“When you grow up in Brooklyn, that’s how you and your friends know what churches you go to,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, you go to the one on Utica Avenue? Yeah, me too!’”
In front of 500 churchgoers, the then 20-year-old Haitian-American showcased his first design: deconstructed blazers with paper bag skirts. It was his church’s annual Christmas fashion show, and the crowd was going wild.
“Mind you, it was friends and family,” he says, “but still, a standing ovation is pretty cool.”
Yet 13 years later, it’s not the ovation that stands out in his memory, or even the garment itself, which he now calls “a hot mess.” His finest memory from that Sunday in December 2007 was his mom, her fingers rapidly sewing a skirt as mother and son finalized their designs for the finest fashion Utica Avenue has ever seen.
“We were bonding,” Etienne says, beaming as he recalls his fashion debut. “Plus, the designs looked pretty fabulous.”
Now 33, Etienne lives in Dallas, where he works as an accountant and runs the fashion label Levenity. He has designed garments for Niecy Nash, Cardi B and, most recently, Beyoncé, who sported a custom jacket from Etienne in the new musical film Black Is King. Designing for Beyoncé has been one of Etienne’s goals for at least five years, but he is quick to clarify that this does not mean he has “made it” or that he can coast by on that milestone alone. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“This is just the beginning,” he says. “Or, just another beginning, I should say. I think true success is when you can create opportunities for other people to be successful. I’m still on the grind. Now more people are just watching me.”
Etienne is “the baby,” the youngest of six children who all lived under the same roof in Brooklyn’s Marlboro projects.
“I was in the same room as two of my sisters, and they had to share a bed while I got my own,” he says, his boisterous, playful chuckle filling the Dallas apartment where he now resides. “That’s probably why they treated me so bad.”
As a high schooler in Brooklyn, he played JV basketball and dabbled in slam poetry. Fashion interested him, but he never thought about pursuing it until the organizer of his church’s fashion show asked if any members of the congregation wanted to design something for the event.
“Growing up, it was either doctor, lawyer or president. Obama already did the president thing." –Venny Etienne
Etienne enrolled in college for economics and took sewing classes at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology just for fun. He ultimately bounced among four universities, making his last stop at Dallas’ Wade College, a small school specializing in fashion design and merchandising. His interest had graduated beyond the realm of a hobby, and he launched Levenity as a side business. He harbored dreams of crafting garments for the kinds of artists and celebrities he would soon have in his Rolodex. Still, Etienne kept his day job.
“That’s just how I was raised,” he says. “Growing up, it was either doctor, lawyer or president. Obama already did the president thing, so I thought I’d be a pediatrician. But science wasn’t my thing, and I was good at math, so I found my way into accounting.”
His parents, particularly his father, were initially skeptical of his interest in fashion design.
“He didn’t understand why I was spending so much time on something that made no money,” Etienne says. They’ve gradually come around to the idea, partly because their son has turned his passion into a thriving business, and partly because he still reports to his day job every day, 9 to 5.
“They came to the States [from Haiti] 40 years ago because they wanted a better life for me, for all of us,” he says of his parents. “Now they see that I can have that better life with this as part of it.”
Etienne calls his parents every day, and keeps in close contact with the rest of his family, too. Some siblings are still in New York, others are in Georgia. One of his sisters is the CFO of Levenity, which the designer has largely built through his own meticulous outreach.
Four years ago, he contacted Beyoncé’s stylist Zerina Akers, and the two struck up a friendship. Etienne designed a look for actress Niecy Nash, another Akers client, so when it came time to enlist artists for the Black Is King shoot, the Dallas designer’s name was top of mind.
Fostering those relationships has been the key to his and Levenity’s continued growth. A design for Cardi B helped Etienne land a role on Project Runway, where he competed on Season 17, which in turn introduced him to a new slew of designers. He has no clue where his new ties to Beyoncé will take him or his business, but he doesn’t plan to rest on this achievement.
“I’m already looking for the next achievement,” he says, alluding to an as yet unannounced project about which he is tight-lipped. “I’m working on something now that I hope can work out and be really, really cool.”
Nevertheless, Etienne is basking in the glow of this moment, enjoying the attention it has brought him and his team. His parents were impressed, too, although their son’s recent appearance on BBC World News was much more exciting than the screenshots he sent his mom of Black Is King.
“All parents watch the news,” he says. “That’s their world. So when I sent her a picture of me on BBC, she called me, bawling. Then there’s tears in my eyes, because this is the woman that raised me, crying like I’ve never heard her cry before.”
Etienne’s mother still treats him like the baby of the family. When he buys candles, his mom reminds him not to leave the flame going near curtains. When he designs looks for musicians, his mom tells him to make sure the artists are properly clothed, not scantily clad. Etienne is OK with all of this; in fact, he loves it. Even as he talks about designing garments for global superstars, it’s clear his reverence for an artist like Beyoncé is not tied to her record sales or her world domination.
“She’s a phenomenal woman,” he says of the performer. “She’s a mother. She’s a wife. She wears so many hats and makes it look easy. She’s kind of like my mom.”