Seven seconds. That’s all the time needed for the average person to assess your personal brand, according to Dawn Thibodeaux, branding and mindset coach.
“Now, whether they are right or wrong, the package that you’re showing up with is what they are going to see.”
Her philosophy and book, “The Power of Clothing & Personal Packaging”, centers around a trifecta: once you change your mind and clothes, you change your life. Thibodeaux says she sees Black women being victims to clothing, which negatively impacts their work performance and keeps them from promotions.
“They’re getting dressed thinking one thing—that what they’re wearing is sending a particular message when, unfortunately, it’s not.”
Thibodeaux finds that some women think their co-workers are envious of their style or clothing choices when, in reality, they are being mocked.
“There’s a balance. So, while you want to be who you are, you also want to be aware of the environment that you’re walking into.”
One aspect of Black women’s style she admires is the critical role color plays in wardrobe choices. However, she says it’s important to choose colors that make sense for the environment.
She believes it is important for Black women to have honest advocates in their lives who tell them the truth about the personal brand they’re projecting. She explains that it’s imperative to know your body type and when certain articles of clothing are appropriate to wear.
“One would say if you went into a construction zone wearing a tutu, I don’t think you’ll be taken seriously.”
Thibodeaux says respect is fundamental for clothing choices in various spaces.
“Respecting yourself in a way that you can bring your personality to that particular event in a way that also respects the people you are going to be interacting with.”
She tells her clients that to achieve the life they want, they should choose the best clothing they can afford, use a tailor to get the right fit and ignore the numbers that correspond with size. She says that once the trifecta is achieved, Black women gain the power and confidence needed to have the life they desire.
“By doing that, then they are changing the dollar signs on their paychecks, and when that happens, that gives them the opportunity to put their children in different schools and ultimately change the legacy of their families.”
According to Tamiko White, fashion entrepreneur and media personality, a strong blazer, accessories, tailored shirt, sweatsuit and boyfriend jeans are items that every Black woman should have in her work wardrobe. She believes that when emotions are out-of-wack, work is piling up or a nosey co-worker is minding your business and not her own, figuring out what to wear can feel daunting.
White sees fashion as a form of storytelling and representation of personal style and self-awareness. She recommends viewing fashion as a sentence. “Your clothes are the words; the accessories are the comma, exclamation point and the parenthesis.”
She shares her thoughts on must-have items that can get you through the nonsense with finesse.
Blazing a trail with a solid blazer
When you are going through it, you begin to question everything, which means you don’t have the answers to your challenges. As a solution, White says to first look to a blazer, which shows confidence whether it is denim, has accentuated shoulders, oversized or fitted. It’s a versatile piece that works in the office, via video conference and with various tops and bottoms. When you want to show strength even when you aren’t feeling so strong, starting with a blazer can make the outfit without causing too much stress on the mind.
“When there’s a thing, that’s a thing, that’s a thing, I grab a blazer.”
Punctuate with accessories
If you want to draw others’ eyes away from your side eye or make someone smile, focus on choosing a fabulous accessory. “Accessories make people happy,” she says. “I love a great blouse, but there’s something about a beautiful necklace or a stunning pair of earrings.” Choosing an accessory that makes you feel good about yourself or has sentimental value can give your confidence a boost.
While traditional jewelry, such as earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, maybe the first items that come to mind when you think about accessories, shoes, glasses, nails, hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, ankle bracelets, and even a handkerchief on a handbag are a part of this group. Even though it may seem that everyone wears the same hair, nail polish and carries the same bags, don’t fret because no one will wear it like you. “How you wear your accessories is very telling for people because ten women can have the same bag, but if they rock it differently, it’s unique,” she says. “It’s all about color, layers, and personalization.”
Getting personal with your clothing and figuring out what makes you look “put together” can help you choose the right item with minimal effort. A fitted cardigan and a V-neck t-shirt are great for layering a look, but the tailored shirt is a core piece for a timeless wardrobe.
“I know it sounds really basic, but a tailored shirt can be white, navy, blue or striped, and it can help you look clean and polished.”
Sweatsuits as armor
An item that can help us feel protected and comforted is the sweatsuit. Because it is a set, there is no need to worry about finding a top or a bottom because it’s a ready-made outfit that you can put on and go. Gone are the days when sweatsuits are for the gym or a weekend excursion with the kids; they are now considered a suitable fashion choice for many work settings. White suggests choosing fun, bold accessories and pairing the sets with the “wrong shoes,” such as stilettos, ballet flats, loafers and boots. She says the versatility of sweatsuits is the variety of fabrics, from cashmere to French terry, linen and silk blends.
