From Homophobia in the Hallways to Making it in Milan. How A Gay Fashion Designer Planned His Way To Success.

by Kadeem Fyffe

Hi, my name is Kadeem Fyffe.. I’m from Durham, North Carolina.

I grew up in a very, very religious family. My mom is a Southern Baptist minister. And I come from a Jamaican, very conservative family. And so one of my main childhood memories was that I had to go to church all the time. While I, like, appreciate the Christian values that I was raised with, there was a part that I really, really did not like. And it was that I’d never felt welcomed because my sexuality was constantly talked about as this sin. And that was something that I heard from the pulpit, from ministers, from my lead pastor, from the youth ministers, and then most importantly from my own mother.

So that was what my home and church life was. I was constantly being drilled with this narrative that being gay was bad and that I was going to hell. But luckily, I had a school as an escape. So when I was in middle school, I got admitted to a… an art school, Durham School of the Arts. I started there when I was 10 years old and when I got there, I immediately knew that this was going to be the place where I was going to be able to sort of thrive and sort of figure out who I was.

I immediately knew that it was going to be an accepting place. One, just because the arts. Like, I mean, there’s the stereotype that everyone in the arts is gay. But like, I really felt like, Oh, there’s a lot of gay kids at this school. And even if they weren’t gay, it was kind of just like you could tell that everybody was expressive. Like, people wore crazy outfits. You could, like, dance and sing in the hallways, like literally it was a scene out of “Fame” most times we were leaving class.

So while I was at Durham School of the Arts, I developed this crush on this guy who was actually in high school. The school was middle school and high school. And I, like, got his phone number through a friend who rode my bus and I decided to call him one night. And I’m telling him about how cute I think he is and how I, like, want to hang out with him at school. And little did I know my mom was on the other line in her room, listening to the story.

The next day, it was Saturday and I… typically me and my mom would always go shopping on Saturdays. We are headed to the mall and she does a detour and pulls over into the Lowes parking lot of all places.

She just turns around to me and she’s like, “You know, I heard your conversation last night, so I’m just going to like ask you, like, are you gay?”

I just said to her, you know, “I really don’t want to answer that question. I’m not sure. And I fear that you’re going to kick me out if I answer the wrong way.”

And she’s like, “Well, I’m not going to kick you out.”

I answered her and I said, you know, “Yeah, I am gay.” And I just assumed things would be fine since I wasn’t getting kicked out. I was very, very wrong.

We just ended up with this whole sermon, like, Oh, you’re going to hell, like, I’m not going to have a gay son. How could you do this? It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have sent you to Durham School of the Arts, Like the arts… the art school made you gay. Tennis made you gay.

So she’s like starts listing out all of these things that she’s going to take away from me because I’m gay and obviously X, Y, and Z made me gain. So my mom created a plan for me. She took away my singing lessons, dance lessons, performing arts, visual arts, and tennis, just basically anything that she thought made me gay. And the worst part of it was that she took me out of the school.

At the school that I ended up going to was Northern High School, a very rough public school that was just in my district. We rolled up to…  rolled up to open house. We walked in and I had this whole scene of the school. Like, it was the main hallway and I saw… it was like my worst nightmare. I saw everything that I assumed this school would be. Like, I just didn’t like the people. I didn’t like what they were wearing. I knew that I wasn’t going to feel welcome. And I was honestly scared. And that was the moment where I decided, well, she has her plan, but I need to make my plan, and my plan had to be focused on getting out of Durham because I was not going to be able to live a full authentic life or pursue my dreams in Durham, North Carolina.

So while at Northern, I experienced a lot of bullying and I mean, this happened on the bus. This happened in the classroom, on the track field. And every time I experienced something horrendous, I used it as a motivation to get me to the next step. That means academics. That means sports. That means what little social life I can drum up. Like, I am going to be the best so that I make… make amazing grades, get into a great college and basically get out of Durham.

So by the time I was getting to the end of high school, I realized that all of my hard work had paid off. I got a really, really high score on the PSAT, which led to a whole host of opportunities and scholarships. Senior year rolls around and I’m… by the end of the first semester, I was being offered scholarships from like every top tier school. It came down to the time where I needed to decide which school I was going to and I had been given a partial scholarship to NYU, and that was really what my dream was.

Late in the game, I ended up getting a full ride, schol- academic scholarship to University of Richmond at the absolute last minute. I had already confirmed to New – to NYU, and then Richmond offered me the scholarship and it really just, like, was something that I could not turn down.

When I got to Richmond, one of the bigger opportunities that came up was that I got to study abroad. One of the clearest memories that I have of that was when two weeks in… two weeks in, I was offered the opportunity to work as an assistant for 10 designers during Milan fashion week. While I was at Milan fashion week, there was this point where we got to view the runway as it was being constructed. The runaway was on Villa Navigli, which is this large canal right through the middle of Milan. And I remember getting to stand on it and I was looking straight down the runway, like, Okay, wait, I’m here at Milan fashion week and instead of like opening those stores back at that parking lot at that dreaded school, looking down a long hallway of just like doom and horror about what my future would be at the school, I was looking down a runway in a place where I never thought I would… I would end up or that I belonged. And so I think both of those moments were a moment where I didn’t feel I belonged, but one was because I felt that I was going to be targeted. The other was just because it was part of my wildest dreams.

I think that moment was very critical in helping me build my portfolio and then get into Parsons for grad school, which is the number one design school in the country. And then obviously it’s led me to kind of be the person that I am today.  I’m just really excited to be living out my dream as a designer in New York and having achieved everything that I sort of promised my younger self.

Everything doesn’t need to be doom and gloom about being gay. Yes, you’re going to face adversity because you’re different and you’re going to exist differently in the world. But I think that you can set yourself up for success if you just write things down, believe in yourself, pursue your dreams fiercely, and, like, most importantly, live your life authentically.

I think I chose my destiny as best as I could. And I want other people to have a blueprint about how to do that and how to survive the sort of tumultuous situations and achieve what they… achieve their dreams.

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