Adrian Dana is a Baltimore Maryland native known for his extravagant hat designs and his appearance on the Lifetime TV show Project Accessory. He has worked with and designed for numerous celebrities. We had a deep discussion about his career and making it in the fashion industry. Check it out below.
Mz Mahogany: You were born in Baltimore and I think it’s awesome to see successful fashion designers from the DMV area. Once I saw you on this past season of Lifetime TV Show Project Accessory, I knew for sure I wanted to talk to you.
Mz Mahogany: Tell me how you got your start as a designer?
I’ve been designing for 26 years. My father is a minister and we were living in Richmond Virginia. My mom loved church hats but at that time she couldn’t afford them. One day I ran across a store in Richmond who had these fabulous church hats by Jack McConnell who eventually became my mentor. When I saw those hats I got bit by the bug. I went in the store and he happened to be in town that day. I looked at his work, studied the style of the hat and his use of trinkets. I tried to mimic what I saw. I was self-trained at that point. I ended up going to fashion school later but as far as designing hats, I’m self-taught.
Mz Mahogany: What did you do after design school?
Adrian: Over time I worked for Isaac Mizrahi, Donna Karan, and a bunch of other big names. It was great.
Mz Mahogany: You also designed a hat for the 2003 Essence Magazine photo-shoot with Oprah. How did you land that?
Adrian: That’s when I got my first real design job at Aldo Hat Company in NY. In 2002 Aldo solicited me while I was working at MTV through my website www.church-hats.com. So I went and designed for them. His company was very well-known. During that time the company put out designs by Jack McConnell. So 20 years later I ended up working next to Jack McConnell who inspired me 20 years earlier. That was really amazing but anyway, I was working at Aldo and I was in our showroom. Essence magazine came to the showroom looking for hats for a photo-shoot. They pulled some of my hats and a few others as styling supplies for the shoot. I got a note saying Oprah picked my hat and she loved it. The picture of Oprah in my hat never made it to that issue of Essence magazine. I am actually still having a hard time getting a picture of it but my mom actually has the hat in Charlotte NC.
Mz Mahogany: Who else have you designed for?
I did all the hats for Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion. I’ve designed for Michelle Williams (Destiny’s Child), Andrew Young, Angie Stone, and a host of NFL players. I also designed shoes for Mikki Taylor (Essence Magazine), Kelly Price, Mo’nique (Mo’nique show), Dondria, Kandi, Derek J (ATL housewives) and many more.
Mz Mahogany: How did you get a spot as contestant on Project Accessory?
Adrian: A young woman from Baltimore, her name is Dana Church-Brown, she actually emailed me through Facebook and told me about it and said I should audition for it. I sat on it for a few days but I eventually went and auditioned and found out a week later I was on the show.
Mz Mahogany: Dana Church-Brown is opening a boutique in Baltimore very soon. Will you feature some of your designs?
Adrian: Well she and I are actually doing that together. It’s called Dana’s boutique. Her first name is Dana my last name is Dana. She’s the head of the operation.
Mz Mahogany: Nice concept! We know you as the hat guy. What was it like going on Project Accessories to make items other than hats? Did you have prior experience?
Adrian: Well I was doing accessories the entire time I was making hats for my mom. Once I got on the TV show it didn’t seem as hard as I thought. The shoe and jewelry episodes weren’t hard because I was used to decorating on stuff, not necessarily making it from scratch. The most difficult thing for me was making the handbag mainly because I’m not a big time sewer.
Mz Mahogany: During the “Beach Hat” episode, you embellished an existing hat instead of creating one from scratch. If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do it the same way?
Probably so because I was so angry. That particular episode was setup to challenge me on a mental level because if you remember when we did all the handbag challenges what did we do, we went to Mood for materials, when we did the shoe challenge we went and we shopped for materials. When we did the hat challenge, who goes to the beach? What person do you know who makes hats or even a person who is not a hat maker, when they think of making a hat no one thinks well let’s just go to the beach and find materials. You know, I’m a hat designer so first of all even if you did grab some materials there was no body, frame, or wire to really to make the hat. I was really upset about that episode and I was going to quit. Even though you saw me jump and run on TV, I was going to quit because I felt like it was a setup. But if I quit, I felt like people watching me on TV would have felt like I couldn’t make hats because I quit. I thought that was really stupid and dumb. I know a couple of places in New York that we could have gotten supplies. I didn’t have materials that I truly needed to make a hat, not even a simple hat. No one seriously put together a good hat. I wanted to show that I could make something, so I actually made the hat 8 inches wider so I made the brim part of the hat by hand. You guys probably didn’t see me constructing that part on TV.
Mz Mahogany: Has being a contestant changed the way you design your hats or the way you see fashion?
Adrian: No because I don’t think it was as challenging as it could have been. It didn’t change anything for me. I’m still designing and I have more hat clients than I did before. So it has helped with sales but not the way I view fashion. We were not challenged fashionably like we could have. Like what was going on in trends for that particular time. For instance, I expected a Kentucky derby or royal wedding hat challenge. I was expecting something like that not a trip to the beach. That would have been fun for all of us. That would have been a real hat challenge. Who knows the hat designs we would have come up with. When that happened on the beach, it knocked me down and I just gave up.
