In a moment that demands radical change, business leaders would be wise to turn their attention to Kimberly McGlonn, PhD, and the work she’s doing at her local fashion business, Grant Blvd.
A high school teacher for nearly two decades and a Montgomery County councilperson, too, McGlonn had a deep awakening about our criminal justice system in 2016, when she began volunteering at Books Through Bars, the West Philly nonprofit that for more than 30 years has been sending reading materials to people in prison.
Having grown up in Milwaukee’s mostly black, mostly impoverished north side, McGlonn was raised by parents who set an example of community activism: Her father, who grew his own food, was committed to bringing produce to food deserts. Her mother volunteered on weekends at the local correctional facility.
Through her work at Books Through Bars and, increasingly, other local organizations working in re-entry, she began to understand the barriers to meaningful employment for the 95 percent of inmates who leave prisons.
It set off bells.
“I thought, If I can see this, then why am I not supposed to be the one trying to solve this?” she says. “It was just that simple: This is what I’m seeing, and it’s unacceptable. I knew I needed to do something.”
As satisfied as McGlonn was with the work she was doing teaching literature with a focus on colonialism and marginalization in her suburban classroom, she felt a call to do something more.
“I wanted to show up in a different way.”
She had grown up in thrift stores, and has always loved vintage finds as well as fabrics and textures; she decided fashion could be her path. “I wanted to do something in fashion that would create jobs that could really be an antidote to all of this systemically poisonous toxicity,” she says. She took sewing classes at The Sewing Room in Jenkintown, and classes on the business of fashion at MADE Institute.
And in 2017, using her savings from her teaching salary and crowdfunding among family, friends and colleagues, she launched Grant Blvd, named for the street on which she grew up, with multifaceted goals: to create beautiful clothing entirely from thrift store garments, in the spirit of sustainability; to work with re-entry-focused organizations to train and hire people who’d come through the prison system; and, for each product purchased, to donate a book to Books Through Bars, and support other community initiatives as well.
“I thought, If I can see this, then why am I not supposed to be the one trying to solve this?” McGlonn says. “It was just that simple: This is what I’m seeing, and it’s unacceptable. I knew I needed to do something.”
Since launching in 2017, Grant Blvd has rolled out five collections of items ranging from chic menswear-inspired blouses to culottes made from thrifted denim and sheer curtain panels, to screen-printed tees with phrases like “End Cash Bail” and “Mad Sustainable.”
Each item in the collection has the kind of femininity and edge that makes it easy to envision the characters on HBO’s Insecure rocking every single piece. (Hear that, Issa Rae? Let’s get some Philly Magic on season five!)
Year-over-year revenue growth has exceeded 50 percent, and the company is poised to continue that growth. “Remarkably, during the pandemic we’ve been able to grow our team and have had to, to meet a growing demand,” McGlonn says.
This summer, McGlonn will open the brand’s first physical storefront at 36th Street and Lancaster Avenue. It’s a bold move at a time when so many businesses have shuttered their brick-and-mortar presence, or have no desire to open one in the first place.
“One of the things that I have a special temperature check on, and a lot of experience doing, is cultivating places where people can come together who would not normally come together but who want to come together,” McGlonn says. “That’s not everyone’s jam. But that’s my jam.”
She attributes that gift to her wide range of personal experiences. “I can bring together people who are many things because I’m many things,” she says. “I grew up Muslim, I’ve dated women, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been in an abusive relationship, I’ve been a councilwoman. I had the experience of abandonment as a kid. I’ve taught and loved thousands of white children and been loved by them in equal measure.”
All of her experience strengthens her belief that people often want to be together, but just haven’t had the opportunities to do so. “Our art spaces aren’t like that, our science museums aren’t like that, our schools aren’t like that,” she says. Still, she’s not naive. “I know that Covid is an amazing challenge. But we are committed to thriving.”
The company’s internal slogan is a testament to that: Forward is the motion.
“We’re staying the course until the wheels falls off.”
Nevada Gray is the director of design and production for Grant Blvd. A South Philly native, she graduated from The Art Institute of Philadelphia before working in fashion in both New York and Philly, including at MTV and BET. She joined the Grant Blvd team because of McGlonn’s passion, and because of her novel approach.
“What drew me to the company is the problem-solving portion of it. I found it fascinating,” she says. She’d grown up patching her own clothes, repurposing thrift finds—but never knew there was a name, let alone a market, for practices she’d always embraced.
“Now, I’m always learning. It’s changed my behavior, from no longer buying bottled water to getting extra recycling cans,” she says. “A whole other world has been opened to me, and now I’ll never go back and I want to educate as many people as possible, because I think once you’re awakened, that’s the first step. Once there, everything else becomes a lot easier.”
Looking ahead, McGlonn is interested in financial investment from a like-minded backer who truly understands and embraces Grant Blvd, and women like McGlonn. Big box brands, she says, exist because they have the means to do so. “I’m rightfully leery that they’re going to try to capitalize on some nice statement and then in reality change nothing,” she notes.
But she’s open to mission-driven funders, and has attended events like Black Girl Ventures’ signature pitch sessions.
“I want people to know that they have the power with their dollars to vote for the changes they want to see,” McGlonn says. “You have that power. And you shouldn’t give up that power easily.”
“What I [would] want these larger companies to do is to say, Woman, black woman, you tell us how we can do better and then you tell us how we can support your work, and then we’re gonna give you the means, because we’ve been exploiting people for so long,” she says.
For now, she continues to teach high school, both because she loves it and as evidence of yet another deeply troubling ailment in our society: She needs the health insurance for herself and her adolescent daughter, who has an autoimmune disease.
And while healthcare may seem off-topic from fashion, it actually aligns with the heart of McGlonn’s deeper mission. “I know there’s an awakening happening, but if we care about having an informed citizenry, if we care about solving these imperative social and environmental issues, we need all hands on deck,” she says. “And not only that, at the helm of that team we need people who are about the work, who can see the work that needs to happen, who can build savvy bridges, who can support them. I want Philadelphia to just show up.”
We’re not going to solve any problems, she says, “if we keep bringing the same people into the room and we hand over all the power to the people who created these problems.”
And so she and Gray agree that they don’t just see Grant Blvd as some kind of experiment: They want it to become a household name.“I want people to know that they have the power with their dollars to vote for the changes they want to see,” McGlonn says. “You have that power. And you shouldn’t give up that power easily. You work hard for your dollars, and we should all be much more discerning about who we stand with.”Photo courtesy Grant Blvd