By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
Fashion designer Kenya Buchanan’s creativity has no bounds. In high school, she once wore an orange shirt and carried around an orange for an event that day.
“I would have afro puffs one day. I would have an afro one day. I would have long, straight blonde hair one day. My hair would be short one day. I would have glitter on. … It was just always something creative,” said Buchanan. “I had no idea in high school that it would lead to a career in fashion.”
But it has.
Buchanan, 38, known as Kenya B, won the 2017 Magic City Fashion Week Emerging Designer Competition. Now she is preparing for a New York Fashion Week (February 7 through 15) presentation, during which she plans to combine her two collections—Spice and Fruitopia—and add an extra Kenya B flair.
“I’m such a component for living your dream, if you have a dream,” Buchannan said. “I hate when I hear people say, ‘I wish I would have.’ I never want to have an I-wish-I-would-have moment. That’s why, in 2013, I said, ‘It’s all or nothing.’ I told myself, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m not going to ever do it.’ [I didn’t want to turn] 60 and I wish I would have quit [my corporate job] and gone to design school.”
In 2013, Buchanan left a position she held for about 11 years.
“I left a lot of money. I left [health] insurance. I left everything. People thought I was crazy,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is not what I should be doing with my life.’ Yeah, it will pay the way financially, … but my sanity and happiness are worth more than money, so I left.”
Buchannan enrolled at the University of Alabama to get a bachelor’s degree in Apparel Design. She was so motivated that she drove from her home in Pleasant Grove to Tuscaloosa every day. In 2016, she graduated with straight A’s, something she’d never done before.
“[My professors] were pushing me to do internships in New York, but I couldn’t because I had my [husband and two children],” she said, adding that she is rooted in the South.
“We’re here next to Atlanta, next to Nashville, next to New Orleans,” she pointed out. “Nothing stops you from traveling, so there was really no need.”
Buchanan grew up in Fairfield and now lives in Pleasant Grove with her husband, who was her high school sweetheart, and their two children: a boy, 19, and a girl, 12.
Buchanan doesn’t have brothers or sisters: “It was always just me.”
“When people tried to impose their thinking on me, it just really never affected me because I’ve always sort of been a loner. I’m a people person, but I’m a loner at the same time,” she said.
Though she didn’t know what path she wanted to follow when she was younger, Buchannan has always been into fashion. At Fairfield High School, she was voted most versatile because no one ever knew what she was going to wear. Still, at that time she was a long way from a fashion career.
Her first interest was mortuary science; she thought she wanted to be an embalmer. When she was in high school, her best friend’s cousin was a mortician in Birmingham, and they visited the mortuary.
“I was like, ‘This is cool,’ … [which was] weird because you don’t hear a lot of people saying that centered around death,” she said. “So, for me to want to actually embalm—not [be a funeral director]; I wanted to be the embalmer—was kind of weird to a lot of people.”
When Buchannan graduated from high school, she had two choices: Alabama State University or Jefferson State Community College (JSCC) “because JSCC was the only school in Alabama that offered a [Funeral Service Education] program. … The path was there, but it wasn’t clear.”
Buchannan enrolled at JSCC to pursue a career in the funeral field but then decided it wasn’t something she wanted.
“I feel like it was never meant for me to actually be a mortician,” she said. “It was meant for me to always run something or own something, not necessarily own a funeral home. … Now, I run my own business.”
Her next stop was the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), though she still was unsure about her career choice. Several people had told her, “You’ll always have a job if you go into accounting,” so that’s what she did.
After realizing that accounting wasn’t for her, Buchannan majored in management, “not knowing I would be running my own design house,” she said.
After graduating from UAB with a bachelor’s degree in management, she worked with the executive director of a Fortune 500 company in Birmingham.
“That’s really when I realized I can’t work for anyone,” she said. “He was the worst person I had ever worked with in my life.”
That stint led to Buchannan’s fashion career. When she turned 30, she asked her mother to help her make a dress: “When she helped me make that dress, I knew then that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Buchanan loves fashion that relates to culture.
“I’ve always liked wooden earrings. I love graphic [T-shirts] because [they enable you to] say something without opening your mouth. I do what makes me happy,” she said.
One day, you may catch Buchannan in all red. Another day, she’ll don all black.
“If I’m wearing black, it’s because I’m sad. I typically don’t wear black; … it’s just dull, and I’m such a colorful person. I like color, so what I wear per day depends on how I’m feeling.” she said.
When it comes to researching for her fashion collections, Buchanan starts in Africa because she is inspired by African culture and textiles.
“I found the marketplaces in Morocco interesting. … When the sun hit the colors just right, it glistened, so I’m like, ‘Oh, Spice!’ Once I got that in my head, I went to the fabric store and started piecing fabrics together,” said Buchanan of her Spice collection.
She studied women in Colombia, South America, who carry baskets on their heads: “I saw that they wore ruffles and bright colors, so I put a little spin on it. That’s what birthed Fruitopia,” which launched in 2018.
Buchannan is also inspired by everyday life. When walking into different places, she would notice women out and about wearing pajamas and beauty-supply-store bonnets.
“That’s … my pet peeve. I can’t stand it. I hate it,” she said. “If you’re going to wear your bonnet out in public—though bonnets are for grooming—it can at least be stylish. So, in order to put my Kenya B. flare on [bonnets], I wanted to make them colorful and functional [with] an element that protects the hair, whether it’s natural or relaxed.”
That led to the creation of Bonnets by Kenya B (check them out at www.kenyabuchanan.com), a line Buchannan launched last year. Her bonnets are designed with Ankara fabric and African wax prints on the outside and a satin inner lining “to protect and hold moisture in the hair.”
“[Women] can wear them in the rain [to protect their] hair from humidity, [too],” she said.
Buchannan’s bonnets are also a stylish option for children and women suffering from illnesses that cause hair loss.
“This year, one initiative I definitely want to launch is for children. I plan to give away a dozen or so [bonnets] to kids who need them,” she said.
Another initiative that’s close to Buchannan’s heart is raising awareness about colon cancer.
“My mom passed away from colon cancer,” she said. “March is [National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month], and my mom [received treatment] at Princeton [Baptist Medical Center]. So, my goal for March is to go to the oncology department at Princeton and to give bonnets to ladies—blue bonnets, in particular, because that represents colon cancer.”
In addition to everything else on Buchanan’s plate, every prom season she donates a dress to a young woman who is a good student and may not be able to afford the prom dress or experience she wants. She’s done this for the past four years and usually announces it on social media and chooses a Fairfield High School student, “since I went to Fairfield,” she said.
“[The young lady must] be willing to trust me on the design. … I’m in control of the design, the color, everything.”
Also, this year, Buchannan plans to offer sewing lessons. She got the idea from a client who asked if she would be interested in teaching his daughter how to sew. “I thought about it, and [I think] it would be fun,” she said. “This is how I can give my gift back at the same time and … gauge whether or not I would want to teach on a college level.”
Buchannan hopes her sewing lessons show young people that there are career options available in areas other than accounting, engineering, and traditional fields. She hopes to inspire high school students to pursue more creative livelihoods.
“It might not pay $100,000 right off, but your happiness sometimes is more important,” she said. “[If] you do something you’re happy about and passionate about, you [won’t roll] out of bed saying [with regret], ‘I’ve got to go to work today,’ you’ll … want to get up and do what you need to do.”