Stuzo: Oral History

Stoney Michelli Love for Stuzo was interviewed by Kelly Reddy-Best via zoom. This interview was 1 hour and 26. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.

Oral History Video

Oral History Transcript

Kelly: So my first question is just tell me your name and the name of your brand or your company.

Stoney: I’m Stoney Michelli Love and my brand is Stuzo.

Kelly: And can you tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up and where you’ve lived?

Stoney: Mm-hmm. I’m African, I’m Latina by way of Panama and I grew up in The Bronx, New York. Yeah, and then now I’ve been in LA for about 13 years now.

Kelly: Yeah, and then can you tell me about your educational background? Both formal and informal?

Stoney: So I went to high school and then I got a ASS in performing arts, specialize in acting. And then I got my BFA in graphic design. Well, in fine arts, specializing in graphic design. And then I have informally trained myself to sew and screen print and run two businesses and by way of YouTube and all this stuff. So it taught me how to do a lot of things and taking jobs that paid way less than me having two degrees. However, that was monetarily, but I got the knowledge and stuff. So yeah, it’s a balance of formal and informal for me, and anything with a balance I love. So I’m happy with the journey of that.

Kelly: Yeah, yeah. It’s really cool that you taught yourself about sewing. It’s a hard skill.

Stoney: Yeah, it’s fun though. I like it. I like anything that I can do with my hands. So it’s one of those things. Granted I didn’t realize a lot of these things I remember I used to sew no real particular anything. I just used to sew. Honestly, just to maybe a line, just sewing things to not even together. I would just sew thread, that’s what I’m looking for. Just the thread on my Cabbage Patch dolls and didn’t know that that would come in handy and stuff like that, but I just always doing things with my hands.

Kelly: Yeah, cool. And then can you tell me about your professional background?

Stoney: Professionally? As far as what?

Kelly: So before, places you’ve worked or how you’ve made a … Before Stuzo or during Stuzo, just what you’ve done, any background.

Stoney: Everything really. When I graduated high school, I was literally working before I had a permit to work, but let’s say when I graduated high school, I probably had about 50 jobs. I was working at filings basement, I was working at Red Lobster. I worked at The Wiz if you’re old enough to remember The Wiz, and worked at a couple Foot Lockers which I liked, and I think it was Champs was another one, and then I went on to I’m a certified bartender.

So I went on to do that, and then at that time, I was like, “Oh, I want to do something that I absolutely love and I wasn’t in the best place.” And so I actually worked at The Garden because I was homeless in New York, and then I got a job working at Madison Square Garden. Then I didn’t like that. And then I said, “You know what? I really want to do something that I love.” And I held out and I stuck to it, and then I became a school photographer for about six years.

Then I was also professionally a photographer, so I’m also a photographer at that same time. So it was a really nice time on my 20’s, making a lot of money, had a great schedule. Besides Stuzo, it was probably my second favorite job ever. So that was so much fun. And then from there, I didn’t want to work in that system anymore. I still was a photographer, but I didn’t want to work in that system. So I actually was crafting Stuzo one night till morning and ended up going to school for graphic design while I don’t think I had a job, and then I went to work for Buffalo Wild Wings.

Kelly: Yes.

Stoney: And while I was in school, and then towards the end and then Costco and then I moved here and then I got a job at a silk screen printing shop. So I wasn’t able to get a job as a graphic designer anywhere that made sense for me as far as … Everything was just far and it didn’t pay enough. Granted this shop did not pay me my worth, but I took it upon myself to learn everything in the shop and how to do it because I knew it would be relative.

It’s the heart of how I started the business silk screening stuff. So I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to learn everything.” And that was my literal last job working for someone before Stuzo. I left there and then I started a print company and at the same time as I’m building Stuzo, I was printing for other people and I still have to print company and I started Stuzo.

Kelly: Cool. Very cool. I love Buffalo Wild Wings. I love all those-

Stoney: Classic. The old BDubs. 

Kelly: Yes, yes.

Stoney: Yeah. It was a cute time. I was working with a lot of younger people at the time that this time I was in my late 20’s and they were teens and early 20’s. So it was a little frustrating for me. But it was just a weekend job, so it was good. I would just go in and just go out on a weekend and then I get wings and things. So I still love their sauces. I buy the sauces and make my own wings now. It’s just amazing what they do.

Kelly: And then what term do you use to describe your gender identity?

Stoney: Gender, I’m non-binary and human really. I feel like I’m everything. If those terms are not there, say on an application or whatever, the doctor on an IG or something or wherever you can put it, I put he, she, they, them because I feel like I’m everything. So it is all of that. So it really doesn’t matter if someone’s like, “Hey, she said this and he did this or they.” It’s all good. I absolutely prefer queen and king for me if that’s the top.

Kelly: And how would you describe your sexual identity?

Stoney: Queer. Under the rainbow of this queer umbrella? It’s evolved over the years. As of right now, most so poly, and I don’t know if … I know one thing is I’m not physically attracted to cis men, however, as of the last year been attracted to trans men and any kind of woman I’m attracted to, so that’s just that for me. So I resonate with queer because I was identifying as a lesbian for so long. However, it just doesn’t resonate with me anymore being that I’m attracted to trans men and I can’t even say that I would ever not sexually view with a cis man again. However, it’s not my desire, so I would say queer.

Kelly: Cool. And then how would you describe your personal clothing style?

Stoney: I would say it’s urban, eclectic chic, those three mixed together. Yeah, it’s definitely a mixed bag by the day because it goes by how I feel really, that’s how I dress which is why when people want me to style them, they do most of the styling really because it’s more of me grabbing what they feel and how they’re feeling and then putting that together, so I dress on how I feel per day and then it’s the feeling first, and then what do I have to do?

If there’s an event, then I’m like, “Okay, I feel like we’re in this. So that gives me a range.” And then I’m like, “Okay, let me narrow it down per event.” And then they’ll just see how it actually comes together. And like I said, it could be anything. This is one of my Panamanian fabrics, one of the designs that’s known in Panama, and I felt like being very bright and festive is a Chinese hat that I got in Chinatown. Chinese, whatever. I don’t know.

