We had the good fortune of connecting with Hannah James and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Hannah, what role has risk played in your life or career?
Initially I would say I don’t think too much about risk. But when I reflect on it, I realize I have taken quite a few risks in my career—they’ve just felt so instinctive that I haven’t really recognized them. I guess it would be considered a risk to start your own business at 24 with no money or experience, but I don’t remember thinking twice about it. It was what I needed and wanted to do, and I had a window of opportunity so I did it. After graduating from art school I spent years sending out endless applications to endless jobs, no one would hire me, and nine times out of ten I didn’t want the job anyway. I was under-qualified and over-ambitious. I tend to operate with a certain inflexibility and refusal to settle (even when I probably should), and my stubbornness would not allow me to properly enter the workforce. The fact was that the job I wanted didn’t exist in the city I wanted to be in. I had to make the job exist myself, and that meant starting my own business. A few years ago, after making and selling a few pieces here and there for a small handful of individuals, I was offered an opportunity to sell my clothing line at a boutique in Atlanta. I got my business license, made labels, turned a tiny corner of my living room into a one-woman sweatshop, made about a hundred garments from start to finish in less than a month, and took off running from there. I note this moment as my first big risk, and what affirmed that quaint little notion that I could handle anything I set my mind to. I am not business-savvy at all and probably never will be, but I was raised to be resourceful and tenacious when it comes to achieving what I want, and that’s what makes me feel confident in leaping without looking. The answer is always yes because there is always a way, and as long as you’re leading with authenticity it will take you in the right direction. I don’t sketch ideas before making collections, I agree to projects before I super-duper know how to do them, I invest time and money into products without any idea if they’ll sell. I just jump. If you’re a designer you have an innate aptitude and craving for problem solving, so much that you often invent problems for yourself just to solve them. That intuition you follow as a designer is about unpredictability and improvisation, learning from your mistakes when your plan doesn’t work, and the exquisite sense of gratification you feel when it does. I think that’s what drives me to take risks, and why they don’t feel risky. And every time I do it I learn something new, I push my limits, and I find out that I’m capable of more than I knew before. Risk means growth, and I would be nowhere without it.
Please tell us more about your work. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
Fashion is obviously a very deeply saturated market, and it can be very tricky to distinguish yourself from everyone else. Luckily, I think I’ve found a unique little niche that feels like my own, as far as style and approach. I design, sew, and dye everything by hand, slowly, locally, in very small batches, with a serious commitment to sustainability, accessibility, and inclusivity. And I think the clothes I make happen to also be really fun and cute and different. The silhouettes are centered in comfort and ease, and are made with a focus on flattering all different body types. The patterns and colors are vibrant and juicy, like a big old peach you can’t wait to take a bite of. Generally my aim is to make high quality clothes that are effortless and elegant, but never take themselves too seriously. It’s supposed to be fun, right? I always keep these basic guidelines I’ve set for myself in mind anytime I’m making new things, but I also think something that’s important to my brand is just making exactly what I want to make when I want to make it. I don’t pay attention to trends, I don’t know when fashion week is, I don’t know what the market wants or what will sell. I just keep my head down and make what I like. Sometimes it doesn’t sell, and I honestly don’t really care (again, business is not my strong suit). I think in this industry a lot of people lose sight of why they started in the first place, what their vision was, and what made them special. To me the principles I started with are what I value most, and what I think keeps this whole thing going.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I like to stick to my areas of expertise, so I’ll lead with where to drink. I’d probably start around Poncey-Highland, take them to 8 arm for good snacks/great drinks/neon pink lights, then go to The Local to play some darts and get embarrassingly drunk on PBR, and end the night by introducing them to Atlanta’s shining jewel of adult entertainment, The Clermont Lounge. The next day I’d take them to soak up the alcohol and shame with a Woody’s Philly Cheese Steak picnic at Piedmont Park and get right back to it. Absolutely must have cocktails at Kimball House, Ticonderoga Club, and Octopus Bar (amazing food too, but I’m here for the bevs). While we’re in EAV we’ll go see whichever friend of a friend of ours is playing a show at 529, and then go dancing at Mary’s. Bagels from Emerald City in the morning. If we had a Decatur day (where I grew up), we would undoubtedly go to Taqueria del Sol for dinner and drench ourselves in queso. I would take them to S.O.S. Tiki Bar because it’s kitschy and cute as hell and they really know their way around a rum cocktail, then we’d pop over next door for late night sammies and a paloma at Victory. Got to go have brunch at Sun In My Belly the next day. I wouldn’t let them leave without hiking Stone Mountain, going to the Botanical Gardens and visiting The High. I’m a sucker for a roof top so I would probably take them to either the Hotel Clermont roof top bar or Skyline at Ponce City Market for carnival games. I feel like I’m leaving lots of things out, but also that I’m rambling so I will force myself to stop here!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are of course countless people who have helped to prop me up and move me forward, but none of it would have ever even started without my grandmother, so my shoutout goes to her. She taught me to use a sewing machine when I was 8 years old, and we just never stopped. I went to her house every weekend to make a new project until she eventually got me my first machine at 13. When I launched my first line a few years ago, she was right there helping me with garment construction on her days off. She’s the most brilliant seamstress I know, and instilled in me very early on the attitude that buying something is silly when you could just make it instead. She always encouraged my creative endeavors, taught me to be resourceful and inventive, and continues to inspire me all the time.
Patricia Villafane Alisa Jarmon Zoie Marie Dedra Hemphill