Style is Freeom: Oral History Transcript

Toni Branson for Style is Freedom was interviewed on March 25, 2024 by Kelly Reddy-Best on video chat. The interview lasted 1 hour and 6 minutes. The oral history reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.

Oral History Video

Oral History Transcript

Kelly Reddy-Best: Okay, perfect. First, can you tell me your first and last name?

Toni Branson: Toni Branson is my first and last name.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up and where have you lived?

Toni Branson: I grew up in Maryland, right outside of Washington, DC in Prince George’s County, Largo area. Graduated from central high school, went to college in a couple of different places. I went to a few junior colleges, a federal community college. And then I got my four-year degree from Robert Morse University. I also attended the New York Film Academy here in New York City, which brought me to New York and started me on my journey as a filmmaker and a fashion designer. And I’ve been in Brooklyn, New York ever since 2008.

Kelly Reddy-Best: 2008. And can you tell me about your professional background?

Toni Branson: Sure. I’ve had a blue collar work ethic, I would like to say in some sense. I worked in a restaurant a lot. I was a bartender, server, manager proudly. I really loved the restaurant industry. I really feel like it helped me take my professionalism to another level and grow up, you know what I’m saying?

After coming home from college and then being 30 and then doing these different ventures in the business, I just feel like it really helped me grow. I did that and then I was blessed to be able to finally get into film and television where I’ve been working over the last five years on set and production. That’s where I’m at.

And then on the side, of course, building my business as a fashion designer, entrepreneur.

Kelly Reddy-Best: How did you learn about what kinds of either formal or informal educational opportunities did you engage with in relation to fashion, becoming a fashion designer and/or entrepreneur?

Toni Branson: None. I just kind of did it. I mean, outside of the classes I took in college, none really. Because it was like, am I going to go to film school or am I going to go to FIT or something? And for me, I wasn’t in a situation to do both, you know what I’m saying? They both cost a lot of money. I’m not going to go in debt for both of them. Which one can I kind of learn on my own? Fashion. I felt like I needed more structure in film, and I felt like my ideas were big and my vision was big, I needed to understand how to hone that in and also be willing to take chances on myself when it came to storytelling and writing and stuff.

With the fashion, I felt like, hey, as long as I can just save my money, come up with my ideas, get some T-shirts, I can start to do this thing. And I just kind of did it like that. Once I trademarked my name, got my logo, did all the legalities, I just kind of started teaching myself, reading books, watching documentaries, interviews.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And that’s amazing.

Toni Branson: And I’m still learning.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Is there one book or documentary or anything that you felt helped really inform some of your decisions in relation to starting a business or they all sort of equally had influence?

Toni Branson: Yeah, I think they all kind of equally had influence. And I feel like I’m still such a student. I was never a fashion nerd. You know what I’m saying? In the sense of I knew all of these extravagant designers and all of the difference between the fabrics and all these different things. I wasn’t really caught up in that. I was a sports fanatic, you know what I mean? I was caught up in that.

But I knew that I wanted to dress nice and I knew how I wanted things to look and to feel, and I knew I didn’t see that yet, and I needed to see it. In order to see it, I needed to create it. That’s how fashion I kind of fell in love with that because I was in love with knowing that I was going to create something and do something and nobody else has even cared about. You know what I mean? By caring about the tomboy and the masculine woman. You know what I’m saying?

Kelly Reddy-Best: Can you talk about your film production and what you love about that?

Toni Branson: Oh yeah. I mean, storytelling, it is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Everybody can tell a good story and it can take you somewhere else. And I’m totally in love with that process. And it just started for me, of me having many stories to tell from my life. And I felt that many people could relate and understand, and it was therapeutic for me to paint these pictures that I knew I could make into moving images. You know what I’m saying?

And once I started to write, the ideas just started to flow. And I was like, “Okay, I can do this,” because it is always a trick you play with yourself when you think you can’t do something. I thought I couldn’t be a director. No way. I thought it was hard. You know what I’m saying? There’s no way. But it’s like, guess what? You can do that.

But it’s like we trick ourselves into thinking we can’t do these things until we actually do them or start to do them. It’s like, okay, I got this. That was my process. And like I said, I started to write and I started to write a TV show about my life, and from there it just grew. I found a film school, the New York Film Academy that had this producing program, but it was one year it was going to teach me all these things, and I was going to come to New York, and I was just like, “Yes, let’s do this,” and I never left. And I just kept building and kept working. And here I am.

Kelly Reddy-Best: What are some of the major themes in the story of the television show about your life?

Toni Branson: My friends, family, basketball, relationships. The relationships, I think that even when you’re caught up as a young lesbian, it’s all about the friendship. I think that’s why many girls, they say, go through this phase or whatever like that with their best friend because they feel safe. They can feel safe, they can be vulnerable. You know what I’m saying? And it feels natural. It’s not even like you’re thinking about anything’s wrong, because this is a person that you can just give everything to. And that’s when you fall in love with somebody. And you don’t even realize it at the time.

