Though Kenya Buchanan has always had a unique sense of style, she had no idea she’d one day have a career in fashion. That all changed when, in 2013, she quit her job with a Fortune 500 company to go to design school. Her leap of faith paid off, and in 2017 she won first place in the Magic City Fashion Week emerging designer competition. The successes kept coming, and in 2019 Kenya was offered the chance to show one of her collections at New York Fashion Week.
Kenya’s pieces have not only been worn down runways, but they’ve also been shown in art exhibits and may soon be available in upscale boutiques. She also recently launched a line of chic hair bonnets. We are delighted to introduce today’s FACE of Birmingham, Kenya Buchanan!
In 2013 you quit your job and enrolled in the University of Alabama’s apparel design program. What kind of work were you doing, and how did you finally make the decision to make the leap?
I was working at a Fortune 500 company as an inventory support specialist, but I knew God had much more for me than to sit in a cubicle crunching numbers. After much thought and prayer, I made the decision to quit my 9-to-5 and enrolled in UA’s apparel design program.
How did your opportunity to go to New York Fashion Week come about?
Actually, I was scouted from Instagram. The casting director reached out to me and offered the opportunity to be a guest designer. I had toyed with the idea of showing during New York Fashion Week in previous years, but I didn’t feel the timing was right. When this opportunity came, I couldn’t resist. I knew my Fruitopia collection would be a hit.
What was the highlight of your New York Fashion Week experience?
The highlight was showing my Fruitopia 2019 spring/summer collection in front of industry insiders from the fashion capital of the world. In that particular show, my aesthetic was totally different from the other designers.
Fruitopia was different in the sense of creativity. The models wore large hats made out of fruits, which grabbed the audience’s attention. In addition, the other designers showcased red carpet or evening looks, and I stayed true to myself and kept it funky.
Another popular line of yours is your Spice collection. What was the inspiration for both Fruitopia and Spice?
I find inspiration in everything, from street fashion to architecture. Nonetheless, with these collections, I went a little deeper. The inspiration for Spice came from the beautiful markets of Morocco. I envisioned my girl walking through the markets full of beautiful jewel tones and flowing drapes. I used rich colors such as rust and teal and added Ankara prints and floral headpieces.
Fruitopia was just as unique. My inspiration came from the shores of Cartagena, Colombia. There, I found the beautiful fruit-basket ladies carrying fruit on their heads and wearing vibrant colors. I played with the idea of wearing fruit, as well as the silhouettes of their attire.
You recently had some of your work featured in an art exhibit in Montgomery. Tell us more about that. Also, can you talk a bit about the ways you feel art and fashion are similar?
Perry Varner, a local fashion designer, author and fashion mentor, had an amazing idea to create an exhibit showcasing Alabama-born celebrities and leaders. To achieve the exhibit he wanted to use only Alabama-based artisans. My gown was created in honor of Eunice Johnson, founder of Ebony Fashion Fair. I used a gorgeous brocade fabric with a high neckline to pay homage to one of her many fashion shows in the 1970s. I feel that fashion is art. In this day and age, the way we juxtapose vintage looks and wear whatever we want creates individualized, wearable art.
In 2017 you were the winner of Magic City Fashion Week’s emerging designer competition. How did that help your career?
I have been featured in numerous publications and have gained notable recognition as a professional designer in Birmingham and surrounding areas. Top photographers have reached out to me wanting to work with me, as well as multiple publications. An organization has contacted me to teach a sewing class this summer to middle and high school students, and I’m super excited about it. I am in talks with an upscale boutique here in Birmingham to add pieces of my collection in the store. And I can’t forget that I auditioned for Project Runway’s Season 17 last fall after being contacted via Instagram. It was an amazing experience.
Many designers feel the need to move to New York to be successful. Why did you decide to stay in the South to build your fashion career?
I get this question a lot. If you think about the cost of living and production, Alabama makes so much sense. The cost of operating a design house in Alabama is way cheaper than operating one in New York. Think about all the car manufacturers moving down South. Another huge advantage is the internet. I get all of the exposure I could possibly need on the internet. I do agree that other cities like Atlanta and New York offer more fashion events, but I’m just a short flight or even a few hours’ drive away. If you want it, you will make a way.
Tell me about some of the ways you’ve used fashion to help others.
I am a firm believer in giving your gift back. Each year, for the past three years, I have blessed a well-deserving high school senior with a custom prom gown totally free!
What are some of your favorite things to do in your free time?
When I’m not working, I’m spending time with my family. I am married and have two kids, so there’s never a dull moment. Often we hop in the car and ride to Clanton for the peaches. We love going to the movies and taking long rides in our Jeep Wrangler with the top and doors off.
What are some of your favorite places in Birmingham?
I love taking walks around Railroad Park. It’s very calming to sit and listen to nature and watch the ducks play. I also like to hang out at Sleek Sports Bar, and my new favorite bar and grill to open in my hometown of Fairfield is Urban Smoke.
What’s your best piece of advice?
The best advice I always give to creatives is to stay true to yourself. You are in competition with your yesterday self, not anyone else.
Name three things you can’t live without, aside from faith, family and friends.
My eyebrow pencil, Spanx and my cell phone.
Thanks, Kenya, for chatting, and thank you to Charity Ponter of Charity Ponter Photography for the beautiful photos!
For the best of the South — straight to your inbox! — subscribe to our newsletter HERE!