Boyfriend Jeans in the clutch
When all else fails, White says to choose boyfriend jeans paired with flats, boots or sneakers, as the possibilities are endless with this wardrobe staple. They can also be glammed up with an embellished blazer, camisole, stilettos, statement jewelry or a hat. Some women may find the boyfriend jean fit a little engulfing, especially after wearing fitted jeans for many years. Copping the right boyfriend jean that compliments your shape and height is important. She suggests using bold belts and rolling up the pant legs to finish the look.
White says to find basic work pieces that help to pull together an effortless look. Consider brands such as Veronica Beard, Cos, Zara, Max Mara Studio, Tibi and Norma Kamali. “You want neutrals, so it doesn’t feel overpowering in the workplace but still feels elevated and designed.”
Black women rocking bold colors should be the name of a coffee book, and we know the photos would be stunning. Throughout history, Black women have embraced vibrant hues, cultivating patterns and complicated textures – telling stories through color.
“If a person is drawn to colors that are bolder, it shows more confidence and someone you can trust,” says Amy Wax, color expert and creator of the Color911 App.
Our staff at Notable wanted to dig a little deeper and examine what our color choices say about us and how we can use color to our advantage in the workplace.
“Color communicates, color shifts, color participates,” says Michelle Lewis, color psychology expert. “I believe it was created to support us. Our hormones run off it; our sleep cycle runs off of it. Our mood, in a lot of ways, runs off it.”
From years of studying color, Lewis believes it should be embraced and used as a tool and an ally. “I think it is boundariless in terms of what we can do to bring it into our situation.”
Whatever you are experiencing, Wax believes that color is a part of everything we do, starting with when we get dressed for work. “It is such a subliminal part of who we are,” she says. For example, she says wearing or seeing all white looks well-organized, pure and fresh. It’s giving Lisa Raye or Mother of the Church.
On the other hand, Lewis says there are other colors, like grey, which can mute personality over time. “That’s what can lead to depression, disconnectivity and feeling ‘blah’ at work,” says Lewis. She says the problem is that most people are in a grey work environment, and then they go to work every day wearing Black and wonder why they’re miserable.
We have been conditioned to wear Black at work for interviews or big meetings, and while it can be seen as unassuming, Lewis says it can have the opposite effect. “It’s what’s become a cultural norm in a work environment,” she says. “But you’re not going to stand out at all.”
Lewis says there are eight primary communication colors that are behaviorally, culturally and scientifically part of our language and how we communicate.
Both experts agree that Blue conveys trustworthiness, reliability, honesty and loyalty. If you are having a tough time at work, feeling harassed or overwhelmed, shades of blue are solid choices. “Deeper blues bring down blood pressure and heart rate,” says Lewis. “All they’re going to know is that they feel more trusting and calmer when they are around you.”
It is also a smart color to wear if you are looking to get hired or promoted.
It can be associated with balance and family. Not a typical work choice color for most people, it could have one of two effects on others, according to Lewis. “They are just going to avoid you because they are uncomfortable, and the color is saying cautionary traffic cone, or they’ll want to sit down on your couch, spend time with you and be your best friend.”
Want to convey confidence, then consider red, with caution. Outside of holiday cheer, in the office, red can be seen as aggressive and cause overstimulation for those sharing office space. You may want to avoid this color if you are struggling with being bullied or harassed in the workplace.
Purple is driven and connection-based and can be a good color for building workplace relationships, camaraderie and collaboration.
Yellow is the most peak sensitivity in terms of what the eye can experience. It can keep you awake, energized and focused on your future. It can help you and others around you feel a little more joyful. On the flip side, it can also be overstimulating, especially with someone who is neurodivergent.
When you think of softness and femininity, pink is the first color to come to mind. It can make you feel comfortable when worn as clothing. However, as décor, it may cause you to retreat and not be as social or communicative. Studies have shown it to increase the desire to eat desserts.
Magenta is very bold, revolutionary and stimulating. Think T-Mobile outpacing AT&T in sales. It is not a color to avoid, but you should wear it with caution in the workplace as it is connected with a few politically charged campaigns, such as the “Rock Against Reagan.”
Green is balancing and is the most neutral to our eyes when perceiving color. It can affect heart rate and is helpful if you need stability in your office. An interesting fact about green is that it will bring you up when you feel down and vice versa, so use it carefully.
Our color experts spoke and Blue is the color for our first issue of Notable because it communicates trustworthiness, reliability and honesty. It’s also considered the best color to wear when you are looking to get hired or promoted.
Raven DuBois, stylist for executives and influencers, put together a blue style edit to give us you one last thing to think about as you navigate the workplace and your social lives.
“Adding a pop of blue to your outfit can be as easy as wearing your favorite denim skirt this summer. Pair different shades of blue with neutrals like white or beige. Try pairing various shades of blue together for a monochromatic look, and never be afraid to wear blue with black for a night out.”