And in this, I really wanted to focus on the relationships because I feel like in many other, even TV shows or whatever with young people, it’s always about sex. You know what I mean? And of course sex is involved, but I didn’t want it to be magnified, especially as being a part of the LGBTQ community where that’s always a thing about being sexual deviants and this and that. And not to say that I intentionally was thinking about that, but I really wanted to as a young kid for me, it really was about the relationships.

I was scared to have sex for the first time with a girl, you know what I mean? I avoided it, you know what I mean? I was not just trying to jump right in. It’s like when you see these things like, wow. You know what I mean? I was not trying to do it. I was like, “All right. I got to go home, see you tomorrow in school.” But yeah.

Kelly Reddy-Best: You mentioned basketball. Do you play basketball or do you just watch? Or have you played?

Toni Branson: No, I played basketball my whole life, really since I was 10 years old. I still play from time to time when I can now. But yeah, basketball was always a very vibrant part of my life. And it also taught me a lot, you know what I mean? About just discipline and having willpower and not giving up, you know what I mean? Just constantly getting better and always aiming to start, you know what I mean?

I’m always getting ready for the game. It was always an integral part of my life. And it also was a family, a bonding thing for the fam. We always bonded over sports and basketball, coming to the games, all of that type of stuff. It was very family-oriented environment and community with the basketball.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Are there other major influences from growing up that you feel have shaped who you are today?

Toni Branson: I mean, yeah, I think that everything I went through shaped who I am, my mother most importantly. My mom was hard on me, but rightfully so. I think it was great. You know what I’m saying? That she was the way she was because she really prepared me for the world, you know what I mean? And I think that because we did have some ups and downs and difficult times, that that was able to shape my fortitude in a lot of ways.

And she was very much a hard worker. She always got up and went to work. It was always about taking care of the family. And that was such a great example to see that even throughout my entire family, always getting up and having that mentality to get better and work for the promotion or whatever, you know what I mean, to bring more back home.

I think all of those instances really shaped me. And even the bad times when people might’ve done me wrong or mistreated me or misviewed me, which I think always happens a lot. And that’s why with my clothing line with Style is Freedom, the “mascot” is the elephant, because I’m always the elephant in the room. And I feel like so is the tomboy, because it’s always like, “Whoa, what’s going on over there?” You always want to ask a question, always want to look, “Is that a boy or a girl? What’s going on?” And I feel like it’s the same jazz with the elephant.

Kelly Reddy-Best: I was going to ask about the, I’ll bring it up later too, but I was wondering about that. And then can you talk about your gender and sexual identities? How would you describe those? And do you have particular pronouns that you’d like me to refer to you with?

Toni Branson: Yeah, my gender. I’m female, she, her. I’m a lesbian. I very much embrace my masculinity, you know what I’m saying? But I also embrace my femininity and being a woman. I always find myself saying, “Yeah, I’m cool with it. I was just accepting it.” But no, I am perfectly happy being a woman. Have there been instances in my life where I’ve had moments of like, “Oh man, life might be easier if I was a guy”? Sure. Especially when I was younger and just misunderstood and didn’t really understand myself and felt like, man, I give up. And I give up on life, but I give up on trying to make people get me, trying to make people understand, see past, all of that.

I had my moments growing up with that. But as I grew and as I became and understood, I’m more than happy with who I am, and I feel like it’s very important for me to represent that, especially in this day and time. And this is in no disrespect to anybody who’s in the spaces of transgender or non-binary or what have you.

But for me, I feel like it’s very important to just represent as a masculine woman, because I also feel like the younger generation doesn’t get to see that as often now either. I feel like in a lot of spaces, the traditional lesbian is like being washed out in a sense. And I want to stay traditional for that reason as well. And it feels good to me to just be myself and not have to put these boundaries and layers on top of it. Yeah, that’s where I’m at.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And was there any particular moments that stood out that helped you feel more connected to your authentic self? 

Toni Branson: I think just in any time that I’ve had difficulty. I never have cowered to the energy of others. I stayed true, even if it meant I had to be by myself or people turning back on me, or me feeling like I’m being ganged up on, not literally, but figuratively in the sense of just people not… Well, you know how girls can be different, things like that.

And like I said before, misunderstood, but all I did was every time, I try to improve myself. You know what I mean? But even having sex with a guy gave me a lot of clarity. That was a big clarity moment because I was in the moment of like, do I want to be with women forever? Is this my jam? You’re in your twenties, trying to… I needed to make sure that I wasn’t going to go back and have these, because that’s how you just… While out, you might end up pregnant or whatever just because you are in a space where your body might be feeling one thing, or you might be feeling a way because maybe your friends are living a certain life, or maybe a friend who was gay is now straight. You know what I mean?

