How Fe Noel Built a Fashion Brand in 4,380 Days

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Interview by Chadette Maragh words by Antonia Opiah

If you don’t know what’s possible, you can’t reach for it. But at the same time, life has a way of unfolding in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine.

In 2011 Felisha Noel closed The Wagon, a boutique she co-owned and ran for four years. Devastated, she wouldn’t know that about eight years later the wife of America’s first Black president would be wearing a Fe Noel design.

At nineteen years old, Noel, known to many as Fe, was managing daily operations for the boutique she co-owned in Brooklyn, New York. The American born daughter of Grenadian parents, Fe was forecasting performance, tracking profit and loss and buying merchandise, all while pursuing a degree in finance at Marymount College. It’s easy to wonder how someone so young could undertake so much, or even know where to start. But the entrepreneurial spirit was in her DNA. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs,” she told I am Grenadian in a 2018 interview. Her grandmother owns a restaurant in Grenada and her mother, Sonia Noel, owns a daycare in Crown Heights. Noel watched her mom build her business from the ground up, and that example not only showed her what was possible, but showed her what it took to run her own business.

A Self-Taught Designer

Before closing The Wagon, the young entrepreneur began tinkering with the idea of designing her own line. Her partner, Julius Q. Benn, co-owned a clothing label called Cheese Wagon when they opened the boutique. Seeing her partner running his own line inspired Noel to start her own. By roughly 2012, Noel had a cohesive line of clothing called Simply Intricate. Having no formal design training, designing her first collection was a trial and error process. “I’m learning as I go,” Noel shared with Vocab Magazine in 2013.

And as I keep going, it gets better and better. …That’s how my foundation started. It wasn’t a straight, ‘I’m gonna do this;’ It was mistakes, trial and error. …For a long time I was uncomfortable calling myself a designer because I didn’t go to school for it. I just had this innate feeling that was just always there, that just pushed me towards fashion.

Over time Noel’s self-assuredness would grow even stronger. When we spoke with her this year she stated:

At some point, you have to make a choice about who you are and who you are not. Life can pull you in different directions but you need to set your foundation and never go against it. Everything is in the eye of the beholder; to one person you may be cool but to another, you may be corny. I’ve identified the type of person I am and even the person I want to grow to be. So, I try to keep my choices in line with that.

Although Noel had an innate drive toward fashion when she started, launching her own line wouldn’t be easy. Having no investors or a business loan from a finanical institution, she set up her production house in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the basement of her mom’s day care. Her mother and uncle, Dave George,  loaned her some money for capital and Noel fueled her business by selling directly to consumers through her website. “If I had access to money, I wouldn’t have been so creative; I wouldn’t have had to think outside of the box to make what I have happen,” she told the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) in 2018.

At some point, you have to make a choice about who you are and who you are not. Life can pull you in different directions but you need to set your foundation and never go against it. -@FeNoelOfficial Click To Tweet

When we spoke with Fe and asked what’s been one critical challenge, she responded: “Learning to trust me. I pray several times of day, constantly asking God for guidance. You also can’t be afraid of making mistakes. The best way to learn to navigate is trial and error.”

Fe’s trials and errors would eventually take shape as a brand that, even at its earliest iteration, was meant to make women actually feel good about themselves. “You can be whoever you want to be with fashion,“ Noel explained to Vocab Magazine in 2013. Fashion to Noel was a way to bring dreams one step closer to reality. Even now, she sees the intrinsic power of fashion and beauty. “Fashion is an emotional experience because of the way it makes you feel,” Noel told OWN.

I literally watch when I put a dress on a woman how it makes them feel; how it changes their walk; how it changes their attitude. To feel beautiful is a thing, Sometimes you don’t wake up feeling that way, but you can use clothes to get to that point.

Hence the brand’s ethos: make life beautiful.

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Collaboration is In

For four years after closing her boutique Noel would steadily add a little bit of beauty to the world, customer by customer, until her involvement with fashion incubator Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR) would take her to a new level. Created by Brandice Daniel, HFR has been championing designers of color for over a decade. When she first started, after reviewing the websites of every major department store, Daniel only found five “somewhat-major” Black designers, which led to one of the foundation’s biggest goals being to “connect designers of color to retail opportunities,” Daniel shared in an Instagram post. (The full story of how HFR came to be is very much worth the read).

On her own, Fe Noel could only get so far. She, herself, said, “even with hard work, you may still fall short.” That’s especially the case, when you’re trying to succeed in an industry where the odds are stacked against you, where a lack of access to capital, training and having the right network, keep people of color at a disadvantage. The notion that hard work pays off doesn’t apply in an uneven playing field. So, in fashion, as in other industries, succeeding means doing everything you can to realize your dream while also breaking down the systems put in place to keep that dream from becoming a reality. Luckily, while Fe Noel was actively building her brand, Brandice Daniel was actively tearing down barriers and making space for Black designers in fashion. “I think one of the ways women can create opportunities is to join forces,” Daniel would later say. “Competition is out and collaboration is in.” Collaboration would play a critical role in where the Fe Noel brand would go next.

