Graduated from the U. de C., 21, turns crochet hobby into fashion line with social uplift

Dinah Clottey learned to crochet at the age of 12 to teach her mother the craft. Although the teaching took place, Clottey’s mother did not pursue the hook. His daughter, however, graduated from the University of Chicago in 2022 and Winner of the Diversity Leadership Award from the U. dec.centered her entrepreneurial dreams around crochet with her fashion brand, T’Kor Couturethe name being an abbreviation of his middle name.

Amid the pandemic lockdowns, studies, and 2020 protests around racial calculus, Clottey came back to what she knew, grabbed her tools, and upped her game.

“I had so many things on my mind, so many things buried inside of me, it really started as a project for me to creatively release a lot of feelings that I had,” said London-born Clottey. “I would do something that would take inspiration from whatever was going on at the time.”

People took notice and what Clottey calls a “cute little thing” took off within a year. T’Kor has almost 11,000 Instagram followers, and Clottey focuses on custom work for Chicago singer-songwriter Jamila Woods. T’Kor Couture was also selected to participate in the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Accelerator Program 2021, a competitive 10-week summer program designed to help start-ups grow key elements of their business, with coaching and a $6,500 grant. And his accomplishments don’t just stem from his entrepreneurial skills. At 21, Clottey’s resume also includes being an organizer and publicity officer for Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign in Iowa and being one of many students from across the country chose to pose a question to former first lady Michelle Obama for a 2021 television special.

“One thing I’ve noticed about myself is how many different dreams and aspirations I have — many more in the creative realm,” said Clottey, a former student at Dwight D. Eisenhower at Blue Island. “I grew up without having a lot of barriers in my mind as to what I could accomplish.”

Looking back, Clottey recalls a conversation with a high school friend whose dream was to get into the film industry. She said he never considered pursuing his passion, opting instead for something more practical. In her mind, she just couldn’t understand why he hadn’t gone. The young man will end up sharing the reasons why he gave up on his dream: to take care of his family and not the means to go to film school or to invest in cinematographic equipment.

“I didn’t realize how much of an effect this conversation would have on me until I came to the University of Chicago and sat through the pandemic,” she said. Law school was over, sociology was in vogue. Now, she looks forward to working as a program manager at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies in the fall, helping a new leadership development initiative develop curriculum.

“The one thing I’ve remained most consistent in is my need to want to propel and amplify underrepresented voices and creators,” she said. “I’m still juggling exactly how I want to do this.”

As an undergrad, Clottey juggled her advocacy needs as a board member and president of the Black Student Organization. Under his leadership, she developed and launched the annual Black Convocation, an event designed to celebrate the accomplishments of black students at U. of C. Clottey was also the Outreach Manager for the award-winning podcast “Kinda Sorta Brown” – which discusses policies affecting Black and Brown communities.

“I’m very inspired by black culture,” Clottey said. “That’s really the model I have for this company. I looked around the fashion industry and a lot of these household names and basically saw how white it was and thought it was just really important to black people and underrepresented people to put their name on things, to let them know where it came from. So for me, this (T’Kor Couture) also became a project of embracing my own heritage and embracing who I come from and who I am and that I’m black and proud of it.

“I did an entire line based on Ntozake Shange’s work ‘For colored girls who’ve contemplated suicide / When the rainbow falls.’ For me, the agency I have to express myself and interact with works that have inspired me and the way I think, has been so amazing.

T’Kor Couture’s rich colors in oversized, form-fitting silhouettes evoke thoughts of comfort, playfulness and pride. Clottey’s Enuf collection is about black women seen for their strength, and Clottey’s Crowned collection features a crown on the items. She was inspired by Jean-Michele Basquiat. Music, literature, art, politics, Clottey’s fashion is inspired by so many things in black culture.

“I appreciate fashion in all its forms, the way people present themselves, from the clothes they wear, to the hairstyles, to the accessories they wear or the tattoos they have. I love pay attention to all that. But at the end of the day, what I want to do is uplift black people.

Looking back on the conversation Clottey had with her high school student, she said that doesn’t always have to be the experience of people of color. They can go there. How? With a support system, hard work and remembering the why of what you do.

“One of my favorite quotes: ‘It’s very hard to fail if you don’t give up,'” Clottey said. “That’s why I love ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Thought About Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enough.’ It’s natural as a black person to feel like we’re not good enough to do what we want to do. It’s a shift in mindset that’s going to take practice and support. It’s going to take surround yourself with people who believe in you and want nothing but the best for you, to help you change that mindset.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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