It’s a lot of different layers, you know what I’m saying? As young women that we go through and it’s cool, you know what I mean? But you also fight against that when you’re being a masculine woman too, because you feel like, “Gosh, I shouldn’t be feeling like this. Why am I feeling this way?” You know what I mean? It’s a lot of different layers to go into it. I had to make sure that I went through my process and those were parts of my process.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And how would you describe your personal clothing style?

Toni Branson: Real chill, laid back. You mean simple, but fly at the same time. You know what I mean? I’ve never been the type to go out my way to go buy pieces or things. I think now I’m just really starting to get into that because before for me, I was just trying to stay within the budget, whatever my mom’s gave me, just get the best whatever I got with that.

And then when I started getting my own money for real, for real, it was about trying to build the business. You know what I mean? It wasn’t even about going to buy some Gucci or going to go buy it. It was really about trying to start the business and come to film school. When I really started, when I came home from college, maybe about a year or so, it was really about, all right, what’s next? And it was building for that.

And I had to save my money. I got my own apartment. It was about paying bills and just trying to stay ahead. I wasn’t really thinking about that. I keep it simple, man. But I stay fly though. I mean low key, you know what I mean? But I’m going to turn it up as I continue to grow within my own style myself. I would say that my style is low key and fresh.

Kelly Reddy-Best: I can’t remember if you mentioned this, but what did you study in your undergrad before film school?

Toni Branson: Oh, communications.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Oh, communications. Okay. Maybe you mentioned that. I apologize. 

Toni Branson: Communications, media production. I didn’t mention it, but I studied communications, media production. I got a Bachelor’s of Arts and the MBA, and then went to the New York Film Academy after that.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then what has your experience been like shopping for clothing or styling yourself throughout your life?

Toni Branson: When I was young, it was tough just because I had many parameters around me. I couldn’t really get what I wanted because I had to dress a certain way. But now I have free will. I think that there are a lot of more options these days, especially where the clothes are cut. The silhouettes aren’t necessarily tailored in such a big baggy way with big thighs and all that. A lot of guy stuff nowadays is really, really fit and form-fitting, not so baggy and oversized for women to wear.

I think it’s great aesthetically. There’s many options for women in menswear, and that’s really what was important to me. I really don’t pay attention to women’s wear. I do, but I don’t. I do for my ladies, you know what I’m saying? And also to keep in mind certain things that I can’t create once I take it to another level. Because when I take it to another level, I will need to create some women’s wear. I will need to immerse myself in that a little more. So, I won’t be ignorant to that fact, but I get excited to shop. I think that nowadays, there’s many options. It’s fun.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then now I’m going to switch to talking about your brand, Style is Freedom. And when and how did the idea come about for your brand?

Toni Branson: In college, I was taking a media class and we had to come up with the logo, the logo that describes us. And I was racking my brain. I think we had the whole hour. I think it was a three-hour one-week class. It’s like three hours or something. And I’m racking my brain, because we had to come up with something before the end of class, and I came up with TOMBOI. Every girl goes through it.

And we came up with the name and we had to make a presentation. And once I sat there and I thought about what it could be, I was like, “Yo, this can be a clothing line.” TOMBOI clothing line. Yeah. That’s for the tomboys. Yeah, every girl goes through it. Because I feel like that was the thing. Like, oh, you’re just a tomboy, you’ll grow out of it.

All girls are tomboys. You’ll grow out of it. It’s fine. You’re just going through your tomboy phase. I was like, “Oh yeah, everybody’s a tomboy.” I just came up with it in college and I never let it go. You know what I’m saying? I just tried to figure out a way, how can I make it happen? Like I said, once I knew that I really loved the filmmaking when I came home for college, I’m like, damn, I can’t do both of these things. And I couldn’t do them in Maryland, and I felt like I needed to leave there to do it. I came up with it in college.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then can you tell me about the significance of the name and why you chose it and what it means?

Toni Branson: Yeah. Style is Freedom. I initially thought it should be TOMBOI, but I couldn’t trademark TOMBOI. And TOMBOI was also, I felt it was too simple in terms of people thinking that it was going to mean something that it didn’t mean or that it was… When people think of tomboy, they think of girls that look and act a certain way.

I felt like, man, I’m dumbing this down. And I wanted to be able to create something that started more of a conversation and made a statement, Style is Freedom, because style is freedom. Free yourself, live free. You know what I’m saying? Just the essence of freedom in the sentence is just like, yes, you can go somewhere with that. I came up with Style is Freedom, a TOMBOI lifestyle brand, and I felt like that made more of a statement and was more powerful and could create legacy.

I feel like tomboy is just like that, but that could just be for the moment. That doesn’t say anything. But Style is Freedom really is classy. I wanted to do something that could create a legacy and start a conversation.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then when did you officially become a business?

Toni Branson: In 2010.

Kelly Reddy-Best: 2010. Oh, cool. Wow. And then can you tell me about the business model for your brand and how that works?

