“What’s up with your pants? They look funny.”
The class bully had picked up quickly on my bold new style move. I was in the 4th grade, and that morning had decided to slip on the pair of royal blue stretch jeans that puckered into a bell shape at the bottom. I had picked them up from the mall that weekend. Bell Bottoms, the uniform of the late 1960s-70s, had made a shy debut back on the clothing scene as “Flare Pants” and it was a risk to wear them.
I retorted back, “They’re flares. Watch you wear them in a few weeks when you catch on.” Being one of few black girls, and really children of color, in my very white elementary school had emboldened me with a “fuck it” attitude. Since I would stick out regardless of what I did, I felt no loss in embracing standing out even more by wearing the things I wanted to wear.
And I didn’t eat my words. Within weeks almost every classmate, from the tall and thin to the short and stocky, had shimmed into a pair of flare pants.
Our personal style speaks volumes about our identities -- signaling familiarity and comfort to some while screaming “stay away” to others. It’s one extension of self-discovery taken for granted, with impacts deeper than just the surface.
Nicole Campbell, founder of personal styling company Cepi Style, knows this fact as truth. We recently sat down to discuss the experiences in her life that inspired her to create her company. From childhood memories to professional settings, Nicole had key moments and stumbling blocks that motivated her to understand why some people don't reach their full potential, and ultimately the freedom to fully express themselves. Read below to discover Nicole’s thoughts on how self-expression and ultimately self- discovery is a life-long journey that’s worth the trek:
“Be Small So They Won’t Hurt You.”
Growing up, I was very different from everyone in my family. My family is from Jamaica and we were all taught that there were certain paths to success a.k.a, “You're gonna go to school to become a doctor or a lawyer." I didn't think that way. I essentially took a left and wanted to explore some more.
My family taught me to put up a lot of guards to protect myself. I grew up in East New York (a neighborhood in Brooklyn), and literally there was someone shot in our driveway. I never talk about this stuff anymore, but for me it was just like a quieting of my soul a bit, to be sure no one really sees you, because if they see you they might try to harm you, but I was a really free person deep down inside and I wanted to experience people.
When I first began attending the Kennedy School at Harvard for my graduate degree, there was a handful of black students, and all the black professors that I had gone there to study under had pretty much left. It was really hard because we were in a place of learning, but the way we were being taught was definitely skewed to a problematic point of view. For example, we'd be in statistics class and the professor would go, "Let's run this regression analysis with single, welfare moms who live in the hood versus alcohol," and it's like, if I called the bias out I would be the combative person in the class. I felt like I was in the twilight zone.
The students of color gathered together to see how we could fight this. I thought, “We should not feel like this, we need support.” I went to this woman who was the head of administration and proposed that we create a conference, “The Black Policy Conference.” I got a few students together to do this with me. I was in my early 20s, and it was so hard to create because there was so many stumbling blocks around funding and no one wanted to do it at the higher level. There was just so many hang ups over something that now seems so simple, but I would literally be walking across the Charles River calling my sister in tears saying, “I HAVE to make this happen.”
I finally got someone to do the website, and eventually all these people wanted to be part of it. It was the first time that I felt like, “Wow I'm a creator! I created this thing! It didn't exist and now it exists!" It was mind boggling to me. There was a part of me that wasn't sure I would be able to pull it off. It took about a year and it was like, "Oh my god it's happening," and it still exists now.
I started off my career working in schools, philanthropy, and education. The reason why I stuck to those fields was because there was the opportunity to be apart of a young person's self-discovery -- to help them self-actualize. It took me some time to realize it, but it was something that would compel me. I would be with a student, or developing a project, and it would literally bring me to tears.
With everything I do there's always this connection with people being able to become more of themselves. And when I saw it not happening for people, it felt like something that I had to tackle. Eventually, I switched careers in a sense to move forward. I felt a little burnt out, but the way I approached the next step of my career was still trying to answer the question, “How can I make sure a person feels like a better version of themselves when everything's said and done?”
With every corporate job I’ve held, the higher I got the more I saw the need for people to find the balance between their personal style and traditional, professional wear. So I began to pursue personal styling. It first began as a closet edit, a session where myself and a stylist would go into someone’s home to help them organize their wardrobe.
When I decided to start this, I thought it was going to be really simple, just get the stylists to go to the client's home to help them with what was going on in their wardrobe. I met with stylists and gone to their closet edits before to see how they did it. I tweaked some things, and the way that I prepared for my own was to pay attention to all these things that probably didn't matter, like the background, the lighting, tons of outside equipment -- we did all of this in people’s homes and it was crazy.
The first person I started off with, was my cousin, to do a beta test to see how this would really work. We had introductory questions she needed to fill out so we could get a handle on her and her style, and right before the closet edit, I decided we should bring clothes as well. I went to three department stores and bought all these things and I got a make-shift rack, and I just put it all in my car, and I brought them there, not knowing what to expect.
Throughout this early closet edit, I realized my cousin didn’t really know a lot about her style. It was funny to see her from a different perspective, because she's a senior person at this investment bank, she's really smart, really thinks through a lot of things, but didn’t have answers to questions like, “What colors do you like?" She'd be like, "Hmm…..." And I was like, "Wow." But she kept going back to the rack of clothing I had brought as a reference point.
At that moment I realized, “Wow, there's this opportunity for people to look at the potential future to understand themselves better.” My focus ultimately is about people and how they interact with things, and what the meaning or transformation can come from that. That's what I was picking up on from my cousin really trying to figure herself out in a way that she hadn't before, and it was really through an assortment of clothes that she didn't even think of before.
What I was doing during that time with developing my closet edits and since was really looking at what self-sabotaging things are people doing that's counterintuitive to their style, and how can I help them through it?
“Self-Discovery is Key”
The truth about self-expression is when you allow yourself to express yourself, that's the only time you experience true joy. I had a conversation with my sister recently. We're totally different in how our lives have gone in some ways. Someone had offered me a high profile job recently and she asked me if I was going to take it, and I was like, "No, it wouldn't make me happy." And she was like, "You put such a high premium on happy! The way you eat, what you do, everything. It's so strange." But to me it's so important. That joy aspect of really internally being good with yourself, I think it only happens when you truly feel like you are expressing yourself.
The other thing about self expression is you're able to be more honest. You're able to have more honest relationships with people, and a more honest conversation with yourself. Freedom of expression limits the feeling of imposter syndrome as well, which I feel like a lot of people have, especially in the corporate world. When you express yourself, and allow people to engage with who you really are, it gives life a different meaning. A lot of women around me, and a lot of women that do Cepi Style are mothers. It's also a good way to teach young people how to be. It's ok to be you.