I’d say it because I got it in Chinatown. But anyway, so the mix of stuff, and then maybe I’ll have a sweatsuit on tomorrow and then maybe I’ll feel like wearing an actual suit. It just really depends. And it’s everything. I have everything, every kind, maybe even culture. I even wear kimonos and all that stuff. So it really depends, but I like to have a balance too. Everything for me is balance. So if I’m wearing a gold here, if it’s flashy, there’s a balance of a stone here or this or that. I’m well into that type of aesthetic. So whatever it is, it always has a balance that makes sense, and then it’s eclectic and it has that urban touch and chic.

Kelly: And so first of all, I want to just talk a little bit about Stuzo or how you talked to me a little bit about Stuzo? So how did the idea for Stuzo come about?

Stoney: It was 2008 and this time, I was in school at my last year working on my BFA and I was working on my senior project and in between that, going through things, just experiencing things in New York and between family and friends and things of that nature, and I started sketching. I started sketching one day till maybe 3:00, 4:00 in the morning. I think it might even been five, six in the morning because I remember the sun coming up.

So I couldn’t stop, and I started sketching and I was also planning out where I could get the T-shirts and then the t-shirt district and how much they would cost and all this stuff. So I was just planning out the whole, basically the whole company and what I would need to do to start it. So I need this much and this and that. And most of those designs actually didn’t even really make it to tell you the truth, but it was just the structure, and then that was one day. And then fast-forward maybe a couple months, I had conversations with my mom and I had conversations with my ex-boyfriend and they kept asking me if I was still gay and I was just like, “Yep, still gay.”

And I was like, “What in the hell is going on? And why did they keep asking me this?” Apparently, they don’t believe you. I was born that way. And so I was just like, “Okay, I don’t know what is going on, but I know that the light bulb went off and I sketched that and that was the official first logo because I just felt like there’s a lot of people that probably relate to this because of the whole theory that you’re not born that way.”

And it’s like so I wanted it something to speak to that message and also maybe wear it so they just not ask me again. And so I sketched that on the t-shirt and then I just kept going from there because the first sketches were loose to, it wasn’t really things that I resonated with. It was like, “Oh that’s cool, that will make money.” And it’s like people will love it, but it wasn’t anything that I would see from the test of time I believe in this.

So when that came from that experience then, I started drawing from other experiences and when I believed in and then adding my cultures in there and all this stuff and just started sketching away. And then I used my senior project to set the foundation with my logo and it was called graphic queen apparel back then. I named it after myself, but I wanted to take the queen out of it cause cis men and their insecurities would be like, “Oh, is that for a woman?”

It just says queen, it’s not I’m wearing it and I’m masculine presenting, come on. But I wanted it to, so I ended up changing a name to mean something I made up and that just like my crown and everything else, just something original that could have its own definition and doesn’t have a gender tied to it. So my classmates and professors helped me tweak all of the logo, had a face in it and they lose the face. It looks juvenile. So I got all the great feedback I needed from them to show them that some designs. And from there I was like, “Okay, this is happening.

So from then, I have the next one was my human T. We crossed out a lot of words that we deem derogatory, N word, B word, H word, F word, all these things and underlying human. And this is the foundation and the mission that we’re all born regal and we’re all born royalty and kings and queens of the world they wanted to, didn’t care about how frilly it is and if it’s for this woman or man, it’s clothes and I want to express myself. So that’s the mission and that’s how I’ve always been.

So I realized, “Well this is how I’ve always dressed, wore my grandmother’s clothes, I wore my brother’s clothes.” And things of that nature and I mixed and matched them and you wouldn’t even know it came from their closets and two vastly different generations of people and even gender, and why not and create the stuff. And then another big reason is that I couldn’t find clothes that fit me, my body type of pretty much have always been 5’2 and curvy. And it’s either too big because it’s made for human male or it’s just too small and I’m busting out, and I was not one for showing cleavage most of the time.

So I don’t want that look. However I like the shirt, but it’s just so it’s like what do you do? And there’s this middle ground that is not there. So I wanted to create clothes that fit everyone and they’re able to create their own style and do what they want with it based on their individuality. It’s not like I don’t want to box anybody in. So even over to the last weekend, friends of mine, four different friends of mine tried on my jacket and it looked great on every last one of them. Every last one of them had a different style and it fit. And I’ve been in the game for 15 years, but still I was like, “And this is why I do it.” Because it’s like, “Look at this. One jacket. Everyone can wear it in their own way and it looks great.”

And everyone’s like, “My God, it looks good on you, looks good on you.” And that’s what I wanted, and I’ve continued to achieve that with everything. Even if I’m sourcing a t-shirt that’s already made, it has to be something that’s cut down a middle line and that line is a non-binary line. It is for everyone. So yeah, out of necessity and out of experience, Stuzo was born and it’s been growing ever since, and I love it. Loving the journey of all of it. 

Kelly: And so when did it officially, when did you officially become a business?

Stoney: I’d say in 2010. It was born in 2008 and then 2010, I moved over and got everything done and it was really registered and all that stuff. And even had the business, my first business partner also in 2009 and all that stuff started, however, there was still some more logistics. So I say officially 2010 I would say.

Kelly: Yeah, and then can you tell me a little bit more about the name and why you chose the name?

Stoney: Well, I put the first two letters of my name in it and just created, grabbed a name from an well-known African name and two, so I like the strength of it. So it was like I just still wanted to incorporate myself in there and put me first and then grab from a part of my heritage and a name that I liked and that putting them together and it just flowed. And I was like, “I’m going to create.” I like stuff that’s not there. My goal is to, because I feel like words are made up anyway. This whole language is made up.

So I was like, “Okay, well I’m going to create now.” Back then, we had gender less and we had unisex and those things and that still didn’t resonate well with me. It’s just less of gender, less of anything really. Just, I don’t know, sometimes it doesn’t sit well with me with certain things. And then unisex implies there’s those only two sexes. So I wanted to create something and I’ve always loved the word freedom and free and everything behind it. So I was gender free. And now, that’s the meaning Stuzo and Stuzo wanted to be something individual.