Toni Branson: Well, yeah, I mean, as of right now, I have just my online shop, I have been actively working on trying to get on Amazon, branch out and do those different things. But unfortunately, I catch these roadblocks sometimes also looking to partner with different companies and brands and through partnerships. But for me right now, I’m just focused on myself so we can get bigger and I feel like as I get the brand bigger, those things will come.

Right now, again, I got the online shop and I do a lot of in-person festivals, excuse me, in the summer around the city. I do a lot of markets and I’m at the Brooklyn Museum. I do all the Pride festivals here in the city, do a Pride Month. Right now, I’m just building it independently in more of a grassroots way even though I’ve been around for so long. I’m still working every day just to get more exciting ideas, more fresh fashion and get better collections out there so that I’m going to get that one that gets out there and it’s going to take it to the next level.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then can you talk about the kinds of products that you have and your price point?

Toni Branson: Oh, yeah, I do T-shirts. I have hats, socks, sweatshirts, jackets, do crop tops. I had dress shirts and some different type of items because also when I do these markets, I do embroidery. When I embroider, I get some pieces that I’ve thrifted, and then I create one-on-one pieces. Those pieces vary, like I say, from slacks to jeans to dress shirts to hoodies, to jackets to coats. But on my website, you’re going to see traditional streetwear, which are hats, T-shirts, hoodies, shorts, socks, even have some flip-flops, tote bags.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And primarily on the e-commerce site, it’s the items you mentioned. But then in some of the in-person events, you might have some of these one-of-a-kind more unique pieces that you crafted into cool items.

Toni Branson: Yes, exactly. Like this shirt I have on right here. So I’ve embroidered a bird.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Oh, cool.

Toni Branson: And then up here it says Live Free.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Oh my gosh, I love that.

Toni Branson: Little stuff like that. Just little one-of-one pieces that represent freedom. Like I said, freedom, it means many things. From the water to the sky, to the birds, to just a road that never ends, an open bird cage, all these different things just represent, just liberating yourself, liberating experience.

Kelly Reddy-Best: How do you embroider? Do you have your own embroidery machine?

Toni Branson: I own embroidery machine. I bought a commercial machine a few years ago and I taught myself how to use it. Yeah, I embroider here in the house. I do have the ambition to have my own factory and have my own embroidery set up and do my own manufacturing for my stuff. That would be great, because again, I just need to have the access to be able to do these things, but I see it. I see it. Yeah, I love embroidery. It’s great quality. It’s nothing like it really. I think embroidery, it’s beautiful.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Yeah, me too. I love embroidery.

Toni Branson: I love embroidery.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And it’s cool you taught yourself. Some of those machines are threaded on it’s like, oh my gosh.

Toni Branson: Well, I watch videos and everything and they give you a little class, but you still ultimately have to get up there and do it.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Do it, yeah. Which can be challenging.

Toni Branson: Very much so.

Kelly Reddy-Best: When it’s breaking, the threads are breaking and I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, why is the thread breaking?”

Toni Branson: Yeah.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then do you have anyone else who works with you or do you wear all the hats?

Toni Branson: I wear all the hats. I will have a staff and a support system in the future, but as of right now, I wear all the hats.

Kelly Reddy-Best: That’s a big job.

Toni Branson: Big job. I don’t want to wear all the hats. Just right now, that’s just what it is.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Yeah, you have to start somewhere.

Toni Branson: Somewhere.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Yeah, of course. And you talked about this a little bit, but can you talk about your design process or I guess my question is you don’t buy wholesale, you create your products and sell them however that manifests? Is that true? 

Toni Branson: Well, no. I mean, I come up with ideas. It’s just based on what I want to do. The last collection I put out was the Free Yourself Collection, and those pieces were my first cut and sew pieces. I just made a traditional white T-shirt with the Style is Freedom logo. I had my oversized T-shirt that I created with the elephant on it, with the hoodie to go with that. Another shirt I created from scratch and then a short set.

That was really just about me wanting to dive into saying, “Hey, can I draw my own silhouettes? Can I make my own pieces?” That’s what that was about. No, I do buy wholesale, it just depends on what’s going on or what I want to do. Right now coming up, I found quite a few vendors that have the quality of clothing that I’m looking for. Some of the other things I’m going to be making from scratch. It’ll be a mix of the two, but they’re all going to be, it’s still going to be a cohesive vision for that. But it will be a little bit of both.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And do you create everything or do you hire some folks to manufacture?

Toni Branson: Yeah, I get my stuff manufactured. I’ve been working with the manufacturer in Ohio for quite some time. They do a lot of work for me. I have another manufacturer that I work with. No, I don’t… Only like some of these, like I said, these one-off pieces I make in-house. Everything else is made in a factory getting pressed out, tagged, bagged, and sent to me.

I’m not trying to do everything, like I said. Only do a couple of little things with the embroidery. They’re very small select pieces that I do, but everything else that comes in mass production or anything for the collection is being produced in a factory.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Got it. Yeah, it makes sense. Then can you talk about your inspiration for your past collections and then potentially the future ones? And where do you find inspiration for the narratives that you want to tell through the clothing? 

