By Onz Chery
Venny Étienne can still savor it – the cheering, the thundering applause, the joyful looks on his friends’ faces, the ‘Oh my gosh, Venny, you designed this?!’
The moment was his first fashion show, which was organized by his church in Brooklyn about 12 years ago. The acclaim he received then proved as pivotal as the fanfare that his latest creation, a jacket Beyoncé wore in her new film, Black Is King, has touched off.
“Definitely hard work pays off,” said Étienne, taking a deep sigh. “I’m glad this finally came about. A lot of people work hard, but they don’t get to see their successes. So, it was amazing and a blessing to see the success of her actually wearing it.”
“For her to wear it shows that your upbringing matters, your heritage matters,” Étienne added. “It shows the chances living in this country can provide to immigrants. We can live a life in which we can say that we dressed Beyoncé.”
It all started at the 2008 Lakay Entertainment Annual Fashion Show, an event the church he grew up in, Gospel Crusade Church of Pentecost, organized at Brooklyn College. The fashion show swept Étienne off his feet. He never wanted to touch the ground again.
Étienne joined the following year’s sartorial event. The audience went wild for his clothes again. That swept him up so high this time that he decided to become a professional designer.
Étienne didn’t grow up in an environment that followed the professional fashion world. He had never taken sewing classes. For the first fashion show, his mother, Carmene Étienne, helped him with the sewing. Still, at age 21, he was firm on his career goal.
Étienne dropped his classes at Baruch College – he wasn’t a big fan of Pre-Calculus – and picked up sewing classes at the nearby Fashion Institute of Technology. Later, he earned a degree in Merchandising and Design at Wade College in Dallas, Texas.
During those early years in fashion, Étienne’s didn’t make Haitian-inspired clothes. For one of the shows, he designed pearl snaps, a cowboy-style button-up shirts. However, by the time he designed the Beyoncé garment, Étienne had developed a strong Haitian flair, inspired by a trip to Haiti in 2017.
Finding Inspiration at Church and in Haiti
“I was amazed by how beautiful Haiti was,” the 33-year-old said, with wonder in his voice still. “I want to celebrate that. I want to celebrate the Haitian culture.”
Elements of the Beyoncé garment, like the blue flowers and the vibrancy of the yellow, are inspired by Haiti, Étienne said.
“Whenever someone asks me what inspired that color, I want to say Haiti,” Étienne added. “Do your research and see how beautiful [Haiti] is as opposed to what’s portrayed in media.”
Though it was his first visit to the country, Étienne grew up in a Haitian household with close ties. He was the youngest of six children and lived in the Marlboro Houses near Coney Island.
Because the area was rough, Étienne’s parents sheltered him and his siblings at Gospel Crusade. He went to payer meetings on Tuesdays, bible study on Wednesdays and, of course, church on Sundays.
At church, young Étienne enjoyed looking at what the women wore and also dressed elegantly himself. It was Jackson Chery, Lakay Fashion Show’s founder, who noticed Étienne’s unsung talent: he could put together amazing outfits. And Chery asked Étienne to join the fashion show as a model.
“I expected him to make it I just didn’t know where,” said Chery, referring to Étienne’s many skills. “I know he had it but the where I couldn’t call that.”
When Étienne went from modeling to designing, it started to become clearer. The church made sure to encourage him as much as possible.
“We were a group of people that were standing with him, you know,” said Chery. “It’s great to see him reach this far. [This way], when you feel discouraged, you see that the work wasn’t in vain. The seeds were planted, and you finally see them grow.”
The Road to Queen Bey
Étienne moved to Dallas in 2011, in search of a new start in a place less congested than New York.
It was the total opposite of Lakay Fashion Show. People wouldn’t give him a chance to design. Étienne racked up countless no’s and no-replies from stylists. Nevertheless, he kept asking.
“All I really needed was that one ‘Yes,’” Étienne said.
Meanwhile, he also worked a 9-to-5 job as an accountant.
Étienne had started his own brand since when he was in New York, which he called Levenity after his co-worker suggested it. But it wasn’t until Étienne was in Texas, in 2014, that Levenity became a corporation. That same year, he finally got a yes from a celebrity’s stylist.
He had designed a black crop top and a matching long skirt made with about 104 pieces sewn together. He sent a picture of it to a stylist for Laura Govan, a reality show star and actress. Govan wore the garment on Dancing with the Stars and sat in the front row.
Motivated, Étienne kept reaching out to stylists, including Beyoncé’s own Zerina Akers, knowing it was a stretch.
His efforts led Étienne to a mega celebrity: Cardi B. She sported his python skin coat in 2017.
After Cardi B wore his coat, everything seemed possible. Étienne participated in Project Runway in 2019, though he was eliminated in the tenth round.
The loss was tough, Étienne said, but that didn’t stop him from finishing what he initiated in 2014: designing a garment for Beyoncé. Queen Bey herself.
First, Akers asked Étienne to design a dress for comedian and actress Niecy Nash. Étienne had one day to get it done. He sketched it at his accounting job, called in sick for the rest of the day, and delivered the garment promptly.
Impressed, Akers called on Étienne’s services for Nash again, and then – for Beyoncé.
“Zerina said, ‘I got something for you for Be,’” he said, reminiscing about that phone call. “I said ‘What?! Get out of here.’”
Now, thinking about the megastar wearing his Haitian-influenced jacket in Black Is King, Étienne can’t help to think about where it all started.
“She’s representing that Venny from the fashion show where everyone at the church was clapping and applauding,” said Étienne. “She’s representing the Haitian culture, she’s representing Marlboro Projects and Dallas.”