Aisha Keys’ closet is a rainbow colored wonderland. From the racks that line the room to the shoe shelves to the cubbies filled with accessories, there are a million different fabrics, shoes and gems vying for your attention. As Keys starts pulling outfits off the rack (including black leather chaps, vintage beaded dresses, pink frothy nightgowns and kimonos in every color under the sun) her style starts to crystallize. It’s eclectic, but never over the top… Unless it’s on purpose. She’s a deliberate dresser who adds a little touch of the unexpected to every get up (including the multicolored caftan dress paired with plush smoking slippers she rocked during our interview), but she’s not just dressing for herself. The long time vintage enthusiast has been collecting (and selling) her wears for years under the name Craze Chameleon Studio, helping style people throughout the District.
It was through her styling business that she met the Founder and President of Dîner en Noir, Howard Nelson Cromwell. After working together for years, Cromwell brought her into the fold and Keys now serves as director of operations for the national organization. In honor of their upcoming #DENDC19 Event, an annual three-part, all-black attire, dining experience on July 20 (get your tickets here!), we swung by Keys’ enchanting closet to talk about her fashion inspirations, get some dressing tips for Dîner en Noir and talk about D.C.’s reputation for being unfashionable.
How did you get into selling vintage clothes?
Growing up I was never able to fit into clothes, so I opted for vintage because I’m curvy and busty. I did a lot of thrifting and I found that the older clothes were suitable for my shape versus the contemporary pieces they were making that were mass produced. Like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, they were way more curvy. I love those pieces. I actually have a piece here in my collection that I really love that is Gene Shelley… That’s one of the designers Marilyn Monroe always wore. I’m very nostalgic.
So it started out with you buying clothes for yourself, but when did it transition into you selling clothes to other people?
At my government job at the Department of Health and Human Services everyone would come to my desk to see what I was wearing. That turned into, “Aisha, hey, can you shop for me?” I turned it into a business. I left my good government job at 22. I haven’t turned back. I still stay with the beautification of life. I bar managed. I curate events, fashion shows, I’m the director of operations at Dîner en Noir and an in-house stylist. It was a love for me, first, and then it became being able to serve people, make them beautiful. I try to work from the inside out.
When you’re going thrift shopping, vintage shopping, how do you know when a piece is worth it?
Always hardware. See this zipper? That’s metal, it’s not plastic. You don’t have any tags. Most of your tags were either sewn in with no names and just sizes. In the 50s, when women had to go and work in the factories everything was mass produced instead of there being individual pieces. Nothing is new, the genius Paul Arden said that. He said “Anything new comes from something old.” I find that these things have history and they tell a story.
What trends do you see coming back? What’s going to come back around in the next few months or years?
I don’t. I think it’s constantly evolving… but still going back to what’s already been done. I see your leopard prints, your sequins they’re always going to be hot. I collect kimonos. Every time I go somewhere I collect a kimono. I like hats. I’m a bag girl. I’m like everything. I think accessories start a look. I tend to dress from my shoes up.
In terms of trends, I think it’s always constantly repeating itself. I pray that it gets more innovative and not so cookie cutter. I find what Brandon Maxwell is doing is great, of course, he just got the CFC Award. I like what he does with Lady Gaga and it works. You’re telling a story with each thing you do. I think that’s what clothes are. They’re storytellers.
What attracts you to a shoe?
A heel, a nice vamp, toe cleavage. Toe cleavage is important. I like it, I think it’s sexy.
What’s your minimum heel height?
Maximum would be eight, minimum is six. I find that when I wear flats, my feet hurt.
Do you have a favorite shoe designer?
Roger Vivier. He was the first stiletto, him and Ferragamo. They’re always funky. You can get something a little casual, but it always has a pop. Whether it’s a little pompom, a little peekaboo. I enjoy that.
How do people source from you?
It’s very personal. I used to do in-house trunk shows. For a lot of people it’s word of mouth. I started out at Eastern Market, I was at Eastern Market for 15 years. Then I started making it a little more personal because it’s in my private home. I have to keep things streamlined.
What is your dream customer like? When do you know it’s going to work out?
When they’re open to listening. A lot of people come to me and they don’t really know what they want. You have to make them feel comfortable, it’s a little bit of them and a little bit of me. But it’s more so them being open and being willing to evolve, whether it’s in their style or new haircut. They may have had the same haircut for X years. It’s about updating and not trying to stay in that middle, comfortable stage.