Quiet as it’s kept, I’ve known Undra Celeste, designer, owner and creative director of the fashion brand Undra Celeste New York, for 25 years and counting. After more than two decades, while she has evolved, thankfully, she hasn’t changed. This interview is a long time coming. The process started as a therapeutic phone call in 2018 and continued during a vibrant trip in February this year to celebrate her birthday in Marrakech, Morocco, until now on an 11 a.m. Zoom video call (New York time) at our respective desks across the world to round it out for the first issue of Notable. Without skipping a beat, she agreed to be the cover story years ago when the magazine was a planted seed. When I reminded her of her promise while haggling in the souks with a relentless amo (uncle) over a black and white shag rug, her high cheekbones popped as she smiled, “Of course. I am so happy you’re finally doing this magazine, girl. I can’t wait!”
We walked through Marrakech for a week, purchasing items for our new apartments and her upcoming brick-and-mortar shop in New Jersey and finding inspiration for her designs now in Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. Like in New York, she stood out. Everywhere we went, men called out to her, “Hey, Lady Gaga!” We were both stunned at how a petite, beautiful dark-skin Black woman with a button nose wearing a silky, blunt, middle-part bob could be called someone equally as fabulous but the complete opposite in appearance. We didn’t get it. At best, we thought maybe it was a cultural disconnect; at worst, something a little more sinister. We asked everyone we encountered what it meant because it was happening everywhere, and no one would explain. On the final day of our trip, we found someone who reluctantly shared that it wasn’t derogatory in nature but due to her fly and avant-garde style that stood out among the locals. Although we side-eyed, we could live with that.
“It feels a little like sweet revenge because it feels like, okay, you really tried to crush me; you really tried to put out this fire you knew I had inside of me, but I won. I won despite it all.”
Throughout our friendship, we have maintained an “ain’t no mountain high enough” level of love, respect and unwavering support. However, we struggle to see eye-to-eye on many global and social issues, and that’s what’s true about Undra. She is fervently opinionated, wildly optimistic, painfully loyal and blindly steeped in faith. Yet, there is room for disagreements that allow friendships to thrive and trust to grow. She is the poster child for “come as you are” and works at crafting a life that mirrors what Jesus would want for her, with a little bit of gossip and cussing from time to time. While we may disagree on the economics of Guyana (where both her parents were born)—the South American country that borders Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil—we find common ground on corporate America and its ability to traumatize Black women into entrepreneurship.
Maybe a win is a win because here we are, living our dreams despite the trail of white women bosses who pushed us into finding ways to never go back to corporate. Having both worked in fashion in different capacities, we had a shared experience. Still, the Brooklyn-born Howard University graduate remained in the industry and made a name for herself through the brand, her collaboration with Harlem’s Fashion Row and the groundbreaking Nike design partnership in 2018, where she teamed up with fellow Black women fashion designers, Fe Noel and Kimberly Goldson to create Lebron’s first-ever women’s basketball shoe. When I brag about her, these are some of the accomplishments I list. However, if you ask Undra, she’ll tell you that what she’s most proud of is her longevity in the fashion business.
“The number one thing I count is that I’m still here. This industry is very hard—it’s even hard for the white girls. My brand has been around for eight years, and I am still here. I’m growing, and I’m being recognized for my work, for my talent.”
This wasn’t always the case.
Undra’s first job was in marketing at Nissan, in their old South Bay headquarters in Los Angeles. She was a Howard ‘School of B’ graduate and went the expected route of getting a job. “It was ingrained. I am the youngest of three sisters; my mom and grandma all lived in the same house, so everybody just worked. At the time, I could not imagine that drawing, something that I loved to do, could be a job.”
She found life in Los Angeles a little slow and her heart a little unhappy. At first, she thought it was homesickness. Close-knit ties with family and friends on the East Coast were strained from the other side of the country where an afternoon drive home to bathe in a bowl of her mother’s famous pepperpot—Guyana’s national dish consisting of braised beef with cloves, wiri wiri peppers, cinnamon and thyme—was no longer an option. Yes, she missed everyone, but something else in her spirit would not go quiet, leading her to follow her passions: drawing and drip.
“I actually signed up for a sketching class at the local Long Beach City College, and I remember my class was Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and it got to the point where my entire life revolved around Tuesdays and Thursdays.” By the end of the semester, Undra decided to quit her corporate job and move back to New York to start over as a fashion intern. Yes, an intern.
But that doe-eyed excitement of finally following her heart turned into one traumatic workplace experience after another, which caused periods of depression and withdrawal from activities and people that were once a source of joy. “The thing about the corporate fashion environment is that it’s like corporate America for us, but it’s on steroids because in the fashion industry, I believe—and I think most designers of color believe— there’s another set of barriers.”
