By Anne Ruisi
By 2013, Kenya Buchanan was so miserable working in the corporate world that one day she decided to just quit her job with an industrial distribution company.
“In that cubicle, I was losing my mind,” the fashion designer and owner of Homewood atelier Kenya B said. “I quit cold turkey.”
Now, she’s designing a luxurious gown that will be featured in the 2nd annual Haute Pink Fashion Show fundraiser for the Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center on Oct. 12 at The Fennec.
“I’m all-in,” Buchanan said, adding she’s already working on a design that might include detachable elements or maybe some beaded fabric on the bodice.
Last year’s Haute Pink show was “such a beautiful event” that featured a huge, elaborate fuchsia pink ballgown she designed and made – nicknamed “Felicity” by its model, Shannon Preston, Buchanan said.
Haute Pink’s models are breast cancer survivors or are going through treatment or after care. Their friends and Forge’s volunteers also participate.
“On this particular night, they should all feel like queens,” Buchanan said, referring to the Felicity dress, which was made with luxury Italian Mikado fabric.
With its sweetheart corseted bodice, petticoats, layers that create a wide skirt structured to make a big impact, and huge pink puffs of fabric on the model’s arms, the dress was a fantasy come to life.
When the model was in the dress and her hair and makeup done, “you should have seen the look on her face,” Buchanan said. “These are the moments I live for.”
The woman wearing this dress, like all of Haute Pink’s models, got to keep the gown.
Changing Her Life
The career switch into fashion, something she’d always loved as a way to express herself, was a game-changer for Buchanan. She’d earned a degree in business management from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, influenced by her family’s viewpoint to study for a degree in a field where she could always find a job. She thought that could be done with a business degree and that a job would be easy to find.
“But that’s not the key to happiness,” Buchanan said.
The first key that unlocked the door to her new career was enrolling at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to study fashion design. She earned straight A’s and graduated magna cum laude.
Then, “My career took off,” she said.
She started designing couture clothing and participated in a number of fashion shows, including the now-defunct Birmingham Fashion Week and Magic City Fashion Week. In February 2018, she took part in New York Fashion Week, one of the world’s four biggest fashion events. Designs for spring were featured.
“They found me on Instagram,” she said, and invited her to show her designs. Her Instagram handle is @iamkenyab.
Her fashion collection was shown at the one of the smaller shows for up-and-coming designers.
“There were beautiful clothes and all the famous people. Just to be in the fashion district was unreal,” she said, adding that she was the only Southerner among the designers.
She initially thought the atmosphere would be competitive, but she learned it was all about each designer parading their new collections.
Buchanan is well-known for her prom dresses, and she said her couture designs have been worn by young women from almost every high school in Jefferson County.
“I’ve built a prom following. I call them my ‘Kenya dolls,’” she said.
At the end of prom season, she invites the women to what she calls a Kenya Doll Prom Program, a gathering with a theme where scholarships donated by sponsors are awarded. A portion of this year’s Paint Party-themed program included canvases and paint for each girl to express her artistic abilities.
Buchanan also is busy creating custom-made garments for clients who need something special to wear for weddings and special events. Right now, she’s working on a gown for a woman who will be receiving her doctorate. A mannequin in her studio wears the black stretch crepe gown as the dress is in progress. Sparkly gold appliques will be sewn on the neckline for a touch of glamor.
When a dress is finished and delivered to a client, it’s not forgotten. Buchanan said she goes to the event to make sure the piece “is perfect for the pictures.”
Some of her memorable dresses from her Rojo Collection are shown on her website, www.kenyabuchanan.com. The Rojo Collection is a series of striking red gowns featured at Magic City Fashion Week.
Buchanan’s artistic efforts aren’t limited to the sketch pad. Each summer for the past four years, she’s taught sewing and fashion design at Space One Eleven in downtown Birmingham. This year her students made a prom gown, with each contributing an element of the dress. They made the bows and flowers decorating the dress from coffee filters.
She also teaches sewing to kids in grades four to six in the after-school program at Highlands Day School in Mountain Brook, where she’s held summer fashion camp.
While Buchanan has made a strong name for herself in the Birmingham area, she’s now trying to venture into other markets, including New York and Houston, which has a vibrant social scene.
“I’d like to get my products in the right people’s hands,” she said.