Toni Branson: A lot of my inspiration is just coming from just life and what’s going on around me. I really love high fashion in the sense of what they’re doing like Yves Saint Laurent and Tom Ford. And I’m definitely not doing it on that level at all, but I’m just trying to be consistent to get myself on that pace of where they are.

But I’m looking at my peers mostly. I’m looking at the Supremes, I’m looking at Pyer Moss. I’m looking at what Don C is doing. I’m looking and seeing what Kanye was doing. I was paying attention to all the things that he was building. And especially with his shoes, he created a new silhouette for that, which is dope because everybody else is really going for the same mold that we see Nike, Vans and New Balance. They already had these molds and people will really just copy in a lot of those molds and slap in their logo on it. But he created something new, which is really exciting for fashion and exciting for young entrepreneurs like myself coming up.

But for me, I’ve always just been trying to search for what somebody like me wants to wear. And I think that I also got caught up a lot in that just being a former athlete, because a lot of times I’m just looking at what’s comfortable. What am I going to wear every day? What am I going to wear multiple times? I haven’t really got caught up in making these clothes that these looks. I’m really making clothes that I know you’re going to wear over and over again. I want to make a shirt that I know you’re going to wear multiple times. You’d be like, “Man, I had this forever. I wear this all the time.”

That’s really my inspiration for what I have created already. Now where I am, I’m really looking to really take my step, my game to another level, looking at KidSuper and looking at Pharrell and what they’re doing with their collections. And even Kim Jones, and again, Tom Ford still so excellent at what they do. And that’s very inspirational for me.

And that also helps give me a palette to follow where I really like honing in and taking it more serious than I have been in the past. Before, I’m like, “All right, I got some shirts to put out. It’s summertime. I’m putting them out. I got this to put out, I’m putting it out.” But now I’m like, “No, I can’t do that anymore.” This is my first time really bringing somebody else in to help me build the collection up. I found some different vendors. I’m sourcing some different products, and I’m also really focused on making sure my rollout and my marketing is much better this time.

I feel for me, I’m really just taking it to another level as a business and not just thinking of it just like these clothes that I like and just trying to say, “Oh, everybody going,” people know me. They just want what’s coming. Like no, I have to really build a formula and build a plan and have a rollout, full TOMBOI, full Style is Freedom so that I can set myself apart from all the other things that I’ve done. Because all the other things I’ve done have really, I feel like they kind of blended in with one another and I really need to set myself apart from what I did last year or the year before.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then you mentioned sourcing. Oh, go ahead. Sorry.

Toni Branson: And you were asking me about the stories, I didn’t elaborate on that. In terms of this year’s collection is going to be called the Elephant in the Room. You already know that because the elephant is the elephant in the room. In the past, I really try to stay tight with the theme of freedom whether it’s Live Free volume one, two, or three, Free Yourself, those kind of names, just holding tight to the brand and really trying to pound in people’s heads that you need to live free and style is freedom. And when you think of freedom, I want you think of this brand and I want you to see this logo, and I want you to think of TOMBOI.

I really think too, I’ve been focused on just making sure that has been present. I’ve been just kind of beating the drum.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then you mentioned a little bit about sourcing. And do you source your products at the material level at any part of the production process, or do you rely on other folks to help source materials?

Toni Branson: No, I’ve been doing a lot of my own research, reaching out to people, getting a lot of samples, things like that, and really figuring out what’s going to be the best look for, what feels the best. Because again, I’m still dabbling in traditional streetwear. I just want to make sure that I’m getting the best streetwear, the best T-shirts, the best shorts, staying on point about the colors. The colors that I picked for this collection, do they go together? Everything that’s in the collection, can it be worn together? Those types of things are really focused on with this rollout.

And yeah, it just depends. But right now, I’m still just rocking with other people and just seeing who has the best sourcing materials from blank T-shirts to shorts, socks, et cetera, et cetera. And like I said, there still are a couple pieces. I’m still making my own shorts and there’s another piece that I’m making on my own. So, I still will be sourcing some fabrics for that, yes.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And what are you most proud of so far in your brand?

Toni Branson: That I didn’t give up. That I didn’t give up. That I still continue to go, that I continue to give myself a standard, that I know that I’m not going to be doing this by myself forever. That regardless of where I might think I am, I know that I’m further along than I know. I feel like all of us sometimes, we feel like we’re nowhere but we’re definitely somewhere.

I know I’m somewhere. I’m sitting here talking to you, I know that I’m doing some good and I just have to continue to move forward and not be too hard on myself about the mistakes I made in the past. Just continue to move forward and know that I can and I will get better. And that’s exciting. You know what I mean?

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then what do you view as most successful so far in your brand?

