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FASHION Borris Powell: From Lincoln Park to the Oscars
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2011-05-04

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Borris Powell is proof positive that it is worth pursuing one's dream.

Powell, a Chicago resident, quit his job to become a full-time fashion designer. Now, he has achieved most of his goals ahead of schedule—including having his "Black Swan" dress shown at this year's Oscars and winning the approval of premier designer Valentino. Powell, who now has his own store in Lincoln Park, talked with Windy City Times about what it took to make his dreams come true. (By the way, guys should not fret: Powell will expand into a menswear line next year.)

Windy City Times: What compelled you to make the jump and quit your part-time job, was it?

Borris Powell: It was a full-time job at Express [at Century Mall]. I quit the second week in December [2010].

I was pushed big-time to get this space. My [business] landlord is also my doctor. He said, "You're amazing. You're going places. The people who are going to want to keep in contact with you are not going to want to come to your house." He also said, "I've got the perfect place for you. It's in Lincoln Park, and it's the perfect place to get started." He's, like, an angel.

It was rough [at first]. It was raw—yellow walls, the floor was a mess. I brought some friends with me and they were like, "Borris, you're crazy. What are you going to do?" But I knew I could make this work—and I'm not even done, Andrew. Now we're going to redo the entire floor. I acquired this space before I quit Express, so I've been working on it for some time.

Windy City Times: Congratulations on winning the Oscars contest, where you got to show your "Black Swan" dress. How did this all come about?

Borris Powell: Thank you. I got a call in December from this lady named Toni Pickett from the Academy. She said, "You're a hard man to get a hold of" because she had left me several messages. The message was about entering a competition for the Oscars but I didn't take it seriously and I was leery about any kind of design competition because I really don't want to be part of that. I love Project Runway but I don't want to be a contestant. Sometimes, reality shows paint people in negative ways.

Windy City Times: So what convinced to go ahead with the competition?

Borris Powell: She got me on the phone one day. She said, "I want to talk to you about this competition." After she [described] it, I said, "I'm not quite sure I want to go on with it. I have another fashion show. There's a lot on my plate," and she said, "No, Borris. You need to do this competition." I asked her to send me some information, and she said, "No, Borris. You will do this competition." She was so persistent.

Windy City Times: How did she know about you?

Borris Powell: She actually contacted the city's cultural affairs department, asking for referrals. My name was suggested to them, and then they Googled me, looked at my website. They loved what they saw; that's why she was so persistent. I decided that it was great: It wasn't a reality-television competition, and I always wanted to be on the red carpet. My goal was to have a dress on the red carpet in five years—and [I thought] who knows what this [contest] could do, even if I don't win? People out there would know my name.

I talked with my team about it, and they were going crazy. We had two weeks to have a dress ready and meet the model. So we got the dress ready, I flew out [to L.A.]—and it was an amazing experience.

Then I heard I was in the top nine, which was way more than I had expected. Then there was an online voting contest. I did what was completely natural to me: I dropped everything, even though I had an upcoming show. I did not send out any mass emails. I sent out personal emails and called people for four or five days straight. Now, here I am. Since I got back, I have not stopped.

Windy City Times: So what did you win, exactly?

Borris Powell: I got the most amazing exposure, first of all. Now I have the title of Oscar Design Challenge winner 2011. I had my dress on the red carpet so [the model and I] were walking—that was an amazing feeling.

Windy City Times: What was that like?

Borris Powell: It was indescribable. I was out of my body. You're seeing stars pass by you. It was unbelievable.

Remember, I said last year I wanted a dress on the red carpet five years from now. I reached my goal [much earlier] than expected. I was trying to process all this. I'm walking and I see Valentino; I'm, like, "I'm here." They kept pinching me, saying, "It's real." It was hard to take it all in.

I was trying to figure out how I was there. I'm a self-taught designer with no education who started out five years ago. Not even a few months ago, I was working full-time at a retail store. When I quit my job, everything opened up.

Windy City Times: People are going to start quitting their jobs now.

Borris Powell: [Laughs] I'm not telling anyone to do that. That's just what happened to me, honey!

It was a hard decision, and it's not for everyone. It was [brewing] for years, and something just told me to leap. I had amazing support—friends and family. Fans are now friends; I don't believe in fans.

It was such an amazing experience; I'll never forget it.

Windy City Times: By the way, who did you meet at the Oscars?

Borris Powell: Jennifer Hudson. I also met Justin Timberlake at the end of the ceremony; he actually did not have security or an entourage. I was two steps behind Celine Dion.

Even meeting Valentino, I didn't lose control—although somehow my feet guided me to him. I was like, "Mr. Valentino, I am honored," and I introduced myself and the dress.

Windy City Times: Did he comment on the dress?

Borris Powell: He looked it up and down and, in this amazing Italian accent, said, "Very nice. Very nice." He then told my model, "You look chic in this dress." That was validation that I'll never forget. I told him, "Mr. Valentino, I don't need anything else in the world right now. I have a dress on the red carpet, I'm meeting my idol and you said my dress is very nice. I'm leaving." Then I went on my way, passing by Nicole Kidman.

Windy City Times: OK—she had an interesting dress. Who did you think were the best and worst dressed?

Borris Powell: Helena [Bonham Carter] definitely needs help, but she has her own style; it's just not my taste. I'm a very simple, classic, timeless, romantic guy when it comes to dresses.

Mila Kunis was gorgeous. I thought Halle Berry was as sexy as all get-out; she looked amazing. She just knows how to dress. Gwyneth Paltrow was so classic. Cate Blanchett had one of those looks that teeter-totters between "horrific" or "so amazing you don't get it." In person, it was stunning. I thought Michelle Williams was amazing; Jennifer Hudson was one of my faves.

I was looking at everything from an unbelievably positive lens. [The Oscars] are the biggest platform for fashion. Everything was so surreal. Next year, I'll have a critical lens. [Laughs]

Windy City Times: Without revealing any names, have any celebrities contacted you about making dresses for them?

Borris Powell: Thank you for asking it that way, and respecting [their privacy]. Yes, we are in the process of working with some celebrities. I just need to get through my messages; yesterday, I had 43 voicemails, and I still have 39 today. The night the contest win was announced, I had 700 emails. Who knows who's on my voicemail? It's getting harder for me to respond directly; it's tough because everyone is used to being so personal with me.

Windy City Times: What's your advice for aspiring designers?

Borris Powell: You have to believe like there's no tomorrow. You have to surround yourself with nothing but amazing supporters. You also have to be willing to admit that you're not the best; there's always someone out there who's better than you. Telling myself that I'm not the best is something that keeps me going.

See www.BorrisPowell.com .


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