At a very young age, Tamara Whitfield developed a strong love of fashion. Her mother recognized that niche and nurtured it, bringing in the latest copies of Jet and Ebony magazines.
Captivated by the styles and colors worn by the Black models and celebrities featured on those pages, Tamara would often help her mother pick out the best hues of the season for her manicures. And a journey in fashion began with her mother and her mother’s friends as her first manicure clients in the Austin neighborhood in which they lived.
By the age of 16, she was doing manicures at a West Side salon, never relinquishing her dream of becoming a force in the fashion industry, despite the twists and turns in her life.
When 9/11 was happening, Whitfield was geared up to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2001. She returned home to a mother who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I put everything on the backside,” Whitfield said. “We go through so many things.”
Her mother has since celebrated about 20 years of being cancer free, and Whitfield knew it was time to pursue her dream. About two years ago she took an at-home business creating vintage buttons and upscaled it to designing custom blue jean jackets and other apparel. That operation is Vintage Nerd Clothing Co.
“The definition of a vintage nerd is: an individual of high quality that does not adhere to social norms, a mindset to be rare, a lifestyle,” Whitfield said.
Though Whitfield had to shuffle things around for a while, being a mother and a wife, mainly she had to focus on income stability; and the pandemic caused her to rethink her life as a manicurist, she said. She went back to her job in construction to maintain a reliable income, and decided to use that seasonal income to fund her dream of running a fashion business.
So far, her dream is flourishing.
“I have really come a long way,” said Whitfield, who now lives in Broadview. “I have really been blessed and have great people in my life.”
Recently, Whitfield sold out of a hat on her online store. ”I’ve been selling so much stuff, I don’t have time to restock my website to the level of frequency,” she said.
In November, there was a push to encourage buyers to “Shop Black Businesses.” But more needs to be done, according to Karen Freeman-Wilson, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.
According to the latest U.S. Census, there were an estimated 134,567 Black-owned businesses, with $133.7 billion in annual receipts, 1.3 million employees and about $40.5 billion in annual payroll.
Freeman-Wilson believes the number of Black businesses reported in the Census is off.
“Part of what we are seeing is a reporting issue and that most of the Black-owned businesses are not being picked up by the agencies that track those numbers,” she said.
“The other reality, Blacks are lacking available capital and access to bank loans, in addition to the idea you need to have the advice from mentors,” she said. “Black people don’t always have that ready advice of mentorship to teach them how to expand their business to achieve a wider customer base. We not only need consumers to shop Black but we need to get others comfortable in patronizing Black business.”
Freeman-Wilson also acknowledged that many Black residents were forced to discover new ways of making reliable income during the COVID-19 pandemic because they were laid off.
“We absolutely saw laid-off people starting businesses working from home because they were able to multitask to innovate new ways of income. (The Urban League) had a steady flow of individuals looking to join the start-up program.”
Whitfield was one of those who felt the effects of the pandemic in her wallet.
“During the pandemic, I was laid off work for a whole year,” she said. “But if you pray and leave it to God … everything is going to come to you.”
She encourages others to hold on to their dream and stay diligent.
“People need more resources other than the streets,” she said. “I let my job in construction fund my dream. Once you hit rock bottom, all you can do is look up.”
Whitfield said that she didn’t have capital readily available but instead of taking out high-interest loans, she used her savings to kick-start her business. She found a better place financially within her means, and watched it grow.
Barbara Bates, an African-American designer and business owner, inspired Whitfield from afar, and let her know her dream was achievable.
Now Whitfield hopes her fashion line encourages other young Black females to be themselves, to celebrate being classy and different from society’s norms.
“How did (Black women) go from being queens to twerk junk,” Whitfield asked. “We are more than that, and it’s OK to show something different.”
The Chicago Urban League hosts entrepreneurship and innovation workshops to guide people wanting to create businesses that can be found on its website. Whitfield’s Vintage Nerd Clothing Co. is also available online.