Writer Calibe Thompson | Photography David I. Muir
When Island Origins first met Tanya Marie in 2013, all her stars seemed to be aligned. She was a free-spirited fashion icon in the making, with successful retail boutiques, a thriving design business, and remarkably, no significant life challenges to speak of. When we caught up with her again in 2018, her black girl magic was still intact, but some of the innate easiness and abandon we saw before had been dulled. She shared with us a story of true love, devastating loss, and an active return to inner peace and fashion freedom.
TANYA MARIE DESIGN is a well-known label in ultra-fab communities. Clients including Cynthia Bailey from the Housewives of Atlanta, Pitbull for the leading ladies in his music videos, and Timbaland for his bride’s wedding party, have called on Tanya Marie for her unique sense of bohemian couture.
If her styles were songs, you could say there are a few hit melodies that she riffs on over and over again—oh na na na. Cue the belted halter, the sleeveless sundress, and the flowy kaftan, typically with her trademark TM logo perfectly placed just below the cleavage to confirm that this is, in fact, a one-of-a-kind Tanya Marie creation. Although the silhouettes are similar, each piece is somehow strikingly singular, built with hand-cut, found fabrics, sporting frayed edges and beautifully deliberate imperfections. Her description—“my aesthetic is organic, free, flowy, happy, traveled.”
She almost never uses a pattern. Instead, she assembles what she sees in her mind by pinning and stitching seemingly random scraps of fabric to body form mannequins, in the end producing breathtaking ensembles. She calls her design aesthetic “Fashion Freedom.”
“It’s funny,” says Tanya. “I know how to get that cut. I don’t even have to look, I just know it’s going to fit. A lot of people are very structured and they just think about patterns. I know what fits a woman’s body. I love curves in whatever size.”
There is an obvious reverence in her creation process, but she has none for the actual clothing, happily ripping and reassembling based on the best fit for her client’s frame. You can actually feel a little of the joy from her spirit when you look at each item she creates. “When a woman puts one of my dresses on, I definitely want her to feel confident. I think confidence is the most beautiful asset.”
She recalls, as a child, going into her mother’s closet and, without approval, cutting her mom’s clothes to give them a cuter fit—a habit that followed her into young adulthood. As a Miami Heat dancer, after first getting in trouble for these unsolicited wardrobe adjustments, she was commissioned to rework the entire group’s costumes.
She became a buyer for a high-end boutique. “Even Cavalli dresses, if they didn’t sell by the end of the season, I would change it up.” She laughs, “you know like how we step into a space and just take over? It’s a Jamaican thing!” The store owner never had an issue, because the modified designer outfits would always sell.
When she finally learned how to operate a sewing machine and created her first complete dress from scratch, it sold for $1,000 the next day. The rest, as they say, is history. She grossed over a million dollars in her first year, soon striking out on her own, parlaying her love of design into profitable retail stores in Miami’s Design District and Biscayne Boulevard areas, and a thriving fashion business with an enviable client list.
A DEEPER LOVE
That bold essence was a little less so when we spoke this time.
Not by surprise, but quicker than Tanya Marie was prepared to accept, 2018 saw the passing of her sister Camille. Her ‘spirit twin’ was gone, lost to leukemia.
“It’s hard talking about my sister. But I’m doing the work that it takes to breathe through it… it’s a huge process,” she says, her voice breaking.
Tanya had spent years building her brand, admittedly neglecting her family. In recent years, as treatments we’re becoming more aggressive and the illness was quietly taking its toll, Camille asked Tanya to step back from allowing work to consume her. Tanya finally listened.
She let go of her storefronts and dialed everything back so she would have more time, though it turned out not to be enough. When Camille eventually transitioned, she took some of Tanya’s happiness with her. The designer’s sister wanted her to enjoy the fruits of her labor, and to understand that it could all be gone in an instant. “My sister’s passing has helped me to just breathe,” she reflects. “Just to be present in the moment.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
She has a closer relationship with her parents now, and she feels like Camille is opening the right doors for her. At a time when she wanted to shrink from the light, potential new investors and celebrity partnerships are coming to the table. Little by little, she’s rediscovering her happy place.
Tanya knows that the way forward must include her giving initiative, Teach a Girl to Sew. Years ago, she started mentoring girls who would stop in at her Wynwood store wanting to learn more about this successful black woman entrepreneur. She has shared with them that “passion is the key. God gave all of us something, and whatever it is, you have to do that.”
With non-profit status secured, she’s committed to mentoring a hand-selected few of them now through college, or whatever they choose to do in their young lives.
Motivated, she shares, “I feel like my sister Camille is alive in me and pushing me to greater heights… truly.” Still, she’s striving for balance; not so driven by the hustle. “I’m still trying to figure out what’s important,” she says. “But I know it’s about the people that you love. They say while you make a living, make a life. Because it’s not about the money, it’s about everything.”
The newest Tanya Marie Design collection is out in the Fall of 2018.