The Distinct Creativity of Morgan Davis
Morgan Davis, Distinctly Creative Founder and CEO
We originally planned to meet Morgan at her studio in Mount Rainier, Maryland, but COVID-19 had other plans. Given the new norms of physical-distancing and stay-at-home requirements, we resorted to a virtual conference call instead. With everything going on, I couldn't help but start our conversation with a simple "how are you?" She responded with a gentle smile and, "You know --- I'm as good as I can be." Luckily for black creatives in the DMV area, Morgan's "good" is more like great.
Morgan founded Distinctly Creative in response to her own call to action to address the lack of diversity and support for black creatives across all disciplines of art. What started as a series of networking events in 2015, quickly grew into the home base of black creatives for social and professional development, the black creative marketplace, business coaching and consulting, and most importantly, a safe-space centered around artistic and economic empowerment to help black creative entrepreneurs thrive.
While Distinctly Creative as a business is still young, Morgan has been in the game since the age of 17 where she started her first clothing line creating bespoke pieces specifically for women sizes 14 and up. In the last 6+ years, Morgan has worked within the AdWords team at Google and provided marketing and graphic design services to a variety of institutions like the University of Maryland, George Mason University, and the National Trust of Historic Preservation.
Morgan's expressions as a graphic and fashion designer, marketer and photographer, are all impressive contributions to the arts, but her passion for amplifying other black entrepreneurs and supporting them as a business strategist, has been critical to pushing the boundaries of an industry that is excluding the full range of black creativity.
Sitting on the other side of the screen, Morgan's comforting composure was perfectly balanced with her stunningly dramatic accessories --- both shining through the screen of our virtual call. We talked about the early days of her fashion entrepreneurship, what success looks like for her work, the stereotypes of “the right kind of creative,” and much more.
S: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you started your journey as a fashion entrepreneur?
M: My family is very artistically inclined. I originally got into art through singing where I eventually became classically trained. I started doing musicals but didn’t feel aligned with the script and wanted to work on set design and costumes backstage.
My Fashion illustration teacher at Howard was an inspiration and motivator for my work. At 17, I had started a fashion line called Hey Big Trender (which later transitioned into Morganeliz), but it was really stressful. It was taking a lot of time and the clothing line and blog I had at the time didn’t mesh well. My teacher helped me understand my artistic voice and get clear on what I want to do and give to others.
New collection piece designed and worn by Morgan Davis
While in school I also started doing fashion and art shows as well as consulting and coaching services for other clothing artists. I was really frustrated with the lack of diversity and tokenism in the field. I knew and worked with so many talented people that deserved to be part of these large events and experiences, but weren’t getting their shot at the stage simply because they couldn’t get access to a financial resource network. I told myself that I was either going to do something about the inequity I saw, or I was going to stop complaining. So...I decided to take what I know through the experiences I’ve had to help other black creatives thrive.
S: You mentioned tokenism, can you say more about how that shows up in the fashion and art world?
M: I see it in a few ways. One is in the type of art that’s deemed acceptable and then prioritized for funding. Since fashion design requires technical training and math proficiency, there's a perception that it's not really creative and as such, not really"art" per se. For example, there’s a renaissance within cities to embrace muralism as art. Now, there’s government-sponsored grant funding going to muralists and visual artists, but other disciplines like fashion are left out of consideration. Being left out of this conversation also means you are left out of funding opportunities as well.
There’s also tokenism that values a certain type of black creativity and black artist. Just like the corporate world largely accepts a certain type of black person, the same can be true in other industries. You have the “hippy” creatives like Solange, Sza, and Erikah Badu or the gallery artists that can pass in places like Google or Facebook because they are seen as polished and corporate. In reality, there are so many other people and identities outside of that but aren't being recognized.
Take plus size, LBGTQIA, or non-gender conforming black artists. There’s not nearly the same consistent representation for queer black creatives unless it’s Pride month, where their representation is strategically positioned as an angle to flaunt diversity and inclusion but it so short-lived.
S: How has your experience so far shaped your business strategy?