Toni Branson: We’ve gotten featured on quite a few lists. That’s been exciting. Also, the fact that quite a few celebrities have gravitated towards what I got going on, that feels good. But mine isn’t the celebrities, just the everyday people. When I was out there this summer in the street, so many people in New York City who have bought Style is Freedom, men, women, people who come up and buy things for their children because they know that they’ll look great in TOMBOI, especially when I tell them what it means.

At the end of the day, that’s what really means a lot to me because those are the people that helped me continue to stay in business. Those are the people who go home and tell their friends and go buy something from my website. That’s what means the most to me, is those people.

And I mentioned the celebrities because again though, it feels good to say they feel good about wearing it on their little, not on their little, but on their platform. I appreciate that. But the people that stopped by and talked to me and have given me money out their own pocket and have come back time and time again.

Shout out to Beth, she’s one of my big supporters. Shout out to Ayshia, another repeat supporter, these people who continue to come back. Shout out to Kennedy who continues to come back and support Style is Freedom. That means so much to me and I can’t overlook that. Those are the people.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And do you have a product that you sell that is your favorite or one that you feel most proud of that you produced and put out in the world?

Toni Branson: Probably that TOMBOI hat. The TOMBOI hat, that was my first item I’ve ever made. That’s a staple in my brand. That’s the one thing I’m known for more than anything. Yeah, my TOMBOI hat. I love my TOMBOI hat. And I think that when you see that hat, you know that’s me. Yes, the TOMBOI hat for sure.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And were there initial aspects of starting a fashion brand in particular, one that has intersections with queer identities that surprised you?

Toni Branson: I mean, I think that all things are difficult. But I think that because I am a masculine woman representing this kind of brand, it has been more difficult. Absolutely, for sure, because feel like a lot of people, even women are like, “Whoa, I’m not wearing that because that’s some gay shit and I’m not down with that.” And dudes be like, “Yo, I’m not wearing that. That just feel like for gay girls. That’s not for me.”

It was getting through those dynamics and not just feeling like I had to cater to one community, knowing that I can be wide open and I have to allow people to understand and they have to come to me. But I have to also be diverse with what I’m doing, and the brand has to grow. I can’t keep expecting for all these people, whether it’s men, women, children, whomever, to come to a brand that’s not grown, that’s not giving me new dope, fresh clothing, that’s not giving me something like I got to have. I can’t be looking for this response if I’m not giving. I have to give and produce.

I think that I had to look inward so that I would stop looking outward and blaming everybody for not supporting me. I got to step it up and make sure I’m bringing the best quality so that people can’t walk past me without saying, “Ooh, I got to have that. Wait a minute.”

Kelly Reddy-Best: And what types of positive feedback do you get related to your brand? Either could be products, the media, any parts of what you’ve created.

Toni Branson: Again, the people, people who show me so much love who come and write me emails and write comments or take pictures and tag me online and tell their friends and get excited to wear my brand. Or if I meet somebody who knew somebody to award and they have many positive, amazing things to say. Or when I go to Pride one year to the next and I’ll see somebody the next year and they’re excited to see me and tell me how many times they want a shirt and to get compliments, that’s what gives me gratification and makes me happy.

Those are the moments that are priceless because I know I’m really doing something good that I’m really living in my purpose. And not all of us have one, and I’m very thankful that I have a purpose. And I think that’s the greatest gift regardless of the money and all these things like sure, is this not a business? Absolutely. Am I not trying to make money? Absolutely I am. But that’s still the greatest gift is knowing that I’m giving out gifts to others. You know what I’m saying? Even if it’s in the form of a T-shirt, it’s still a gift because somebody else smiled when they put it on.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then have you ever received negative feedback from folks about the brand?

Toni Branson: Sure. That’s why I know that’s a given. And not just the hate of, it’s a gay shit, some dyke shit. That’s typical. But just about me needing to get better and have more colors or just have more synergy or be more aligned and be more visible and be more consistent, and I need help.

And listen, I appreciate all of that because it’s all true. And I take it and I write it down and I do my best to say, “You know what? I’m going to make sure that I kill it the next time that I come out here,” because it’s time to go to the next level. You’re right, I’ve been doing this for too long. It’s time to go to the next level. It really is. But I have to put the fuel injection in the rocket.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And can you talk about the imagery that you use to promote your products and the types of folks, or if you don’t use people, why you make those choices and what informs them?

Toni Branson: Well, for this, I really have been thinking about that imagery and all of those things. And I think for me, it’s important for me to bring somebody creatively and to help me flesh that out. But in the past, I’ve used models. I’ve used other masculine women most of the time that I feel just represent the aesthetic of Style is Freedom and the culture and have their own tomboy energy and swag that can be a highlighted.

And I feel like even just having an archive and consistency of that, that people can depend on me to see that and see that energy and know that they can come here for that. I think that I was good with representing that focus. That’s really where I was over the last 8 to 10 years of the brand. I did a lot of photographing myself as well. I used myself as a model quite a few times.

