These are designs from the Ken White Collection that will be featured in Sunday's fashion show. Credit: Photo submitted by Fredrick White.

Fredrick Kendrell White, the 21-year-old Mississippi designer and owner of the Ken White Collection,  is standing on the precipice of his latest achievement: earning recognition across the Southeast for his talent and his brand.

His next stop on the uphill climb is the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City to pursue a degree in fashion design. In his professional pocket, he already carries a career certificate and an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Clothing and Fashion Design from Hinds Community College.

Last Sunday, he left his mark on Mississippi with the “New Era” fashion show at the Mississippi Arts Center in downtown Jackson. This was White’s second solo fashion show and the debut of his first men’s collection, in addition to a red-carpet-style women’s collection.

These accomplishments place White on the path to accomplishing his dream of becoming the first African American with a major fashion brand.

“We have a lot of African American designers, but we’re not on that level when you think of Tom Ford or Ralph Lauren,” White said. “I want to bring Ken White up there and bring hope to my people.”

White’s love for fashion and designing was first sparked in his junior year at Bassfield High School in Jefferson Davis County. White started to wear blazers and cropped, or “high-water,” pants when no one else was conscious of the trend.

“They [his school peers] used to call me Steve Urkel,” White remembers. “Now they want the Urkel look. I got picked on because I was different, but the same people that picked on my clothes and my outfits are the same ones that are coming to pay me to put their outfits together.”

This quickly followed his first fashion show during his senior year. Soon people were hopping on White’s trendy train with a one-way ticket to style city.

White says his talent is a gift from God and that God guided his learning of his craft with his surrounding resources. For four years, he mainly has been designing and sewing — a craft he learned from his maternal grandmother and via YouTube — prom dresses and formal wear, and some everyday wear such as pants, shorts and dashiki-shaped shirts. He also does styling for men.

Mya Overstreet says White designed and sewed her prom dress in only one week. Credit: Photos submitted by Mya Overstreet.

In April 2017, White designed a black mermaid-style dress with a rosette skirt for Hattiesburg resident Mya Overstreet’s senior prom.

“It was the best dress I’ve ever seen,” Overstreet said.

She was referred to White by a friend who also had her prom dress sewn by him. She says she received copious compliments from students and faculty members at prom. Fanatic about her first Ken White dress, Overstreet plans to have White sew her another dress for her cousin’s dinner party this December. In the meantime, she’s helping spread the word about White’s abilities.

White says his best marketing so far has been via word-of-mouth. Across the Southeast, he’s known for his red-carpet-influenced fashion, like Overstreet’s dress. But he wants to produce a mix of high fashion and everyday wear so clients “can feel fancy and elegant on a daily basis.” However, his growing success and increasing brand popularity in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Georgia didn’t come without difficulty.

“Somehow we hit very hard times,” White said.

In 2013 and 2014, for six months during his senior year, White and his family were homeless.

“I wish I hadn’t had to go through that, but life happens,” White sighed. “But sometimes I’m glad that I went through it because it humbled me more.”

The predicament started when White’s father moved the family to Hattiesburg for a year after getting married to one of the city’s residents. When they decided to move closer to their hometown in Prentiss, White’s dad had a difficult time finding employment.

ken white former residence
White says he sometimes stops by where the house was torn down to take a photo and remember to stay humble. Credit: Photo by Fredrick White.

Their former neighbor in Hattiesburg allowed the family to stay in his home in Bassfield rent free. But the house had holes in the structure. Even so, one of the owner’s family members did not agree with the arrangement. He kicked the White family out of the house and tore it down.

“That was extreme,” White said, shaking his head.

So they packed up and moved to White’s maternal grandmother’s home in Bassfield.

One day, White’s paternal aunt Jennifer Cole came to visit from Brooklyn, N.Y. She challenged him to use his drawing skills, which were usually used to draw Disney cartoon characters, to sketch some wedding dress designs. Cole works for a tailoring company and designs wedding dresses under her own brand, JennColeDesigns.

White says he couldn’t sew any of the elaborate designs he first sketched, but his skills have improved. Here are three pieces from the Ken White Collection. Credit: Photos by Alex Rozier. / Mississippi Today

White was hooked. He was sketching 30 to 40 dresses per day for two weeks, he says.

Then his life was interrupted again. His grandmother and father had a disagreement that led the family to live in their car sporadically until they had enough money to stay in a hotel for one night or more.

When they didn’t have enough funds for a hotel stay, they parked their car and possessions at Lake Mike Conner in Collins, 10 miles northeast of Bassfield. They took their showers in the public restroom and ate most meals made in a crock pot while dining at a picnic table.

All the while, White was still sketching, smiling and styling at school.

“People didn’t know because I was still going to school with my blazer and I was still smiling,” White said. “I smile through everything. I learned there’s a way out of every situation, you just have to believe there’s a way.”

Their way out was through a family friend who had learned of their situation. She helped them acquire an apartment in Prentiss, where they now have to manage only a few bills. White attributes the removal of this hardship to God.

Although White lives in modest quarters, his designs and vision are extravagant.

“He’s a very detailed, respectful and patient guy,” says Robert Thompson. “For the services that he offers and the attitude that he brings, he doesn’t charge enough. I think he’s very underrated.”

Thompson says initially he wasn’t sure about the bright colors in the blazer but he trusted White’s judgment. Credit: Photos submitted by Robert Thompson.

In the spring of 2016, White styled Thompson for his 10-year-old daughter’s father-daughter dance. After a few hours of combing through several stores in Northpark Mall in Jackson, White and Thompson settled on a multi-pastel-colored, floral blazer with silver lapels, black cropped pants and black suede loafers. Thompson, a resident of Bassfield, says he had never worn an outfit of such high caliber before.

“I like colors, but the way he does it — it’s that one color that will catch your eye,” Thompson said. “A lot of men don’t want to ‘push it to the limit’ like that, but I like the way he puts it together.”

White admits praise like this sometimes makes him feel cocky. But talks with his father help him stay humble and grounded, he says. He hopes this Southern-grown humility continues in New York.

“I hope I stay grounded,” White said. “I’m trying to take the qualities that I got from here with me and not lose sight of what I know and what I’ve learned.”

But by remembering his past and planning for the future, White might find a way to stay tied to his Mississippi home. He hopes one day to open a manufacturing shop in Mississippi, so he can create jobs and have more manpower to sew for his brand. He also wants to be a motivational speaker. Furthermore, White desires to donate money to charity and create scholarships for other students interested in fashion with his future fashion shows.

He knows all too well of how expensive college is. He’s currently raising money through GoFundMe for his own education.

“I’m praying and that’s all I can do,” White said.

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