M: Something I took from the UMD entrepreneurship program was the concept of a minimum viable product or MVP. This means you make something that isn’t the full-fledged idea but a bite-sized trial version that allows you to put it into the market and it isn’t costing you serious money. If you have the money, go all the way for it, if you don’t, you’ve got to start small and lean, and then work in parts to support your bigger concept. People want to make it super perfect the first time; it’s important to realize that you can build better from strong bones.
I asked myself what are the main components that I want this thing to have? The answers for me were events and a store. I started hosting networking events for the first year which helped me strengthen my name recognition and allowed me to start to generate money towards the larger goal.
In the beginning, I was so eager to get my name out there that I said yes to everything. I wasn’t thinking strategically. Now instead of automatically saying yes to people, I’ll say “I will get back to you in 3-4 business days” so I can sit on it and think about how this would or wouldn’t align with my goals.
S: What words of wisdom do you have for others that are trying to prioritize what may be a few different creative passions into business ideas?
M: I wanted to do and have everything. I spent a lot of very stressful, long nights on things that ultimately were not worth doing. For Distinctly Creative, I found what makes the most financial sense relative to the impact and value I wanted to create. In the end, you can only do so much. We may have passions and interests, but there are probably a few things that can be core to your mission and principle. Let other people that are more knowledgeable in the other areas take those other things. You’ve got to stop trying to please the world and focus on your expertise because not everyone can be your customer.
An event hosted at Distinctly Creative
S: The discipline to pause and suppress a quick “yes!” is really impressive. I would imagine that practice could be hard to keep since the dominant culture is rooted in quick-action and time urgency. Are there other ways that you’ve changed to combat cultural norms that don’t serve your business?
M: I listened to this podcast A Little JuJu. She said, as black people, we have to have conversations with ourselves that confront the ways white supremacy shows up in our life or work. Something that entrepreneurs, particularly those of color, struggle with is monetizing our work. For a long time, we were the currency. The historical associations we have with time, money, and output have made it hard for us to determine our value. We are very uncomfortable charging people for things, but how are we going to feed our family? There’s a way to price your products that honor their value while helping people afford your product or service. If you're concerned about your customers, you could offer sliding scales or different price points according to the sections of your brand. For example, Ralph Lauren has its Purple Label for its luxury collection, while Lauren by Ralph Lauren is arguably more affordable.
S: At the We Work of Color event you talked about how “creativity” is seen as a cute hobby rather than a profession. What stereotypes or misconceptions do you think contribute to this judgment?
M: If you're not in big box stores, your work is compared to the products that are. People assume that if it’s being made by hand, it’s not as high quality and it should be cheaper. It’s like this is cute but can it do what Bath and Body Works does? The tendency to associate quality and success with being in a Big Box store makes it harder for smaller businesses to succeed in their own right.
S: If it's not Big Box stores, how do you define success for your work and your business goals?
M: My goal has never been to be in big box stores. I’m a big advocate of creating your own spaces, instead of squeezing yourself into places that do not want you there. I want to produce clothing and collections at large scale and have brick and mortar stores. I want to keep things made in the US and employ other black creatives from every aspect of the business. I want an impact that’s on the same level as a Fashionova particularly for plus-sized folks. I want to bring other black creatives up with me and have their products in my store.
Distinctly Creative Marketplace
So what’s next for Distinctly Creative? Meet up and networking plans for Distinctly Creative are on hold until COVID-19 guidelines allow us to safely return to back to society without restrictions on social gathering restrictions. In the meantime, the space will be transitioning into a studio for Morganeliz and serve as the home office for Distinctly Creative for one-on-one coaching, business development, workshops, and intimate social gatherings. Morgan still wants to maintain the spirit of the black creative marketplace with pop-ups twice a month that coincides with a month-long feature of a local black artist. For now, these services will be offered virtually.
Look out for Morgan's Libations Collection of custom pieces to drop May 1st, purchase #blackcreativesmatter apparel, and follow Distinctly Creative on IG for your daily dose of inspiration and connection to black creative experiences.