By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
Turning darkness into light has inspired fashion designer Jeff Austin both professionally and personally. The 23-year-old has dealt with depression—since his time at Bottenfield Middle School (now Minor Middle School) in Adamsville—but he didn’t let that define him.
“I needed to figure out how I can flip this around to try to put that energy into something creative,” he said. “I want people to see something they can relate to, something they can see themselves in.”
Austin added that his fashion is for anybody, not for the “typical model.”
“I want anybody to see my stuff and … just know they have a place with me or my brand. … I know what clothing did for me and the confidence and power it gives me. … If I feel this way, I know somebody … else feels this way. I just want them to get the same feeling I get.”
Making clothing is important to inspire other people, he said: “[It gives] hope to somebody else … looking at me and everything I’ve been through, everything I will go through.”
Austin’s journey has been one filled with health challenges. As a child he faced several complications, including sleep apnea and asthma. At one point, his family was told that he wasn’t expected to live beyond the age of 1. But he beat the odds.
Last summer was particularly rough for Austin because his job at Western Hills Mall relocated to Homewood; the move caused complications related to his high blood pressure. In addition, he lost his car in an accident and struggled to keep up with the rent for his apartment.
“Though the military was paying for my schooling, it was only tuition and books,” which had him worried, he said. “Everything I could turn to was kind of bad, so it was like, ‘What can I turn to now?’”
The answer for him was obvious—and it all came back to fashion.
“I’ve always sort of had my own identity,” he said. “I was just always different. I have blue hair, so … I have the freedom to express myself and dress how I want. …
I haven’t pinpointed [what it is about fashion], … but there’s just a certain joy I get. This is what made me who I am. … If you dress good, you feel good.”
A Creative Child
Austin was born in Selma and raised in Orrville. When he was 2 years old, his family moved to Birmingham. He has lived in several neighborhoods, including Titusville, East Lake, and Adamsville, where he currently lives. No matter where he lived, though, fashion and design were always part of his life. His mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother sewed. Also, his oldest brother (of five) sketches art and fashion, so Austin grew up watching him.
“The colors, the fun, the creativity” of fashion caught his eye, Austin said, noting that he was big on sneakers: Jordans, Nike Air Force Ones, LeBrons, Vans. When he was in middle school, he would always try to find clothing that matched and told himself, “You have all this sewing equipment around you, why not make clothes?”
“That’s pretty much how I started,” he said. “Even before that, I would just doodle or draw, … so the creative child in me survived.”
Clothing was how Austin expressed himself.
“I guess I can say [the way I dress] is influenced by my mom, too. She always dressed us … a little fancy, so I guess [dressing up] was something that stayed with me,” he said. “I can’t think of anything else I would be doing. Of course, I’ve tried different things—sports and playing the violin, drums, and guitar—but nothing really stuck the way this did.”
Although sewing runs in the family, no one taught him the craft. Austin said he taught himself how to sew. During his sophomore year at Minor High School in Adamsville, he started selling some of the pieces he made to other high schoolers. His fashion creations included changing the brims on hats with a different fabric and designing T-shirts with pocket squares to match the hat brims.
“I’ve always been the kid that never wanted to work a nine-to-five,” he said. “I was like, ‘If I can make this into what I want to do, life would be great.”
A Good Story
After graduating from high school, Austin took a year off before attending college and worked for a graphic design company.
“The biggest thing I can say I learned is how to run and operate my own business by watching the owners of the design company,” he said.
In 2015, he enrolled at the University of Alabama to study apparel design; he graduated in August.
“If it weren’t for [the fashion program], I wouldn’t have gone to school. I would have just tried to make it happen on my own, which is what I was trying to do,” Austin said. “But … the route I was on versus school, it was like school put me 10 steps ahead.
“School taught me a little more than I knew sewing-wise, but overall the aspects of business, connections, and networking [that I learned] were really more beneficial than sewing because I pretty much knew how to do everything on my own already.”
Sources of Inspiration
Austin gets inspiration from a broad range of sources. For instance, he went to space camp in 2004, and recently while cleaning out his room he found his space jumpsuit and asked himself, “I wonder what I can take from this and … flip it?”
“I’m big on space. That was something in my life that was monumental and super important to me,” he said, adding that through his work he tries to “give a good story behind it.”
“I feel like I want to be big on telling the story through the clothing.”
He also focuses on why he’s inspired by certain things: “That’s how I like to work. I don’t really like forcing it,” he said.
Austin’s design aesthetic involves playing with lines, shapes, color blocking, and seam lines, as well as taking a basic silhouette and reworking the outline to become something else. Currently, he is doing custom pieces but not collections.
“At this point in my life, I’m just more concerned with making sure I’m putting the best out,” he said.
Austin’s goal is to move to New York City, where he can work with other designers and different brands for about five years and learn as much as possible about the fashion industry.
Sense of Purpose
In addition to being a fashion designer, Austin is a visual artist. He started painting in 2014 and “doodled” previously, he said.
“I’m more focused on the fashion than the art. Art was just something I could go to as an escape from the fashion when I wanted to be creative but didn’t want to necessarily deal with clothes.”
Like many other creatives, Austin uses his talent in other areas, such as photography and music, which includes some mixes and beats he’s done as a DJ.
“I wasn’t supposed to be here,” he said, recalling the grim prediction about his life when he was an infant. “I feel like this is my purpose in the world. … In a sense, it’s what I owe God. He kept me here. He gave me this. So, it’s like, … I want to show you it wasn’t in vain.”