As individual, I was looking at my crown and then I didn’t want just a regular crown, I created the logo. So I took elements of crowns and distorted it to make it my own. And I’m like, “I’m in love.” It’s my first ever logo and I love, love, love my logo and the crown. So I want it to represent that. You want to know what it is, but then it is also synonymous with gender free and gender freedom. So that’s what it means to me and the company. And now, I want it to mean that as a word where if someone’s like, “Oh, that’s gender free. It’s Stuzo.” I don’t know if it’s because it’s a brand, but my goal is to get it in the dictionary as gender free.

Kelly: I love that.

Stoney: Yeah. As a synonym, gender free, Stuzo because you can say it like that. Wow. Yeah, this reminds me of a Stuzo piece. It’s like, “What’s that?” “It’s gender free.” I’m finding sentences. You’re going to make this work. And then no one else will have it because I was like, “I got to make up a word that no one else will have because I made it up.” So that’s the idea to create that in time. So there’ll only be one. Yeah.

Kelly: Can you tell me about the business model for Stuzo?

Stoney: In what sense?

Kelly: How do you sell and is it ecommerce or multichannel or do you manufacture, do you design and some of this I already know the answer to it. I’m just asking for the sense.

Stoney: Yeah, no, I get it. Yeah, thankfully we have a brick and mortar. So we do have a store in LA mid-city and we’re also online occasionally now after our pandemic we pop up. And that was a big part of the model, but we’ve shifted since then. So occasionally, you’ll see us at one of the bigger events, a bigger pride or something like that. And we design and everything, all the logos are original, all the cut and so pieces are original, their own patterns, and we do outsource now. So we have other people creating it or crafting it after it’s designed. And yeah, so we’re on track to expand. So hopefully we’ll get another store this year, that’s the plan. 

Kelly: Cool, very cool. Is this still going to be in the LA area or are you thinking about-

Stoney: Another state.

Kelly: Oh, very cool.

Stoney: Going back on the east coast.

Kelly: Oh my gosh, that’s exciting.

Stoney: Yeah, same. Taking time, but everything great takes time. So we’re excited, you’ll know once we get it.

Kelly: And then can you just tell me about the types of products that you all offer and what’s your price ranges on those?

Stoney: Mm-hmm. So we have an array of products. Of course, T-shirts, sweaters, hoodies, joggers, snapbacks and beanies and bucket hats. And we now have certain other accessories, bracelets, custom-made bracelets and bow ties and ties. More so it’s an ode to my Catholic school days. So we have Catholic school ties, so not school ties to be specific, jackets, tailored, a lot of cut and sowed tailored pieces, and we have home goods, we have candles as well. And this ,year we are launching our gender free pet collection.

So it’s called Love Paws. So we’ll have a whole line of from pet beds to leashes to harnesses to cultured and cool designed pieces. So for people that they want their dog to wear me, to wear pieces that have their culture in it. I’ll have Panamanian pieces, African pieces and queer pieces and stuff and things of that nature, and general stuff for everybody, for every dog because I also feel like they’re like us where they’re gender free, my dogs are very gender free. And I also want one of my house and things of the things they wear to reflect that. So that’s coming this year. And just trying to think if anything else might be it. Buttons and stickers and things of that nature. Nice array of things we have. Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Kelly: And can you tell me about the-

Stoney: Price?

Kelly: The prices, yeah.

Stoney: It ranges I’ll say even down to the buttons, $5 with the stickers or a dollar, but from of a dollar to about $2,000 to tell you truth because it goes up to the jackets and the cut and sew jackets and those pieces are in the higher end. So we have tiers for everybody that wants something and they also want to build a collection and they want, and people that’s been with the brand, they’ll have, “Oh, I have the sticker on my computer of my button, on my jacket and I have my t-shirt, I have the hat to match, and then we have sets.” And so it’ll range T-shirts typically are about 40 to $50. And then it goes up, sweaters are 80 and then the hoodies are 60 to 70 and as are the joggers, and then it gets into the custom pieces.

They’re one of a and we like to make limited runs because when I was growing up in New York, it was one of those things where every time I would wear something that I was holding off to wear for a special day and then I’d walk out and see five or 10 people with it on. I’m like, “I’ve been waiting this whole time to wear this.” And then it’s like, “Ah, same shirt.” I’m like I don’t feel as special or unique that day. And I wanted that to be a part of the model where I could, I made a small run.

So someone with this shirt, they could get it, they’ll probably have it maybe in Canada and then there’s just almost no way. And if it happens, it’s just meant, but it’s like one person has it here and another person has it here and they probably won’t meet and they’ll be able to shine and where they are with it because it’s like sometimes I’ll only make 12 or sometimes literally I’ll only make a run of one of each size and that happens because sometimes I don’t have a lot of the fabric, but I want to make it. So yeah, and then definitely it’s all handmade and a lot of the fabrics are imported and things of that nature. So it’s definitely a collector’s item and worth it.

Kelly: Mm-hmm. And then the next set of questions are about your design process. You already answered some of these, but I’ll ask them maybe a little different way. Can you talk about … So you already talked about your design process, how you go from what inspires your pieces and the approach you take to them. Can you talk a little bit about where you’re producing them? Are you producing them locally or where do you source labor?

Stoney: Mm-hmm. Everything is sourced here in LA. So as of right now, the goal is to employ people in Panama, Africa eventually have production houses there. But at the moment, yeah, we’re sourced here in LA and downtown LA and yeah, even I have a new sewer that’s literally across the street from me. So yeah, a fellow African. So there’s an African hub over there and stuff, and so I’ve been sourcing some pieces from there and it’s been working out. So everything is made here.

Kelly: Cool. And do you source materials from around the LA area or I’m assuming they’re coming from, I guess, yeah. Where do you source your materials from?

Stoney: It’s a mix. Most of it, well, the supplies and stuff like zippers and all the buttons and all the bells and whistles are here. And it’s probably a 50% of the fabric is here. And then the other 50 is between Africa and Panama, those two. Yeah, those two really because either wherever they do come from, they’re usually African fabrics and medium fabrics. So even if it’s like, well that’s actually, I don’t have any other fabric from anywhere else. So yeah, those two. So it’s like a 50/50 type of thing. Mm-hmm.

Kelly: And then do you have any of your favorite items around you that you could show me that you sell?