But again, as I move forward, as I look forward, I know it’s time to really be adventurous about that and not feel like I have to box in the vision. It’s still going to mean TOMBOI, it’s still going to mean Style is Freedom.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Every single brand owner who I’ve done an oral history with, they’ve all modeled. They’re all like, “Yeah, that’s me,” or I could then I ask that question, but they’re all like, “Yes, I have.” And sometimes, they use other people too but they’re like, “Yeah, sometimes it’s me.” I’m like, “Yep, I get it.”

Toni Branson: Yep.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Can you talk a little bit about if you want funding for the business and if you sought funding in the beginning or if you self-fund or crowd fund or investors or if you don’t want to talk about funding, that’s also okay?

Toni Branson: I mean, I’ll put it like this. I am self-invested. This is an independent brand. I would never say that I don’t want an investor or somebody who believes in the vision and even wants to help the vision take it to the next level but it would always be a conversation. I have in the past looked to get some money and get some grants and do some things, but it hasn’t turned out the way I would like. I can’t say that I put my all into that.

Again, sometimes life and work and all these things do take precedence. So, I chose to do it kind of got “the hard way my way” did it the independent way. That’s really where I’m at with it right now. And I know that that soon will come, it’s going to pay off.

Kelly Reddy-Best: I mean, it reflects your brand that independent because the moment you have investors, then there’s opinions coming.

Toni Branson: Oh, yeah.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Or whatever it is that they vision can sometimes influence.

Toni Branson: Oh, yeah.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then can you talk about ways that you might consider, we talked a lot about the ways that gender and sexuality and those expressions of the body manifests in your brand. And I’m also interested in other ways you think about different areas that intersect with fashion brands, specifically environmental justice and those ideas. Do you think about or consider environmental sustainability or environmental justice in some of the decisions that you’re making? 

Toni Branson: With creating my post?

Kelly Reddy-Best: Yeah, it could be. It spans, it’s a big question. But yeah, it could be any part if you think about that.

Toni Branson: I mean I’ve thought about in terms of the quality of clothing and how that impacts the environment, I have thought about that in terms of the themes of my clothing brand being more social and aware. I’ve also thought about that. That’s why I keep that freedom, even that freedom with that fist that was purposeful in just making a statement that I feel we all can relate to.

Just the environment of self, finding your freedom, you know what I’m saying? Liberating your spirit and your mind. I do keep that kind of stuff in mind. Especially for me as a black woman, I feel like freedom is always on our mind. Liberation, especially when you’re living an alternative lifestyle, you are never really free. You are always trying to find your freedom. That’s always in my mind for me.

But I can’t say that I’ve been super vocal about that or put that on front street a whole lot. But anybody knows me knows my passion and knows that I’m always telling a story, always moving towards that righteous energy.

Yeah, I can say that. And environmentally, I can’t say I’m the most profound on that, but again, I am conscious when I am making my clothes about the impacts on the environment.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then do you think about other intersectional ethics when you’re making business decisions, like things around body size or any other considerations?

Toni Branson: I mean, I did have a conversation about making sure that I have sizes for folks that might be in the 2 and 3X size range and being open to that and having that stuff available. yes, I have been very cautious about that. And again, I think that all of my clothing is for whomever wants to wear it. I don’t have clothing that is too restrictive regardless of how you identify. But I think being more conscious about body size and making sure I have certain sizes available, I have been more conscious of that because it’s very important.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then you mentioned doing in-person events like Pride, and can you talk about other areas that you intersect with that might be more community oriented beyond what you’ve already mentioned, like other spaces that you might do pop-ups or engage with that are community outreach oriented? 

Toni Branson: I can’t say for sure. I do this weekly pop-up, so to speak, over in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that it has more of a community feel to it called Building Black Bed-Stuy, where it’s about black entrepreneurs being there and being present and getting support as a lot of gentrification and things like that have come into the neighborhood and watered down the black community. I was doing that weekly during the summertime and I plan on doing that again this summer.

That was very much a community-organized event that was about the community and strengthening the community and getting the grassroots. I was very proud to be able to be over there and be part of that.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Yeah, that’s huge. That’s amazing. And then you talked a little bit about who your customers are, but can you talk a little bit if there’s anything else to add about who buys your products and how much interaction you have with those folks who buy your products?

Toni Branson: I think my brand right now is kind of like fifty-fifty split with men and women. I really feel like it’s equal. I do know a lot of people that buy my brand, but a lot of people I don’t know, especially online, in person, I feel like I’ve been able to develop a lot of relationships with my customers, especially with the local community.

June Ambrose even came by my table when I was at the Brooklyn Museum because she was just out and about going to see an exhibit. And that’s special because again, regular people are just out here every day just going shopping and just hanging out and having a good time. And you get to meet them and say hi and have a conversation about your brand or just about the weather and what you’re doing kind of relates to the community and what everybody else got going on.

