Fashion has long been a safe harbor for members of the LGBTQ community to show their creativity, and to express their individuality. Nashville Fashion Week (NFW) does not defy that reality: it embraces it. Many involved in the event itself, from those working behind the scenes as models and makeup artists, to organizers, to the designers themselves, either identify as LGBTQ or are proud allies of the community.

In advance of the event, we are highlighting a few of these designers, and many more will be featured online over the course of this month. We hope this will pique your interest so that you will head out to OZ and experience the artistry of NFW for yourself.

Daniel Grier—Splashed by DKG

Grier is a returning designer, whose brand has made a big … splash in previous years (pardon the pun). Splashed by DKG is a Street-Style brand that exists to make everyday look and feel like a runway. DKG, named after Grier, began in 2013 as a project to reinvent classic denim pieces by adding its bold, signature Splash.

Splashed DKG, photo Desiree Ciara

Since its debut, DKG has been seen on celebrities such as Tamar Braxton, Ty Hunter, Jasmine Burke, Mishon, and Goo Goo Atkins, and featured on WEtv's "Braxton Family Values" and "Cutting it in the ATL."

Grier’s career has been deeply impacted by being a LGBTQ, he said. “Fashion has given me an outlet, shaped my voice and point of view as a designer. I realized early on that Fashion is activism and using my voice to speak out about issues that affect my community such as HIV/AIDS has been very important to me over my design career.”

“I utilize my platform to be a positive light and spark much needed conversations surrounding important issues we face daily,” he added. “Issues such as being gay, loving yourself, supporting the trans community, whom I feel are very overlooked, and also uplifting my culture as an African American.”

Exposure to LGBTQ role models and trailblazers has helped him shape his trajectory as well. “It has been very encouraging to me to have visible representation of LGBTQ people that look like me in the fashion space, such as Ty Hunter, Andre Leon Talley, Law Roach, and Jason Bolden, to name a few.”

Such representation, he added, “lets you tangibly see no matter what you can make it in fashion if you work hard. I love a good back, like the story of how they made it to be the icons they each are. I draw a lot of inspiration [from them]. Often times, when things get tough and I need a reminder, I go and pull interviews these guys have done and re-center myself.”

Grier also credits NFW and its organizers with fostering his career. “I really appreciate how far they go to highlight the fashion community in Nashville and surrounding areas through NFW,” he said. “They do a lot to nurture their emerging talent that comes through their program, and best of all it’s always very diverse!”

And since fashion begets fashion, “Fashion also opened the door for myself and others in the Birmingham area to launch, Magic City Fashion Week, an inclusive and diverse program to uplift minorities, educate about issues such as HIV/AIDS, and provide us with a safe space to highlight our work and build community where we weren’t given those opportunities before.”

But despite this new venture he looks forward to returning to NFW. "I am thrilled to be showcasing in NFW for a third time! It's always such a wonderful experience that we have looked forward to in the past couple of years. Be prepared for a SHOW, we ready! See you on the runways in April!"

Caitlin Stolley—Lily Guilder Design

Caitlin Stolley, Lily Guilder Design

Caitlin Stolley’s vision of fashion is what you might call “queer”—in that, like this label for a sexuality, it defies conventions and it defies classical boxes. So too does Stolley refuse to be too pinned down by labels.

“Lily Guilder Design,” she said, “trades in the transformative power of clothing. Our mission is to infuse the world with wonder, connect people with their own beauty and power, and cause no harm. Our collections are celebratory and empowering, so we vibe with all kinds of people, which of course include folks who identify as LGBTQA+. My strength as a designer is my ability to channel people's spirits rather than the boxes they may or may not fit into.”

“We talk about our designs as ‘unisexy,’” she added. “Lily Guilder is here to help everyone stand a little taller and prouder. We all look good in sequins, you know? Every time I meet someone who is fabulous and unprecedented, I am inspired to reflect that level of exceptionality in my designs.”

Sequins, you say? Now, I know I don’t look good in sequins (I may never have tried them, but trust me), so where exactly is Stolley coming from? Probably, it’s the influence of one of her favorite sources of local inspiration.

“I really can't get over our Nashville drag community,” she explained. “Our queens are world-caliber. I live for The Princess, Vanity, and Nichole Ellington Dupree. Their originality, craftsmanship, and drive are inspiring. We are so lucky to have them. Anytime I walk into Play I know that I'm going to leave with an empty wallet and a full heart.”

Leslie Stephens—Ola Mai

Stephens is another returning designer who is an outspoken ally, whose development as an artist has been shaped by LGBT icons, mentors and colleagues. Her line, Ola Mai, is a Nashville-based and locally produced clothing line designed, launched by the desire to help every woman express herself.

Leslie Stephens, Ola Mai Designs

Stephens, a Nashville native herself, works to support a positive body image for women with her quality garments, known for their unique elegance. The line takes its name from Stephens’ great-grandmother, Ola Mai.

About her influences, Stephens said, “Fashion and performance go hand in hand. I’m most often inspired by artists that don’t conform to traditional ideas of gender roles, sexual identity, and body image, such as Annie Clark and Beth Ditto. They compel me to create at new levels. Having these women as role models gives me hope for the future.”

Designer Alexander McQueen was also “an important part of my development as a designer,” she added. “He led with his distinctive designs, touched many with each collection he sent down the runway, and changed ideas of what’s considered beautiful. His gracefully haunting work redefined what I thought fashion was capable of doing, and the significance it can have on a person and the community as a whole.”

Locally, she has been impressed by Dylan Stephens, “a local model and musician who breaks gender normative roles on the runway (and in front of the camera). He mentors local models, passing down his honed skills. He is a great leader,” she said. “He does everything with compassion and kindness... and that’s the key. He’s the type of person that is just as beautiful on the inside as they are out. He’s a wonderful example of a human and reflects greatly on the Nashville fashion community.”

Stephens’ vision is so shaped by her desire to empower women and by her awareness of those who don’t conform to societal expectations, we have no doubt that what she presents will be stunning.

While we wish we had the space to profile every artist featured at NFW, check in at throughout the month for mini-features introducing the other presenting designers, and for more from NFW’s organizers.

CLICK HERE for more on Nashville Fashion Week!

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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