Stoney: This is one of my favorites. This is the classic. Yeah, this is our Mola three quarter button down. So the idea of this is, let me take you here. So the sleeve is a three quarter sleeve and the buttons as you can see, usually a collar will have, so it’s a three, that different type of collar instead of the ones with the little lapels or things like that. And then it doesn’t button all the way.

So everything is three quarter stopping. And I am obsessed, obviously I’ve seen this my whole life because it’s the pattern that we live by. And there it’s from Laguna Indians in Panama. This is a printed version of it, but they hand sew it. And you know what I have, I can show you, how do you turn this camera now? There we go. If you can see it, and I have to take my thing off, one second.

Kelly: Oh yeah, yeah.

Stoney: None. 

Kelly: Oh cool. You have some examples of molas?

Stoney: Yes. So those is actual sewn mola.

Kelly: Yeah, cool.

Stoney: Yeah, it’s a dear, a frame that because yeah, they’re pretty … Sometimes I feel like so old working phones and things. I’m like, “What?” But yeah, they’re so intricate to make and even those little squares. They’re well-priced and stuff when they’re like, they hand sewn them. So a while ago they started making the prints and I was like, “Oh this is amazing.” So I’m in love with these, the cut, it feels so good, you can roll it up if you don’t want the long sleeve or leave it, and I love this type of collar as well because we’ve seen those so many times and I like the difference in the cut of it. So yeah, that’s another thing. And then actually right here, I do have, this is one of our newer pieces too, miss gracious. The blur is good for some certain things.

Kelly: I was like, “I can’t see it.”

Stoney: I know. Okay, so this is one of our … This pattern is created by me and Inspired by Keith Haring in my New York Days. He’s definitely someone that I admire and grew up. So as you can see some of his work, it was the thick outer lines and around it. So it’s all of our crowns, custom rivets on this and it’s a bracelet.

Kelly: Cool. I love that.

Stoney: Yeah, so you wear that in this and you have your royal bracelet here. So it’s actually new for us. My faux collection last year for the crown. So I’ve been in it for a while. So I was like, “Yeah I’m coming for the crown.” And it’s faux spelled like faux fur because it was a lot of faux fur mixed with this pattern and this. So it was really nice because I hadn’t made these kinds of accessories, hadn’t made these kinds of accessories yet.

And so it was really nice to make bracelets and the Catholic school tie and the bracelets actually can snap together and wear as a garter belt if you want which I did show in fashion week as that. And it’s nice to mix and match and they can wear as choker and I do making a lot of things that double or even triple as other things. So it’s been doing good. A lot of our ambassadors like it as a accessory piece and stuff. So yeah, a couple of things.

It’s tough to say were favorites for me, it’s really tough. It’s like picking your favorite child, you just don’t want to say one thing and then it’s like, “But what about me?” So I wore this though because I felt really, I had a really great day yesterday and I redesigned my store so that always puts me in the best mood. So I was like, “Oh, I get to walk into a new, it’s almost a new store for me.” So I was like, “What do I want to wear today?” And that’s the thing about the feeling. And I hadn’t worn this in months actually.

And I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to wear the mola because it’s so near and dear to me.” So the mola and the African pieces, they mean a lot because that’s besides me being human, then that’s where the tears go for me where it’s like I’m human, I’m African, I’m Panamanian. So those things are, they mean a lot to me. So if I had to say, they would be those pieces of pieces, these are nice and it’s making it from conception.

It’s one thing when you get t-shirt that’s been made already and you put your design on it. So it’s collaborative now, but when I have something that I source the fabric and it’s from my culture and then I was like, “Oh, I like this cut and make it.” And it’s just all from scratch. It’s like there’s something with that. It is like I made a baby, you know what I mean? And it’s really nice. So the whole pieces, they’re really near and dear to me. So we’ll go with that, but don’t tell my t-shirts and other things.

Kelly: And do you buy anything wholesale? The candles or anything like that or do you?

Stoney: No, they’re all made hand poured. They’re manufactured the actual candles in Texas, so that’s where my hand pour. And they’re a small batch company that has their own candles and then they make my candles as well, and they’re so aligned because the name of it is 11/11 and I literally have that tattooed on me. So I was like, “This is amazing. A master number.” So yeah, they’re all hand poured. I actually learned and taught myself how to make them last year. So I have some that I made myself which is nice.

So between them and myself, I make them. So here in between Texas and I get the, they’re not even wholesale, I just get the vessels from different places. But also, everything is thought out with intention because all my vessels can be reused for decoration and things like that. So yeah, no wholesale in there. Like I said there, I like the idea of things being, excuse me, handmade. So I like that it’s hand poured and I know who’s making it and I usually get to see the videos of her making it and I love it, and I think that’s the magic of it all.

Kelly: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s really cool. It seems like that’s from the beginning, that was a core value that was built into how everything, even the bracelet could be multi-use or yeah, I think that’s really cool.

Stoney: Yeah, we have so much needs as humans and I want to fulfill a lot of those needs. It’s not just fashion, it’s fashion with a statement, it’s fashion with function. And then it goes, now I’m expanding past fashion. I have candles and I have ignite with purpose and attention because, or even the candles say it’s woman history month. And one of a nice big cellar now is a woman up candle. And that candle is made from dragon’s blood oils, essential oils and that clears out negative energy.

It’s purple because purple candles are great for setting your intentions and also for new moon rituals and full moon rituals. And I think it’s a very powerful color. It embodies the strength of a woman, the tenderness of a woman and the royalty of a woman, and then the vessels once you’re done with it. Well, even before that we have wooden wicks now and it’s a double wooden wick and there’s nothing like the crackle of a wick or if you don’t have a fireplace in your apartment, you can just transport yourself to here.

When you hear it, you’re like, “Ah, it’s wood in a fireplace.” Which is rare. And even in this world now, there a lot of things are electric and things like that. So I wanted to capture all of that in that candle. And then something that you can use afterwards because I used to get candles and then once it’s burned it’s usually it’s a glass and it’s burned out and you can’t do anything with that. And I like that. I want someone to be able to now use it and even remember it, you have the remnants of the smell. You can put things that are coins in there and then there’s a lid on there and no one knows, and it’s this beautiful piece now.

