Undra Celeste: shunned to stunning

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.

From left: Fe Noel, Kimberly Goldson, Undra Celeste, Meline Khachatourian
Nike x Lebron x Harlem Fashion Row – 05 Sep 2018
Image credit: George Chinsee/WWD

“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.”