When designer Diana Delva was in middle school, she was already more than six feet tall, towering over most of her classmates. On the upside, this meant that she was a shoo-in for the basketball team. But on the downside, it was hard finding cute clothes to wear. Many of the teen brands that other high school girls wore simply did not fit on her large frame.
Delva went on to play basketball at the University of Hartford, and later, professionally, as part of the European basketball league. That’s when it struck her that many of her fellow athletes had similar gripes: Fashion labels viewed tall women as an afterthought rather than a valued customer.
In college, while on a full athletic scholarship, Delva interned at DSquared2 to learn about the fashion industry. Then, last year she launched her own brand, Chèlbè, which focuses entirely on the needs of tall women. This means creating trousers with bigger inseams and blouses with longer arms, all in the season’s trends. She showed her fall 2017 collection at New York Fashion Week, where she was named a “designer to watch.” She now sells clothes directly to consumers through her website, where she is focused on ensuring that her garments are at an affordable price point of under $80.
As a black woman setting out into the fashion world, Delva doesn’t have very many role models that look like her. But she does take comfort in the fact that black communities have always been very scrappy when it comes to adapting fashion trends to suit their needs. She looks to someone like Dapper Dan, for instance, who realized back in the ’90s that the luxury European designers weren’t designing for the bodies and styles of black people. So, he went out and plastered the logos of Louis Vuitton and Gucci on expensive leather, turning them into bomber jackets and jumpsuits that were a hit with the hip-hop world.
It’s this sense of resourcefulness that inspires Delva not to accept her position as an underserved customer, but to do something about it, even if it means starting a clothing line of her own.
Fast Company: Tell me about your brand.
Diana Delva: Chèlbè is a fashionably tall clothing line catering to women 5’9 and up. The name comes from a creole word that means elegant, chic, or luxurious in dress, style, or design. I’ve translated this concept into a versatile, comfortable, and fashion-forward collection.
Pieces are made to accentuate and accommodate lengthier features with longer inseam, torso, and arm lengths. Some of our best sellers include the three-way jumpsuit, which is a twist on a classic black jumpsuit with asymmetrical cuts and front zipper that you can adjust to wear three ways. Others include the Illusion Palazzo Pant, high-waist flowing pants that have the illusion of shifting shades as you walk, or the simple T-shirt dress that makes a statement “Fashionably Tall.”
FC: What made you decide to launch it?
DD: I reached 6’1 by the age of 14 and quickly realized the struggle of shopping tall. I found it even more impossible as I grew older and adopted my own sense of fashion and style. Most tall options available were very basic styles that often didn’t fit my budget.
And as a basketball player, I ran into lots of women who had the same issues. It was even harder for us to show our feminine side because we couldn’t find clothing to reflect that. We would often exchange styling tips and share where we could find clothes. While shopping in mainstream stores, we opted for the men’s section, plus-sized clothing, or the cropped look. We would also pull up our sleeves and wear ankle and high boots that gave the illusion of clothing that fit.
I decided to launch Chèlbè out of pure need. I was tired of endless shopping trips trying on everything that didn’t fit. I wanted on-trend styles that regular-height women could find without the added cost.
FC: Do you feel like black consumers are underserved in your product category? If so, then why and how?
DD: I like to think that black consumers are at the forefront of style and setting trends since you often see those same styles mimicked in mainstream fashion. One of the bigger examples is of Gucci replicating a design by Dapper Dan, which after backlash led to a collaboration. Or the variations of cornrows you see in today’s fashion. The selection of tall clothing is very limited and, in some sense, limiting to individual style and expression. But it goes to show the resourcefulness of the black consumer. Whatever the product or budget, black consumers find a way to make it a style of their own.
FC: Are black entrepreneurs underrepresented in your industry? Why do you think this is?
DD: I think black entrepreneurs are underrepresented in most industries, not just in the fashion world. I think that has to do with the social disparities that black entrepreneurs have to overcome. We are not starting on the same playing field. Statistically black people are less privileged when it comes to basic needs like income and education. It’s a lot harder to break into the fashion world without the proper resources and connections that black entrepreneurs often lack.
FC: Have you faced any obstacles as a person of color trying to launch a business? What are they? How did you overcome them?
DD: I haven’t noticed any obvious obstacles as a person of color launching Chèlbè, not to say they don’t exist.
I have had to build relationships with all types of people, going into every situation color-blind, letting my work and work ethic speak for itself. As in any growing business, there will be lots to overcome and there is always a solution for everything.
In sourcing my fabric from Greece and Lebanon, I’ve gone into situations where there was a distinct cultural and language barrier, but when it came down to it we had two things in common–the fabric and the price. Regardless of color or even language, there is always a common ground in business. You just have to find a way to make it work for everyone involved.
FC: Have you deliberately tried to be a visible face of your brand?
DD: I’ve actually tried the opposite. I want to build Chèlbè itself as a brand having the designs and meaning speak for themselves: chic, elegant, graceful, and luxurious. Chèlbè is a lifestyle and can be translated into everything you do. I just help dress the part.
FC: What is your advice to other black people who are passionate about fashion/apparel and want to make an impact in this industry?
DD: Stay true to your vision. A lot of times we look for outside approval and conform our vision to be more “acceptable.” I always pass my designs by my sister and friends, even from the early stages when it’s just a drawing and fabric. Sometimes they love it and sometimes they don’t. Most of the time, they can’t really judge until there’s a finished product. Constructive criticism is a great tool to aid you along your journey, but sometimes only you can fully see or understand your ideas, and that’s okay.