So it’s creating things that people can have for a while and even if they pass them on, it can still go to the next person because that’s what we do. We’re at balls of these masculine and feminine energies that continues to just, we just continue to, I guess evolving and transcend into another being into other things and we’re in this vessel as a human body, however, once the soul is gone, the body’s gone and the soul goes somewhere. So I want to it be a lifelong thing for people and something that someone else can have. So something that’s just the longevity of it all. So yeah, you hit the nail on that definitely, I do like to create these things that’s sustainable and useful for multifunctional and handmade.

Kelly: Mm-hmm. And do you have any style icons or people who might be inspirational to your design process? You mentioned it a little bit, but anything else there?

Stoney: Yeah, it’s funny because I come from more of different mediums of art background. I’ve been inspired a lot by photographers and different types of artists and funny enough, very few designers. So I’ve just been always doing things, drawing and this and that and all of that is what I put into this. So like I said, Keith Haring, Basquiat, Frida Kahlo for sure, Georgia O’Keeffe, Richard Avedon, I mentioned David Lachapelle. So there’s different mediums of stuff and that all of that. As far as, this guy too, I can’t remember his name. Gordon Parks, goodness, yes. Yeah, I had to remember.

And then now in the fashion world, who I admired were a lot of the black-owned brands and urban brands because those were the ones that I saw that was speaking to me and that, I still some of them I couldn’t afford, but well I didn’t afford any of that. I didn’t have any money, but my mom. But stuff that I could get or couldn’t even get, I still admired it. Spike Lee, well he relaunched it so his 40 Acres and a Mule, that, Cross Colors, Karl Kani for sure, Walker Wear, Wu Wear. And I did like boss, I wore that.

And I don’t even know if these were authentic because it could have been, some of these things we would really get in Chinatown and for us, we were racking up whatever. As long as no one is teasing us, I never got teased because the way I presented myself for my clothes and stuff and I was always neat and things. So people never really questioned what was going on, but I didn’t care really. I don’t care about knockoffs or what’s real or not. I think if someone made it and it doesn’t look and it looks nice, it’s fine.

And Polo which fun fact, Ralph Lauren went to the same high school as me and was even on the basketball team because me being on a basketball team, and so I learned that. And then one of the security guards still worked, well, worked there and he went to school there and they were classmates and he would tell me a story about Ralph Lauren and his real, well, you could see his real last name there and they used to really tease him. This is crazy and now look at him now. So I was like, “Well, who’s laughing now?” But it was pretty cool to go there. And I found out that Stan Lee went to the same high school as me. Yes.

So I was like, “That’s cool we used to have some good alumnis in there.” I wore a lot of Polo too, and Guess I would say. So yeah, things like that, and FUBU, I love the movement of for us, by us and things like that. So yeah, those were the brands there’s a lot of urban brands that I resonated with. I really resonate with a lot of the, they call designer brands. I say it that way because I feel like everyone’s a designer if you’re creating clothes and all the brands I named, they’re designers too, that is designer to me which is why I like blurring the line of streetwear and chic and this is the sophistication of it, and it doesn’t have to be this gown to be high end or made from a French designer for it to be a designer brand.

I think everything is designer once it has a label on it and it’s made, that’s the design, but there’s this definition. So the separation for me is not there. So yeah, those are the people. And a lot of the artists in the mediums. That’s why it’s an eclectic dress make this because it’s like that which is also why I wanted to make clothes for humans because fashion is so broad, and so is art and it’s an art form. So I wanted to be open and not closed in to certain things and stuff like that. I just happened to focus on the things that make up me and that I care about that represents a whole lot of people anyway, so it works.

Kelly:And then how would you describe who your customers are? Who buys your products?

Stoney: Our top customers are, well, any woman for sure. I think as a whole, women just probably just buy anything and more stuff I think than … To me, it’s just undeniable because I think we understand that things are things and if we like it, we like it and it’s not tied to a gender or this or that for the most part. So women are for sure, in the beginning, my core audience were … Well I want to say maybe queer and lesbian women were the ones that was my rock.

They were like, “Yeah, I see what you’re doing and I’m rocking with you, and we’re the big supporters and my customer space.” And then it grew and now, the most dominant thing is woman, but really, as far as race is all over the place, which is great. I love it, and in the countries, they’re all over the place too. So that’s good. US is at the top, and I would say range is about anywhere from 12 to 60, 70. Yeah, pretty broad, and that’s the way I liked it because I make stuff for human beings.

So that is everywhere and it’s ageless really, and it’s gender free and it’s also, there’s no race attached to it when I’m thinking about it. Even if I’m creating something that is reflective of my culture, I’m not like, “This is for Panamanians and only for Panamanians.” It’s not because granted, I love to see when people actually are like, “Yes, I love that print.” And they’re going for it. And I’m like, “Yes, go for it.” There is a line between appropriation and non and I don’t see that happening within and that’s beautiful.

I like to be like I said, it’s the same thing as me wearing a kimono. And if I am, please tell me. Anybody, because I definitely don’t want to be appropriating with culture. However, I think there’s some things that you could wear and it’s okay to be an ally or to appreciate it and do it in style and stuff. So yeah, it’s a good range and I like that because I have something for everyone. And really statistically, I don’t want to be boxed into a certain thing. It’ll be nice to, and I know it’ll eventually happen to get more men on board.

Typically, guys are just, when it comes to fashion, it depends. For the most part, I think it’s, and society has a lot to do with it where it’s like I want them to allow themselves to be more free and not tie it to sexuality and tie it to certain things and emasculating or anything because we’re as humans, masculine and feminine energy. So you wear what you want, you wear it your way and no one can say anything about it. So that’s the agenda that I continue to push. And I have seen the rise of men now like, “Wow, okay, great.” Of all sorts. I get it. And it is helping me come out of this shell where I’m not worrying about what anyone else is looking at because I know who I am inside and it just looks great. You can’t deny it when you put it on. So it’s just one of those things.

Kelly: And how much interaction do you have with your customers online or in person or do you have other folks who are interacting with your customers or is it mainly you or?

Stoney: Yeah. It’s a 50/50 kind of thing. I have other people answering emails, answering the chats and things. And I am more so the sole person interacting on social medias and stuff right now because visually, after my wipe out too and after COVID, there’s certain areas that I’m now back on wearing those hats and stuff and I’m a slow build because I like to organically have the right people. So it’s a 50/50 thing where I have a good interaction with them and there’s certain, if there’s an email that I can’t really like that I have to handle, then I’ll definitely talk to people.