Mz Mahogany: Is your mom’s personal style your inspiration when designing your hats?
Adrian: 100% yes since day one. My mom and I are beyond close. She’s what I call “elegantly overdone”. She doesn’t mind going on the edge. As long as it doesn’t look silly, she doesn’t mind what I put together. When I design for her, she doesn’t see it until it’s ready to wear. She trusts my vision.
Mz Mahogany: What advice can you give to a fashion student or newbie?
Adrian: Study fashion by going to a Barnes & Noble. Look at what’s going on in fashion. Find someone who inspires you and follow their lead because it’s no different from going to fashion school and taking the opinion of a teacher. It’s okay to use less than fine materials when you are starting out. Go to Wal-Mart and grab a T-shirt and practice. Eventually you will get to know your product and design capabilities. If you can afford it, go to design school. FIT in New York and SCAD in Georgia are the top.
As far as African-American designers are concerned, the young people going into this field need to understand “we” are not really there yet. There are some designers that do exist but you don’t really… well if you ask someone the name of an African-American designer 9 times out of 10 people can’t name one. They’d probably say Tracy Reese but that’s only if they know enough about her. We really don’t exist in this field and we have to understand it’s hard. I would tell anyone, it doesn’t matter what show you get, because I was on Project Accessories and look at me. Look at all the African-Americans that have been on Project Runway, where are they now? It’s a hard field to break into and you don’t want to use the race card as the reason but even our own people who I’ve met won’t help you. They’ll talk to you but they will not physically grab your hand and help you. I’m not saying hand out a job because we have to work hard for it but with most other designers people can make a phone call and get gigs. Our people who are in positions to help are not doing their part to bring us into the game.
Mz Mahogany: You must have some connections from being on Project Accessory. How are you helping fellow designers to get where you are now?
Adrian: Well Dana was my connection to get there and now that I have done the show, I’m still trying my best on my own to put myself in the game. I do have a project that I’m working on for a major recording artist and I’m helping her design her accessory line with a goal to debut this fall. When the opportunity comes when Adrian Dana’s name is at a place where I can grab someone else, I will do it. I want to do it, because we don’t exist in the true fashion game, in the Vogue fashion game, in the Elle fashion game. It upsets me.
Mz Mahogany: I see you are very passionate about breaking this barrier.
Adrian: I want things to change. I think it’s extremely unfair. It has nothing to do with any other race but our own. I don’t have a problem with white people or any other person in fashion. I have a problem with us. The African-Americans I go to do not help each other. It makes me angry and upset. It’s sad to say but there are so many of us in fashion school now that won’t make it. The people in power won’t help and it amazes me.
Mz Mahogany: African-Americans from DC and Maryland are trying to break into the fashion industry especially with this year’s 1st Annual Maryland Fashion Award show and events like DC/Baltimore Fashion week. Being from the area are you taking part in these events?
Adrian: No. And the reason I say that is because no one asked me. I was a part of Baltimore Fashion week when it started at Morgan State University. The main channels and magazines are still not covering these events and I want to know why. Where are the athletes, major entertainers and actors? I know your saying I can be a part of these events and help change things but no one has asked me and these things take money. I would be a part of these things if someone asked me but in fashion period it’s us holding us back.
Mz Mahogany: Have you tried to reach out to be a part of these events in addition to waiting for them to call you?
Adrian: I have not reached out yet. I’ve been asked to be a part of the one in Charlotte NC but I’m not sure if they could (or couldn’t) come up with the funds to get me there. It takes money to put these things together. Especially for the designer to put on a good show with quality items.
Mz Mahogany: Is the financial aspect of it all, the true barrier for making African-American fashion designers successful?
Adrian: Absolutely, as bad as it sounds, yes. It takes finances to put on a decent show and to bring the people you want to participate. NY Fashion week designers pay their way but look at the all the coverage they get. It’s not free. They pay magazines to be in the front row.
Mz Mahogany: How do we get around that barrier?
Adrian: Well Baltimore has the Ravens football team. Talk to the athletes, ask Ray Lewis to come be a part of fashion week. Yeah I know these people are usually paid to make appearances but he’s local and if you’re convincing he may say yes. Get some local names. The mayor of Baltimore (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) attends many events, ask her. Notify media outlets like the Baltimore Magazine, The Baltimore Sun, and the DC Washington Post. The names and media outlets will draw people. If I was on a fashion week board, I would think of all the personalities that would draw revenue to help the designers create a great show.
Mz Mahogany: Thanks for sharing Adrian. We hope to see you supporting the African-American fashion community in the future.
Adrian: No problem. And once I get to that level I will take my funds and make Baltimore Fashion week into something big. Hopefully next year. I know Baltimore has great designers with a lot of talent.