Harlem may look different to most, as you drive down 125th Street. Gentrification has officially come and taken over. But the heart and soul of Kells Barnett‘s thriving business will always remain in Harlem! We sat down with Mr. Barnett as he talks 5001 Flavors, being in the industry for 25 years and his community.
What is 5001 Flavors?
5001 Flavors is the umbrella of everything that we do. 5001 Flavors is the clothing line and then there is Harlem Haberdashery which is the boutique and now we’re venturing off into Harlem Haberdashery Lifestyle. This will be candles, umbrellas, pillows and throw covers. We are trying to become a lifestyle brand like Ralph Lauren.
You’ve been in the business for about twenty-five years now. You’ve seen different businesses come and go, how were you able to last so long?
I think what made us last long in this business is staying humble and treating every project as if it’s the first. The problem that I see a lot of up-and-comers doing is playing favoritism. Meaning like, they’ll take pictures with celebrities and give certain celebrities free stuff and giving celebrities free stuff doesn’t mean anything numbers-wise. So I feel like a lot of people just burn themselves out because they want to be friends with all of their clients. Whether we’re making something for Joe Schmoe off the block or President Barack Obama we treat everyone with the same level of respect and the same level of importance.
How important is it to you to support your community?
With Harlem Haberdashery, when we wanted to open up the store it was absolutely vital for it to be not only in Harlem but in the heart of Harlem. We worked out of a brownstone. First, we worked out of a room in a brownstone then we moved next door with a couple of rooms. Now we have an entire loft space. So the progression has been crazy. We literally, come from a room where two people at a time can fit in it and now we have a space big enough to hold a couple of hundreds of people. Evolution has just been incredible. The thing with the community is that we knew we wanted to open up a store in that community so people could see that people of this community can have a business. Like you see me, you know me so I think that’s why our brand has been met with so many successes because we’re real people. People knew us before the store opened. People we grew up with, walk by the store. All of these people were our neighbors before we even moved to the store, so it’s really incredible because all of my family are from Harlem. It really worked out to the benefit of us.
What were some of the challenges you encountered being an entrepreneur especially a black entrepreneur even in the fashion industry?
For the most part, the community really supports us but you know there’s still that small group of people who don’t want to see the kind of change that we’re trying to provide. I always tell people and it is really unfortunate that “our people” are toughest on our own people. When we give you a superior product, when we give you professionalism, when we give you all of this, we’re trying to act “white”. If we don’t give it to you, we’re acting like “Negroes”. Our people can go into Saks and be mistreated. They can go into Gucci and be mistreated. They can go into Fendi and be mistreated. But they’re leaving with that bag because that’s a status symbol for them. When it comes to Black businesses, the minute we talk with intellect and when we know what we’re talking about, “Oh damn you’re just trying to act white!”
What advice would you give an up-and-coming fashion designer?
Stay humble. Stay consistent and when you define your brand let that be the constant definition because you know most people define their brand and then it’s all over the place. So be humble, define your brand and have self-accountability.
Meaning, I have friends that make custom clothing. What I see most time is when the design isn’t working or the fit isn’t right, they’ll blame the customer. But this business is just like anything else. The customer is always right and you’re always wrong, it does not matter. And this is why when I’m speaking to a customer about a design it’s always through email or text. It’s never on the phone. Most people say it’s the wrong way and think that I’m trying to act Hollywood but it’s actually a reminder or like a transcript of what we’re talking about so we can both go back to say no this is what we’ve said. Now, I learned from some really good people to always be accountable so if the person says red and when they try it on for whatever reason they don’t like red it’s my fault, I have to fix it. So what I’ve
People who have been burnt by someone else are a little bit more difficult for obvious reasons so I always tell them you know what I’m saying. They’re asking about everything. Like how the button is going to be, how the zipper is going to be. I tell people if you have that much time, you can come and watch your stuff get made. When the sleeve is made you can try the sleeve on, when that hand on the jacket is done, you can try it on. If that’s what you want to do. It’s my job 100% to make sure that my clients walk away feeling good. So self-accountability is very important to us.
You design a lot of suits, why do you think it’s important for black men particularly to dress their best?
We created style. We created luxury. They sold it to us and they re-washed and reheated it and sold it to us as if we stole some European look. No. We created fashion, style, and swag. It is documented history. All we’re trying to do is to recreate timeless pieces. I try to tell a lot of guys that that’s all fashion is about. It is timeless pieces, not all that fad stuff. I’ve got stuff that I was wearing in High School that I still wear. I’ve always just been a fan of classic clean stuff. It’s cool to get into the fads here and there but I just like classic stuff. I’m trying to build a complete wardrobe. Not just buy clothes or make clothes.