So I handle half of the emails, most of the social media. And I’m in the store a good amount of the time even if I’m in and out during the week so people can actually see me and talk to me and stuff like that. We do have a retail employee as well. Yeah, and then in popups, now that we do, I’m there half the time too because if it’s a really big popup then I actually doing it because I love meeting people and stuff. So I’ll have a crew and then I’ll be there and I like to actually be in the … It’s usually an event that I actually like to do. So I’ll be there going, walking around and this and that and stuff and talking to the people and I like that. I still like the sense of being attainable to a certain degree, in certain aspects and events. So yeah, I’m reachable still. Yeah.

Kelly: And where do you do your pop up? What kind of popups do you participate in or where are they?

Stoney: It depends. Stuff that we align with, we do prides. The bigger prides, depending this year will, we may do San Fran Pride, Oakland Pride and what else? A couple things here. Sometimes we’ll do Dyke Day depending, we may do it this year here in LA. We have done other ones all over, New York Pride and Afropunk and certain other things like Black Joy Parade in Oakland and stuff like that. And then some people, was it this year or last year already?

I don’t remember what year, but some people will want to hire us for their, it was last year because it was Christmas. Yes, the garden, Madison Square Garden. Their headquarters had their own popup within the office because sometimes, people can’t leave and things like that. So for some companies, obviously the garden, and it was a full circle moment for me because they used to work there. So I was like, “Oh this is nice.” And then I got to see their headquarters here in LA and they also do it in New York which I’ll probably do next year, and we will ship stuff and have representation and things like that. And so I’ll go to that because I like to see, I like to meet the people and things and stuff.

So we’ll do some curated office popups and stuff. Yeah, and last year, I got to pop up at the Covenant House and that was so rewarding and that was the first time and I hope to stay on board with them because I got to service kids that with great clothes and a lot of them love, loved a lot of the stuff we had. And I was like, “This is great.” Some of them are homeless. And as someone that was homeless, it was like, “I got a chance to give back and tell them about my story and let them know that I was once where you are and look at me now.” So it’s possible.

And I gave them my information, come to the store if you need anything. So stuff like that was super rewarding and I had to bring one of my employees came and it was nice for us to do that. And she has also has a brand which I carry in my store. She started as an intern and then I hired her and then I also offered her to carry her brand in here. And this year, we’re actually working on a collection together to emerging my modern take on her vintage because she does vintage. So it’s like I love to help see people grow and stuff. So it was nice for her to also meet people. Now she can hopefully this year bring her brand to give to kids and stuff like that, and it was so rewarding. So yeah, stuff like that.

Kelly: Do you carry any other brands in your store or collaborate with other folks?

Stoney: Mm-hmm. So Pretty Old Vintage is the brand that I was just referring to. We carry them and that is obviously a thrifted vintage fine, so they’re all one of a kinds, and she’s a fellow New Yorker too, so it’s cool to have that and the energy in the store. We have a legendary brand, New Heritage and they have been on the original The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the movie Boomerang, the show Boomerang, Living Single, Live in Color. It’s like I didn’t even know all this as I was watching it that now I would be carrying them. And we have done a collection which we have slated to release this year.

So pretty legendary now. Her aunt and uncle had it and they have passed and then she revamped the brand and it’s just such an amazing brand. And then my manufacturer has a candle manufacturer, has a company 11:11 Candle. So we carry their candles in here as well. And those are the three brands we carry in here. And I work with other brands on collaborative pieces and things like that and collections. I’ve worked with Thread House to even, I’ve made their brimless hats, so they’re like 360 beanie caps, so it looks like this, but all the way around, but we made them out of shirts I’ve made them out of this pattern.

My actual t-shirts that we’ll create that and sweaters which is pretty cool and piece together fabrics that I have. So we’ve been doing that for a couple of years. Thread House and I and couple of artists and yeah, I’m working right now. The next one is with Pretty Old Vintage, we’re doing modern vintage take on these pieces and working with verbiage where a piece of my, for Love Paw and the dog collection, so that’s going to be coming out in the fall, that’s going to be great. Luxury hooded dog jacket, and a sweater to match for the owner.

Goodness, made out of velvet. It’s so luxe, it’s so amazing. And it all goes into a bag that can be hooked on and that’s waterproof, so it’s divine. So yeah. Yeah, those are the things so far worked on, and I love collaborating, love collaborating on stuff and hope to keep going. I’m still working, it’s been two years in the making, but we’re working on a collection with an artist, Hillary Banks, and it was funny, she named herself after the Hilary Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Kelly: I was like, “Is that the name?”

Stoney: Right, yeah. So well we’re working on a mini, it’s not even a collection, it’s just a mini, it’s a collab, but it’s curated pieces. One piece in particular actually, and the inspiration is RuPaul. And so the proceeds will go to an organization of our choice and stuff like that. So this is more so for us to highlight what RuPaul has done. And I have RuPaul on my wall next to Grace Jones and I think he’s in the embodiment of gender freedom and what he’s done for the community and stuff.

So the jacket that we are crafting has RuPaul in different in and out of drag and showing kids within all different genders and what society usually wants them to do, they’re doing the opposite. The boy usually with the football, but it’s the girl and then the boys chasing flowers and things like that. And so these things will be illustrated in a way where it ties into RuPaul and stuff. So we’re working on that and hoping to get Ru in either the new space that I acquire or the space or the current store and have a whole event behind it. So in the works, but I’m excited about that one because it’s me working with an artist and a different medium instead of someone who designs clothes. So that’s pretty cool.

Kelly: And what are you most proud of in Stuzo so far?

Stoney: I am proud of my personal growth. I’ll tell you the truth because without the personal growth, the business wouldn’t be growing, and I realized that that was important. I thought I had to learn, it was solely about learning business and learning these things and learning how to do that. Anyone can learn that stuff, but it takes true awareness to be able to see that you have to continue doing the inner work and learning yourself and growing inside to be able to perform and be a great business person and to be open to growing and learning these aspects of business because that mindset and heart inside, it translates.