Whether they selling lotion or he’s selling coats or she’s selling jackets or he’s selling painting on shorts. We’ll all genuinely have our own aesthetic and our own flavor. And I think that it’s dope because I really have a great conversation with all these different people that come past my booth. I really like the in-person selling, whether it’s a pop-up or a festival. And it makes me wish, man, I wish I had a store because the conversation and meeting those people, it is priceless the things that you can discuss and the people that you can meet.

And I think you asked me about my price point. Things for my brand can range from $30 to $65. I think that I did have one thing at $120. Yeah, my socks were $10. The everyday person can shop at Style is Freedom. I’m not trying to spend all your money, but know that my clothing is good quality product and I don’t just put anything out there for anybody.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then can you talk about your experience at the Brooklyn Museum and what that was like and why it was important to go and participate in that event?

Toni Branson: Yeah. I’ve been following Dr. Q for many, many years. I have a great relationship with them. Much respect to Anita and everything that she’s built there. It’s been beautiful to see their maturation. I aspire to one day be a designer in the show. I was very happy to just be able to be part as a vendor, to be able to showcase Style is Freedom and where I’ve come over the last 15 years. And a lot of people who are at the show knew my brand and knew what I’ve been doing in the community in Brooklyn over this time.

It was really nice to be able to support them and support the designers and actually see the talent that all these people had in their different various sectors of fashion. Some people focused on denim or leather or this or that or suits, and it’s beautiful to see that. It’s exciting for me as a designer. Like I said, I’m still a student. I’m still learning, especially when it comes to the tailoring and cutting and sewing. And I highly respect all the designers who can do that and put that together because that’s still a level that I aspire to get to.

It was important for me to see that, to support the Brooklyn Museum, to support the designers, and also to showcase my own brand.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then can you talk about social media in relation to your business and how important or not it is for you?

Toni Branson: Social media is vital. It’s a big tool and big key to my success and helping me stay present and stay consistent and stay present to people who don’t know who I am or see me every day. People that need to know what’s going on with the brand, we need to stay in people’s minds in the algorithm. It’s very important. I mean, it’s just such an important tool that again, I wish I had somebody else that could run it for me. It is vital. Social media is the key, it’s the key.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then just maybe two more questions here. When you think about the person who might purchase and then wear the products that you create and put into the world, what kinds of shopping experiences and/or wearing experiences do you want them to have? 

Toni Branson: I feel like they don’t have any limitations with their fashion, that they want to be different, that they want to support the things that are different or they want to get something for somebody else that they know will look good in my clothes. I feel like it is a lot of that for me. I feel like a lot of other people want to liberate other people through my brand and even liberate themselves.

But I feel like a lot of people are looking to liberate people they love through Style is Freedom. They see something that says TOMBOI or whatever. They’re like, “Yo, I need to get that for my friend.” I feel like they’re really trying to show love to other people who need to free themselves.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then you talked about trends and inspiration. Is there anything else to add about where you look to you for trends or what’s happening in fashion that helps inform either business decisions or what you might be looking for creatively?

Toni Branson: I try to look at the magazines. I try to read a little more than I did before, really stay up on a fashion week information, try to stay up on what the trends are for 2025, what the colors are for 2025, what the denim is looking like for that and what they got going on in Japan. Just really trying to stay up on things that before didn’t matter to me. They need to matter to me now.

I need to know what is going on. And just staying up on the finer things and really having myself think richer and think in a different space. That’s really what’s important to me now, is to go outside the box of what was comfortable.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then I just added this question to my list of questions. I haven’t asked other folks this, but there’s a large presence of AI or artificial intelligence that’s proliferating everywhere. Do you think about AI in any of your business processes or it’s not something you’re thinking about?

Toni Branson: It’s not something I’m thinking about at the moment. I’m not one of these AI people. I’m not really high. I know that a lot of people are like, “Yo, you’re behind, you’re going to get left behind.” It’s just not where I’m at right now. It’s much that I need to learn. That’s not one of the things that I need to focus on at this moment.

When it’s time to focus on it, I would. But right now, I’m good. It’s just like I said, it’s too much other stuff that I need to catch up on right now before I add a whole another layer with this AI stuff. I’m good.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Yeah. It sounds like you have such a great connection non-AI. The opposite of AI, which is community connection. I feel like AI is the opposite of that.

Toni Branson: Exactly.

Kelly Reddy-Best: Which just like…

Toni Branson: Yeah, for sure.

Kelly Reddy-Best: And then I always ask in the end, is there any, I’ve asked you a lot of questions and is there anything else that would be important for me to know about your brand, your background, or your story that we haven’t covered yet?

Toni Branson: No. I mean, I think that we got all the nooks and crannies, but it’s important to know that we’re all talented, original, motivated, brilliant, outstanding individuals. And it’s important for you to live free, find your freedom, really look within yourself for your own happiness first before you can look to anybody else because your style is your freedom.

Yeah, that’s the biggest thing for me. And check out, all my filmmaking endeavors. You can see what I got going on there. You can look me up on YouTube, Toni Branson, and just tap in with me.


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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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