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I think one of the ways women can create opportunities is to join forces. Competition is out and collaboration is in. - Brandice Daniel Click To Tweet
The Strongest via Nike

Noel held her first fashion show with HFR in 2015, starting a long-going relationship with the organization. Two years later two more women would enter into Noel’s world and add their talents to the brand she was building. Fe shared with us:

In 2017 I met two women who would become an important part of my business: Itaysha Jordan, who is not only an amazing photographer but a business advisor and creative director to the Fe Noel brand, and stylist Suzette Selman. These two women have helped me fine tune the Fe Noel vision and story. It is because of our team effort and visual storytelling that the brand is in a place of it’s own. …We work together here in Brooklyn as a collective of sorts, sourcing talent, coming up with ideas and executing.

Preparation Meets Opportunity

As the Fe Noel brand was becoming a creative force to be reckoned with, Brandice Daniel’s Harlem’s Fashion Row was picking up steam and breaking new ground. In 2018 Nike approached HFR to collaborate on a first in the shoe giant’s history: a shoe designed entirely by women for women as part of their Lebron James franchise. Daniel brought together Fe and two other black female designers, Kimberly Goldson and Undra Celeste, for the job. When asked about her contribution to the collaboration, Noel told Un-ruly:

The Strongest sneaker was all the way collaborative. We each brought our individual aesthetic to the table. Undra really wanted Gold, Kimberly really wanted to get the lacing detail right and I was hell-bent on an accessory you can wear even if you weren’t wearing the sneaker, which is the strap you see around the ankle.

The sneaker sold out within five minutes of its release.

For Fe, the Nike x HFR collaboration would be followed by actress Gabriel Union wearing Fe Noel on the cover of the May 2019 issue of Parents magazine, and former First Lady Michelle Obama wearing a custom Fe Noel ensemble at a Texas stop in February on her lauded book tour.

The seeds Noel planted with HFR would go on to bear more fruits in 2019.

“For years we had conversations with multiple department stores and retailers in pursuit of changing [the disparity of designers of colors in department stores],” HFR’s founder shared on Instagram. She continued:

Although we sparked lots of conversations for change, we had yet to accomplish this one goal. But last fall, we got a call from Nicole Cokely at @bloomingdales. One of their amazing executives, @klharter , attended our NYFW show as a guest of the CFDA (thank you @stevenkolb). He wanted to meet with HFR alumna designer, @fenoel, after seeing her collection at our show. So we set up a meeting and we left that first meeting with an idea: let’s introduce Fe Noel’s collection at The Carousel for the launch of Bloomingdale’s partnership with The Lion King! Well, I could not be more excited to announce that Fe Noel has launched a capsule collection on the Bloomingdale’s website, as well as in the Bloomingdale’s 59th st location!

Collaborations with major retailers now on her resume, Noel’s profile continues to rise. And with her own platform getting bigger, what she represents is reaching more people.

When We See What’s Possible

Felisha Noel started a journey 12 years ago because her mother and grandmother had shown her it was possible that a woman like her could start and run a business, and now she stands as living proof that a black woman can create a successful luxury fashion brand. She told OWN, “you don’t know what’s possible unless you see others doing it.”

So much of what Noel has done over the years seems to be aimed at being an example that others can follow–from creating a foundation that helps guide female entrepreneurs, to putting out imagery of Black women that inspires and counters the limited narrative of Black women perpetuated by mass media. She recently collaborated with artist Harmonia Rosales on a collection that acknowledges the regality and strength of Black women in a world that has said otherwise. Of the collaboration she said:

I believe in the power of thought and intention and I was searching for powerful art that evokes emotion at first sight. When I stumbled on Harmonia’s work it was love at first sight. I was nervous to send an email but I did anyway and fortunate for me she was interested in fashion. The collaboration was meant to be. The only challenge for me was creating pieces that would elevate the art even more.

She fittingly opened her 2018 HFR fashion show, presenting the collection, with an excerpt from The Missy Elliot Poem, by Ashlee Haze. Models strutted down the runway as a young girl sitting at the left end of the stage looked on while soft jazz plays behind Haze’s words:

Dear Missy, I did not grow up to be you but I did grow to be me and be in love with who this woman is. To be a woman playing a man’s game and not being apologetic about any of it. If you ask me why representation is important, I will tell you that on days I don’t feel pretty I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me ‘pop that, pop that, dribble that fat. And don’t stop; get it ‘till your clothes get wet.’ I will tell you that right now there are a million Black girls just waiting to see someone who looks. like. them.

Emphasis added.

Follow Fe on Instagram: @fenoel, @feism_. Support the Fe Noel Foundation. And shop Fe Noel!

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