It definitely translates and it dictates what you do and how you move, and I had to learn how to trust my intuition because you’re making decisions. And if you’re like, “Well, what do I do? What do I do?” You have to go within and if you don’t know how to trust within, you’re not going to make a good business decision, and it’s going to now repeat it. And now you’re going to have karmic relationships and making moves within your business and then because that’s what you’re doing in your life.

So I’m really proud of myself and the inner work and understanding the time that I took to pause the business at times that people didn’t even know it was on pause. And I’m like, “No, I have to pause to go to therapy or to do this healing and do this work or do this retreat or whatever.” Taking that time and not thinking that I have to be an autopilot and going, going, going, enabled me to have a healing heart and soul and a clear mind and to be able to go with my intuition, to now make better decisions, to show up, to love what I’m doing, not resent it because there were moments that I did and you shouldn’t have that, and things that you do in your livelihood, especially if you love it.

So there’s not a day that I resent anything that I do. I’m happy with what I do. I love it. There’s no rush for me as though, “Oh, I’ve been in this 15 years, why am I not here?” No, I love every part of the journey and it allows me to look back at things that I’ve done to remind myself, “Oh, I’ve done a lot, I’m on track.” And this is just a beautiful timeline. So I would say that that’s it. I’m proud of myself and the work that I’ve done which to me is showing that I’m raising my baby to be good because I’m good.

Kelly: Mm-hmm. And then what do you think has been most successful so far?

Stoney: I don’t know. Everything. All the designs, the mission statement for sure. So the foundation is the heart of the success and I think that’s what people see and they see the genuine passion and the mission as to why it started because it speaks to people and they wanted it and almost we needed it. And that’s what resonates with people for sure because a lot of people can make stuff. And if it doesn’t mean anything and there’s nothing, there’s a mission behind it and it may not last and it may not resonate.

And I believe that’s why we’ve been thriving for 15 years because the mission remains and it grows. And for every generation, generations that before me and now and that will come and then even after me, everyone wants to be seen to a certain degree and to be accepted and you have to accept yourself. And it’s like I’m showing them, you’re born perfect, you’re born royal, you’re free to be whoever and whatever gender or not you want to be. And you can express all of that through your fashion and it can look whatever you want it to look like, and no one can take that away from you.

They can judge you all they want, that’s them. And to be you, to be you, to be happy about that. And if I can provide that or to plant the seed or even bring people closer to that awareness through fashion and my grand as a whole, that’s a win for me. So that’s sustained, and I think, yeah, so the mission has been such a success because it’s a great foundation and it’s coming from a human place and we all can relate to that because we’re all human, aren’t we?

Kelly: And then what were some of the things along the way that were surprising to you?

Stoney: I think first maybe that everyone does not think like me. So I just should have known, “Oh, okay.” I’m a different kind of consumer, so I couldn’t base things off of how I consume things and buy stuff. So I had to take myself out of that. So it’s like, “Surprise, everyone doesn’t think you and that I’m open to everything.” So now I’m like, “Oh gosh, okay, I have for male identifying humans, I now have to make it more gender free so they’re not questioning what it is.”

Certain other things that were surprising, just how the interactions with certain other brands too and people and just how people took to it or the responses and good and bad. How it grew and how people. I didn’t know that I would be affecting people’s lives so deeply. I wanted it and it wasn’t like … While it was a mission, it wasn’t, “I have to change the world.” I started with me first and then people around me and it kept growing and I’m just like, “Oh, this is bigger than me. This touched people and this is affecting people to … This is really touching them deeper than I thought, resonating a lot more than I even thought.”

So that was a huge surprise. And then we won’t even talk about the negative. We’ll just talk about the good stuff. That’s not really that surprising anyway, because yeah, I think that was the biggest surprise for me. Now it’s not, it’s a reassurance and it’s just pretty cool like, “Wow.” But it was a surprise that like, “Wow, I reached certain.” And around the world and even people that I’ve admired like Jada Pinkett whom is a really pivotal part of why I’m even here.

She was my favorite and still is one of my favorite actresses of all time, and which led me to want to act it. Her role in Set It Off which is my favorite movie is I was like, “That’s what I want to do. I want to act.” And from there, it got me deeper into the arts and now full circle, she’s wearing my clothes and I have yet to even meet her, but she wears my clothes. So I’m like, “Wow, that’s pretty surprising.” And it’s like, “Who knew?” Because it wasn’t even on the vision board of mine. Funny enough, I was just not like, “Oh, Jada Pinkett is going to wear my stuff and all this stuff.”

It was like I was embodying everything and being inspired, and I actually legally changed my name to her character name in the movie, and it’s so wonderful. And I got the opportunity to tell her daughter Willow that, well, her child, let me say, I don’t know, just non-binary or not, but Willow, how much her mom inspired me and all that stuff. So that was beautiful. So these things, they have surprised me because if you don’t physically meet someone or give it to them, you’re like, “This actually reached them? This is multiple items. I’m that big? Stuzo was that big? Goodness.” And I love it. I love it. And now it’s like, “Okay, well, does it surprise them?” And I’m like, “Okay, that makes sense. It makes sense.” And the mission continues, so yeah.

Kelly: And then are there any struggles that with the business that you’d want to talk about? Even briefly?

Stoney: The main struggle is really capital. That’s tough. Anyone in this, I see dress forms in the back, so I don’t know if you know, but anyone in this business it that’s designing clothes. Even if you’re not cutting in the cutting and sew part of it, it’s pricey and it’s a lot, it’s a lot of put back and a lot to get to maintain, especially making collections. So that’s really the toughest part because you learn things and you learn things along the way, and you have people, there’s accountants, there’s lawyers, there’s people that can do these things for you that you don’t have to do.

Granted, there are also investors and things like that, you’ve got to get them. You can hire someone then, but you also need to get the money to hire people. And they need to have the investors believe in you to be able to invest and all these things. And you have to create this revenue on your own if you don’t have an addition to the business. I’ve been doing this full-time for the majority of the business. So capital is still a thing for me, even to this day for us continuing to keep it going, especially after our pandemic.

