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Practical Power: Fashion Designer Jody Davis

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BmoreArt’s Picks: October 13-19

Jody Davis is working in the back room of her Saratoga Street shop in downtown Baltimore. She is focused on a printed maxi dress made out of a mesh jersey fabric that cascades at the hemline and hits the floor, but she isn’t yet satisfied with her sample. “It needs a bit more,” she says, pausing for a moment, “something else to give it that drama that I’m looking for.”

Beyond the runway and the showroom stocked with this season’s looks, finished garments line the wall of her studio, rolls of natural fabrics pile high, and spools of thread dot the wall with color. A Juki straight-stitch sewing machine sits on a green table in the corner, and Davis’s trusted dress form, where she drapes fabric to begin most of her designs, stands nearby.

Her fashion line, Jody Davis Designs, recently celebrated its tenth year, and her garments have been worn by the likes of television journalists Soledad O’Brien and Gayle King. Davis favors form-fitting silhouettes with thoughtful details, balancing classic design with avant-garde touches. On an otherwise simple white dress, puffed sleeves and a center high neck create a sense of strength. Beaded fringe on the body of a little black dress shimmers with movement, while its sheer cap sleeves feature an understated grid-patterned lace. Davis pays attention to every element—the trim, the zippers, the buttons—they’re all important.

 

 

She wants her clothing to make women feel “feminine but powerful, chic, and stylish”—attributes that also describe this Black woman from West Baltimore crafting high-end fashion in her hometown. Davis first started making clothes when she was around 15, after her parents gave her a sewing machine for Christmas. When family and friends said they liked her work, she thought they were just being nice. “Then I started getting compliments from people I didn’t know,” Davis says. “I started saying to myself, ‘You know, this might be something.’”

She applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, but was told to improve on her sketching, so she took art classes in Baltimore and commuted to New York once a week for draping classes. When Davis reapplied to FIT that next semester, she recalls the admissions counselor telling her that she wouldn’t need to see her portfolio. Her determination had proven she really wanted to be there. She earned her degree in fashion design in 1991, and a year later earned a second degree in accessory design.

“Going to school in New York gave me that chutzpah, that tenacity,” Davis says. “Because you’ve got to be pretty darn bold and you’ve got to be pretty darn confident to believe in yourself.”

After graduating, she spent nearly 20 years working for the government, in the mortgage industry, and in sales, adapting as needed before launching her own line in 2009. Her mutable career path taught her to be flexible as an entrepreneur. After the COVID-19 pandemic came to Maryland in the spring, Davis put aside the dresses and started making masks, adapting her design until it hit all the right notes in terms of fit, fabric, and breathability.

 

 

“What has worked in the past is not necessarily going to keep sustaining into the future,” Davis says, adding that she brought on DeNae Dutton, her niece, and Marcel Warfield, a close family friend whom she calls her nephew, to bring a millennial perspective and connect with younger generations.

Dutton, the brand’s customer relations manager, and Warfield, the digital content creator, helped Davis introduce a bridge line with more affordable options. Lately, Warfield has also been creating videos that feature Davis modeling her own clothes and providing styling recommendations. “Because of the pieces she’s wearing, she really is her own influencer,” he says.

Davis designs women’s wear because “I can’t wear men’s clothes, so I’m not interested,” she says. It’s a callback to the days when she made clothes just for herself. Dutton recalls attending family functions when “my aunt would have the finest, most fabulous pieces,” she says. At the time, Dutton didn’t know Davis was designing and sewing every garment herself.

Davis favors wearing all black, but her looks vary depending on the fabric and silhouette of the outfit, as well as how she styles herself. That versatility is evident in her garments, many of which are designed for both day and evening wear. With new shoes and accessories, an outfit for a business meeting turns into a cocktail party dress. She makes clothing for women who, like herself, are on the move.

This practicality informs the materials, too. Davis prefers working with high-quality natural fabrics such as cotton, wool, and denim, because of their durability and reliability. She makes clothing intended to last, unlike fast fashion that leads to landfill waste. “In the olden days, people used to pass their clothes down,” she says. “That’s because fabrics were natural and they had a high fiber content.”

 

 

Flexibility, movement, and comfort are also important to her, and she wants to create garments that flatter every shape. Davis’s dresses “complement any and every body type. She knows what’s going to be a good look for each client because she understands them. It really is this personal, family-like connection that she has with everybody,” Dutton says. “She understands how to make a woman feel powerful with her dresses.”

Power comes up often in conversation with Davis, and it echoes throughout her designs in the form of clean lines and architectural draping. Some of her dresses stand like monuments, tall and crisp as they hug hips and waists. Others are softer, with flowing A-line flared skirts that ripple as they twirl. Her styles reflect a broad definition of womanhood, knowing the versatile strength that women possess. “Women, quite frankly, I feel like we rule the world,” she says.

Warfield admires Davis’s own power and determination. “Jody is just so fearless. She’s such a strong woman. No matter how the industry has changed, no matter how hard it’s been, no matter what it is, she does whatever it takes,” he says. “We live in this world where we all want this instant gratification, but I think with her she’s willing to show you the process and that each step is really a step forward.”

 

 

While her business now has a small production crew in New York to help with fabrication, Davis still makes every sample herself. “She’s the creator, she’s the designer, she’s the salesperson,” Dutton says. “She really does wear all the hats and she does it really well.”

Ten years in, Davis wants to use her knowledge and experience to inspire others. She hopes to open a summer camp in West Baltimore to teach high schoolers about sewing and the fashion industry. She wants to “talk to young girls that look like me who are afraid that there’s nothing out there for them, to let them know there’s an opportunity,” she says.

She’s candid when sharing her story, willing to talk about her fears, doubts, and missteps. “The reality is I’m just a little girl right from the hood of Baltimore, just hustling and grinding,” Davis says. She also knows that success doesn’t happen overnight, and that the process is just as important as the goal.

“You’ve got to be in your zone, perfecting your craft, learning as much as you can learn, just keep pushing forward,” Davis says. “That’s in anything. Whether you’re baking cookies or making dresses.”

 

 

Read it in print: This story was originally published in Issue 09: Craft

This story is from Issue 09: Craft,

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