One of the biggest set of barriers Undra encountered was a series of white women bosses who she feels abused her. The experience with her white male bosses was the opposite when they were her direct supervisors; however, even when they could attest to her elevated eye for design, business acumen and negotiation skills, they failed in every instance to protect her from the discrimination she experienced. “They chose being white over my safety and doing the right thing.”
“White women’s tears trump everything. Every time.”
She quickly moved up the ranks to management and found her footing with a boss who supported her work and promoted her to her rightful place. “I specifically took a job as a product development manager because of the male designer who was going to be my boss, and I loved it. Then they restructured and put this white woman between us. So, I went from being one of the best they had to suddenly being the worst and needing to be fired. So, there’s that.”
She laments that New York racism is more nuanced, subtle and covert. “They’re not going to touch your hair, right? They’re not going to do anything stupid like that. They’re not going to make a comment about your skin. They’re not going to compare you to hip-hop artists. They’re not going to do those textbook things.”
We agreed that the feeling is akin to being ‘put in your place’ because you’re shining too bright and venturing too close to the sun for their comfort. As they can’t voice it, they manufacture performance issues that, even with proof to the contrary, determine whether you belong. “I felt like because I felt good about myself—I thought I was pretty, I knew ain’t nobody outdressed me or outworked me at no job I ever had—it was kinda like, ‘oh, you’re getting too far above your station.’”
Her final corporate fashion job was the stitch that broke the seam. She describes the first few years as amazing, even with a boss who was indeed a white woman. She shares that this was the first time she had a white woman boss who showed her professional respect and supported her gifts. “I was at this job the longest I’ve been at any job—three years. I was the teacher’s pet and my boss’ favorite.” In the span of 11 hours, after an incident where Undra politely stood up for herself and protected her team from a visiting colleague described as a Texas white woman with a chip on her shoulder, Undra went from a confident, trusted manager with a thriving team to a pariah in the office. She was stripped of her authority and shunned by all, including her boss. “Before this incident, everything was at my disposal, and now I had to ask for simple things because I didn’t want to get out of place.” Though she felt she and her boss had a relationship bound by mutual trust and respect, it didn’t matter after the colleague complained. “White women’s tears trump everything. Every time.” Undra felt she had “been fired but wasn’t told to leave.”
Her boss never spoke to her about the colleague who complained nor asked Undra’s side of the story, and she refused to communicate with her. When the annual review approached, Undra showed up prepared for the meeting. All her accomplishments and exceeded goals were typed neatly and printed out, only for her manager to show up with a blank sheet of paper. “I didn’t write anything because I don’t think you did anything this year,” her manager said. Undra was crushed.
My brand has been around for eight years, and I am still here. I’m growing, and I’m being recognized for my work, for my talent.”
She did all she could to save her reputation and her bonus. She provided documentation of every contribution and all the positive feedback received from her boss and other business partners. Then she gave a copy to everyone: her boss, human resources and the president and CEO of the company. All that effort fell on deaf ears. Her boss was given the authority and support to marginalize and mistreat her. No one batted an eye. Nothing changed. No one came to her rescue, and it seemed as though no one, except Undra, had lost any sleep.
This experience pushed Undra to focus on starting her own brand, and almost a year later, she quit, launched Undra Celeste New York and has been showing up and showing out ever since. In retrospect, she wouldn’t change her reaction to the abuse from the colleague and still doesn’t see a problem with her actions as a manager. Undra takes issue with the fact that she was not allowed any (perceived) missteps in a company where she was constantly cleaning up her white colleagues’ mistakes. Unlike her, her white colleagues received the benefit of the doubt; they received grace.
How does someone with such negative experiences in the workplace create a company dedicated to workwear?
“When my mom and aunts came to this country, many of them started their career in domestic work, so they wore uniforms, but they were very particular. You don’t get in between a West Indian woman and her uniform because she’s going to be the sharpest.” Undra recalls that outside of their uniforms, these women transformed into stylish fashion icons in their own right, and she saw a disconnect. “It was such a code switch. I’m like, the ‘Diana Ross and Donna Summer’ I see on the weekend is the same woman. The same feeling and power those clothes give her shouldn’t be put aside to go to work.”
Could it be that Undra wants to empower women in the workplace through their wardrobes as retribution for the powerlessness she felt throughout her career?
“This beautiful part of us that shows up on weekends, has friends and family and camaraderie, and is respected and loved, should pour into everyday life for us.” In a full-circle moment, a former co-worker told her that after Undra left her final corporate gig, their boss printed out all of her accomplishments and bragged about her in the office. The nerve. With all she did to try and make Undra feel less than, she somehow felt she had the right to be proud and celebrate her triumphs. “It feels a little like sweet revenge because it feels like, okay, you really tried to crush me; you really tried to put out this fire you knew I had inside of me, but I won. I won despite it all.”