So that really was like, “Whoa, okay, just when you think you’re about to soar up to this.” It’s basically we started over almost. And that’s different, but it’s now, I think of it this way and I’m a silver lining kind of person. So if you were reborn right now with the knowledge that you know, it would be a different ballgame. So it’s different. So now, I have a lot of knowledge on what to do and what not to do and how to make money and how to be crafty with all this stuff. And also how to balance it and stuff. So it’s good, it’s good. So it’s still challenging. However, I’m up for it because I have more knowledge than I had when I started.

Kelly: And can you talk about some of the imagery that you use to remote your products and how you’re intentional about those?

Stoney: For me, it’s usually the models and things like that and people, and there are no age and race and gender requirements for me because I graduated from modeling school as well and that they already immediately put me in a box like, “Oh, your print.” And you’re not going to walk a runway. And I’m like, “What? I will never walk a runway?” I’m like, “Okay. Not even in heels? Oh wow, all right.” So I didn’t want whether it’s runway or print, the more unique you are, the better for me.

Bring it on, I want it because I want everyone, everyone is a model and an actress and this and that in their own right, why not? And they should be able to. So I like to select people that people aren’t using also. And I like to give people, I love underdogs also. So I do love to see that a lot of our models now are thriving. Some of them are in movies and I’m like, “Get out of here.” And it’s that knack, it’s something that I saw on them because I see people for who they are and the greatness in them and give them the shot. And some people have booked things from our portfolio that we’ve created together, and I love that.

So there’s no limits. There’s no limits and all that, and I’m very intentional about that because I think we all deserve a chance and we all have a beauty to us that should be shown. And for me, I see anyone that I’ve ever seen put on Stuzo. It just transforms them. So it doesn’t matter. I’m not looking like, “Oh no, you’re not attractive.” I’m like, “No, trust me, you’re going to put this on.” Wear your way, style it and you’re going to be like, “Wow.” And that’s that. And that’s the power of clothes too. So yeah, I intentionally pick human beings that are passionate about the company, and that’s it.

Just like I said, the requirements is very broad and it starts with you being a human being. And now we’re going to invite all kinds of dogs too. So that’s going to be the case. So yeah, that’s what it is even whether it’s runway or print, uniqueness is really the goal.

Kelly: And then the next, so there’s two more areas left, and so the one is about funding. So can you talk about how you initially funded or how you fund?

Stoney: Through either grants, the natural revenue that a company makes, and now, we’re in the process of creating decks to talk to investors because at that point, I’m also seeking out a new business partner, someone that could possibly … Well, someone that will have the financial resources to continue the company and take it to the next level. So that’s where we’re at right now, but at the moment it’s revenue and grants really.

Kelly: Mm-hmm. And then you talked about, I actually think, I don’t have to ask this question, but I’ll ask you anyway. It’s about sustainability and ethics. But I think it’s wrapped up in your whole business model, everything you do. But anything else to add about how you think about ethics in your business and how you do business?

Stoney: Yeah. Oh, one of our models is an old fabric wasted. So we take stuff that when we crop a tee or a hoodie, that becomes a new piece. So that could be the crew caps, the 360s that we do. We create those out of that, we have created upcycle pants which was my favorite because it was such a long prod. I saved so many bottoms to hoodies and sleeves of a sweaters for years where I literally moved to probably three, four apartments with them. And I consumed my dressers and I just had them. And still even to this day, have a good trunk filled with them that will be the last bit. But since then, once COVID hit, I said, “You know what? I’m going to still work on this and the product, that project.” And it’s been great.

So we make pants out of the arms of sweaters, and then the top is the bottoms of hoodies, and then the middle is the fabrics of the sleeves, t-shirts. And then we also use fabrics from our old collections that we still had to put in between instead of maybe the T-shirts, we’ll put a fabric in the middle. And so it’s good because it’s like, “Oh, you remember that collection? I didn’t get a piece, I didn’t get that piece. Maybe, whatever. I couldn’t afford it or it’s sold out.” So now I have one that it’s a little bit of that collection and it’s also other pieces.

So people will crop something and just throw things away, but we don’t do that. We use everything. So even scraps. I’m saving scraps in a bag and I’m pretty sure whoever soul is this is going to hate it, but it’s going to happen. I’ll probably make a one big jacket, or I’m thinking of a quilt or something to auction off one day with all of the scraps that we’ve ever made, collections and used and all that to make a big quilted piece. So nothing goes to waste, and a lot of eco-friendly pieces that we use for our t-shirts and our sweaters and all that. Everything is thought out.

Kelly: And then so is there anything else that would be important to know about the history of Stuzo and where you’ve been and what you’ve done as a business and a brand that we haven’t necessarily talked about? We talked about a lot of stuff, but is there anything that I didn’t ask about that would be important to know, to understand how Stuzo came about and how you all operate or your place in this moment in time?

Stoney: Right. Yeah. I think the main thing that I would like to leave you with is that our motto is Live Your Truth. And before I even had that as a motto, as a slogan as a design, that was what it was. That’s a part of the mission in there. And that looks like whatever your truth, individual truth is, and we want to promote that and encourage that all the time, every day, 365, 24/7 because it shows eventually, the truth always comes out. So who you are will show.

So why not become aware of that and then start to live it every day. As far as we know, we get one life in the human form and the body we’re in. So if you get this when life is stony, why not live it as truthfully as you can? And everything falls into place. Your health, your happiness, all of that, and I know that offhand. So when I made the choice to start living my truth and doing the work, that’s when that was born, that logo. And that’s when a lot of things started to make sense and really fall in line, and my happiness went through the roof and even ailments went away in my life.

So I think about that. So I tell people that too, “Man, live your truth and things physically, you will start to do better, and I know that for sure. I can’t tell you one thing I have, but a little bit of allergies. I can’t really escape it.” But where I was before that and where I am now is like, “Wow, I feel so good inside and out.” And that’s why that’s so important. And I want to always encourage that and know that it’s going. Like I said, it’s going to look different for every individual, and no one can take that away from you because it’s yours, it’s your truth to live and you’re feeling it and experiencing it. So whatever that looks like, live it with conviction and everything else that’s good. It’s like the cherry on top.



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21st Century Queer Fashion Brands Copyright © 2020 by Kelly L. Reddy-Best & Dana Goodin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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