decade, it admittedly took the 27-year-old awhile to find her creative outlet.
"I was waiting to take myself seriously. I think I was being young and having fun and running around and doing whatever and then after my grandma passed away in 2010 I kind of took a year to figure out what I wanted to do an enrolled back into school," said Renee, punctuating the memory with a sip from the narrow glass. "I got into it and then I was just like ‘I don’t need this’. I just felt like college was an excuse for me, it was something for me to do to keep me coasting just to be able to say ‘I’m about to do this, but I’m in school so you know wait on it,' like nah, fuck that go do that shit now!"
To find her way forward, Letesha looked directly backward to her own past. Growing up, she distinctly recalls following the careful movements of her grandma's hands and fingers as she crafted garments for their family members while growing up on the city's north side. With a background somewhat established in fashion and styling by her early 20s through work at Top Shop and alongside local musicians and artists, Tesha quickly began realizing where her niche lie.
"Honestly, people just kept presenting opportunities to me and I had made all types of excuses as to why not to do them. Like Miranda [Govea], she came to me with an opportunity and I just started giving her excuses. Off the bat," remembered Renee. "She just wanted me to style someone and I was telling her all the reasons why I couldn’t and then I went to her the next day and was like ‘you know what, I can do this’ and then I felt like I was almost trying to prove to her why because the day before I was trying to prove to her why I couldn’t. So then I’m sitting there trying to prove to her why and kind of ever since I had that conversation with her I really started to take myself seriously.
The resulting endeavor was a brand that embodied the nuances of her grandmother and celebrated her influence all the way down to the name of the line. 'Eugene Taylor' is two-thirds of her grandma's name Gloria Eugene Taylor, who passed away in 2010. In the two years since incorporating and releasing her first line, Tesha has gone about debuting five subsequent releases. At a time when perpetrators slapping simple designs on cheap Gildan shirts characterizes the modern fashion industry like the iPhone photographers of Instagram or the non-writing bloggers of Twitter, Renee has created an image for herself that's simultaneously original and wholly authentic. The innate realness and careful thoughtfulness for the unique has come about largely by choosing to eschew the cheap cliches of fad culture plentiful in her periphery and instead focus on crafting truly artisan pieces operating as her expression to the world. On her latest line, Side By Side, Renee employed the idea of 'Equality' as a central theme at a time when we all honestly might need a reminder.
"I make clothes for everyday people, I love the everyday person," said Renee. "The thing I'm going into with this collection is releasing one a year that will be several different drops within it at different times. My meaning for color blocking in this collection specifically is just me kind of saying that we're all equal and also to say that all these colors: black, white or male or female, we can all recognize our differences and literally wear equality on our back, where I have it stitched."
Last summer, we did a feature on the inevitable intersection of art and activism, creation and consciousness that exists in just about everything that's been produced in the city recently. A city of consequence and cause, the art that emanates from this region often serves as a direct reactionary force to the environment it finds itself concepted. True to the form of her peripheral lineage, Tesha has channeled the thoughts and feelings of many a Chicagoan adrift in Trump America through this collection. Very much reflecting the sentiments of our times, the line features hand-sewn pieces, patchworks of black, white and grey that play against one another to create a sort of conversation via cloth. Call it wearable resistance perpetuated by a labor of love.
While Letesha's public releases have served to broaden her profile both in the city and out, allowing her to simultaneously use the moments to express herself beyond the needle and thread, her influence has also evolved from working closely with many of the artists that make up the music side of the Renaissance, . Existing in the orbit of rising stars such as Nico Segal and Peter CottonTale of The Social Experiment who she's styled individually for events like the Taste of Chicago, national late night TV performances and The Grammys has allowed plenty of opportunity for Renee, but it doesn't come without accompanying expectations and pressure. Having to live up to a sort of standard of the Renaissance is becoming a consistent catalyst for new artistic direction found around town, and Renee similarly found a comfortable lane to produce her own craft.
"It’s always nice to work with some of these people and get the opportunity to do that and to be able to collaborate is really cool, to kind of figure out the kind of style they want to perceive or the type of theme that they want to show and then to get that and be like ‘that’s it’ is the coolest,'" said LeTesha. "It’s my brand, it’s my craft, it’s my child so I’m gonna shield it from whatever I want to shield it from. As far as everyone I’ve gotten to work with there’s always been a connection there and that’s so important to me.
We finished our drinks just as Renee's longtime friend and newfound creative partner Amara Ogboi arrived from a string of errands. With the release a day away and and event that evening to toast to the accomplishment with friends, there was a lot to be done.
"We just had the show last week, the dinner tonight and we're probably going to be up all night finishing everything up and getting it online, it's all hectic but it's good, I couldn't be happier."
With that, she took one final sip from her straw, gave me a hug and got back to work, which never seems to end these days for Letesha Renee.