You have to get in their psyche to find out how they are the way they are. How did this come? So once you can break through that… And it might be as simple as, “Oh, my thighs are too big. This is why I wear these frumpy clothes and I hate my waist.” So I turn that around. What do you like? Tell me something good about you. Tell me something you like about you. So then we start to build from there and figure out what works for them.
So you do full on styling? Everything from clothes to hair to makeup?
I have a team that does hair and makeup, but when I first started out, I did everything. I’ve definitely evolved. I have a nice network of makeup artists and hairstylists that I can call. I didn’t have a big budget when I first started. I was doing it out of my home and that was it.
How would you describe your own style?
Authentic, individual, whimsical. Definitely original. I kind of go with the flow of what I’m feeling. Everyday I might create a new character. Whether it may be a dream or something I saw on TV, how I’m feeling. I wore all black for years, everyday.
What made you change from all black to this rainbow?
My life made me change. I started evolving and I started to not wear my feelings on the outside. Eventually you have to psych yourself up. I found that color definitely cheered me up.
Speaking of black clothes, how did you get involved with Dîner en Noir?
Founder and President Howard Nelson Cromwell has been a client of mine for the last 15 years. I was his artistic director on his TV show Being Fabulous Rocks! on the CW Network. From one project to the next, wherever he feels I’m needed, he always brings me in. And vice versa. I was the artistic director on the show, turned into his personal stylist, he watched my work ethic in terms of other things that I touched.
What do you have planned for it? What are you going to wear?
I have this piece that everybody looks at but no one can seem to cough up the money. I sourced this from a flea market on the side of the road. Look at the hood, look at the back, look at these arms. It’s epic right?
This is a maybe… Or maybe an entrance or an exit piece. I got it around August and I was like, “I know what I’m saving this for.” This is the start right now. I’m working from here. I’m thinking maybe a bodysuit or something. Something sleek under here because this is already the drama. Nice top knot, maybe soft waves. It’s going to be hot. It’s July.
I think life serves its purpose and you have things for certain reasons. It probably wasn’t meant for anybody to buy. Last year around this time, I had no idea that I would come on board.
What advice would you give someone dressing for Dîner en Noir?
Chic, comfortable… It’s hot. It’s all about fabrication. Light fabrics and airy fabrics. Whether it’s gauze or a nice, lightweight silk, Irish linen. Now, be careful with the Irish linen because, for photo ops, you find that it kind of wrinkles, but it’s still a good piece. Jersey is also a good fabrication.
And keep it chic because the paparazzi is going to be everywhere. We want to keep it very opulent, very upscale, high energy, all that goodness. And we want you to feel good, not hiding or pulling when you’re trying to take pictures. We want everybody to be inclusive and comfortable. That would be my main thing, comfort and sheer elegance.
What’s the item you’ve been looking for, but haven’t found yet, like a holy grail piece?
A fascinator, I want a good hair piece. It all starts on you head.
What do you think of D.C.’s reputation for not being very fashionable?
I think a lot of people are what they would call ‘the model girl’, which is the young lady who goes in and takes everything off the mannequin and wears it head to toe, versus making it individual. I think that’s because it’s safe. D.C. can be very conservative. No one believes I’m from D.C. ever.
It’s because you have this closet.
They’re like, “You’re not from New York? Nobody who dresses like this is from D.C.” Well, I do. No matter where I go they’re always like, “Why don’t you just move to LA? Why don’t you go to Paris?” I don’t care how many places I go, I always want to come back home. This is my home.
I think the bureaucracy in D.C. doesn’t allow people to tap into who they want to be, maybe because of their corporate job or whatever. People are afraid to be different in D.C. As long as you’re a walking cookie cutter, they find that safe. I like to be inclusive, but I also like to be out of the box. I’m not fearful of anything anymore, that took a long time to get there. It’s a safe zone, as far as dressing goes. You have some anomalies, like myself, but there’s not a lot of us. I have some people in my network that definitely stand out of the box, most of them happen to be Virgos, like myself.
Do you think D.C.’s fashion sense is getting better?
I think we’re getting better. What makes me say that is because you see people trying to step out. I just think they need more avenues and direction. I’m actually considering putting together a summer class for your young local designers or young rebels. They don’t really know what direction, but they know they want to be artsy. I’m thinking of developing a program.
I was talking to one of my attorney friends yesterday and she’s thinking of doing a self help course and she just had me going. I used to teach life skills at a shelter, UCAP in Maryland. I enjoyed it. Anyway, I think I want to elevate that area of interest in D.C., showing people in the DMV how you can style things and how you can put this together. I’m looking into getting a fashion truck. That’s my next thing to tackle.