Urban Fashion Pioneer April Walker: on Top of Her Game, 25 Years & Counting

Photos of April Walker Courtesy of April Walker
By Sharon Pendana   

When pioneering urban fashion designer April Walker was thirteen, she started kids gymnastics classes at Cadman Memorial Church in Brooklyn — not taking them, but teaching them — charging $5 per child. During high school, she combed the garment district for apparel to buy wholesale then resell at a profit. Though she aced all the civil service exams, after college, she didn't settle for a good government job. She’s always known the value of her skills, with a confidence that’s fueled her entrepreneurial fire and kept her hustle going for over twenty-five years.

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With a fly streak of white hair beautifully framing her face and a strong, fit physique, she, at 52, exemplifies her oft-repeated mantra, "Health is wealth.” Curly Nikki spoke with the “Sacagawea of Urban Fashion” about her longevity in the game. From allowing a young Christopher Wallace to put her gear on layaway at her Clinton Hill boutique, Fashion in Effect, before his catapult to fame as the Notorious B.I.G. to launching her eponymous brand, Walker Wear in 1991, she blazed a trail in the urban category, a young woman in a burgeoning male-dominated business. Today she is reinvigorating her brand and recording the audiobook to her popular motivational book Walker Gems: Get Your A$% off the Couch with longtime friend, Milk of hip hop duo, Audio Two (one of her first celebrity clients)

First off, congratulations on 25 years in business, what an accomplishment! Take us back to the beginning.
Thank you. So the genesis of my business was that I was living the lifestyle, immersed in what was coming — that tsunami which was hip-hop. It was the Reaganomics era, and crack was on the street, but there was this metamorphosis of transition. We started seeing images of people who looked like us. Run DMC, Fresh Fest and LL Cool J at the Garden. It resonated with me. I grew up in Brooklyn, so to see people winning that wore shell toes [Adidas sneakers] on stage, it changed the game for me. I could be comfortable; could be who I am, and still succeed.

I was a junior at New Paltz [State University of New York] working at American Express, but I knew I didn't want to work for someone else. One day I went to visit Dapper Dan in Harlem and thought, this is exactly what I want to do, there’s nothing like this in Brooklyn. That’s how Fashion in Effect came into existence.

April Walker in the Walker Wear Showroom. Photo courtesy of April Walker
Where did you get the moxie to open a brick and mortar shop as a college student?
I was young, naive to fear. I grew up in Brooklyn at a time when we didn’t have anything but the hustle. When I was thirteen, I charged $5 a head to teach kids gymnastics. When I was in high school, I was a hustler; I'd buy silk dresses wholesale and take them to everyone on payday. Being an entrepreneur is very sexy now; everyone on social media is a brand. Back then, it was an outcast idea, but I think what gave me the tenacity and gumption to go into entrepreneurship was I knew I could. I was still alive at 20 years old — and I saw a lot of things. Also, my parents always cultivated that "you can do anything you want to do," which was a big, big win for me.

So your parents supported this venture?
Well, my mom was disappointed because I passed on the (city) positions. Everyone thought I was crazy when I went with my gut on that. My father was the only one who was like "go for it!" I'd saved up in college. The store was my little diamond in the rough started on a shoestring budget. It was a haven for people that loved breakdancing, graffiti, the culture. We had everyone who came in tag their name on our wall of tags. We would sit with each customer to give them something unique. Behind a curtain were our tailors, sewing machines, and a cutting table. Those are my humble beginnings and the springboard for all other opportunities. Shaggy was one of my first celebrity customers and Audio Two and Biggie (who she'd extended courtesy before he had a deal). They opened my eyes to even more possibilities. I’m very grateful.

April Walker with Biggie Smalls Courtesy of April Walker
You launched the urban sportswear line, Walker Wear in 1991, giving like-minded young creatives their first opportunities in urban fashion as Spike Lee did for folks in film.
Yeah, I guess you could say that. It’s been humbling. My team started from a tribe vibe. Many people have had their "school of hard knocks" with Walker Wear. They learn with me and go on to do great things. My sister Jackie began with me but built a career at the GAP, Jimmy Jazz, and Ralph Lauren. Others went on to [the brands] Mecca, Enyce, and Twism.

So with your 25th anniversary, you’ve relaunched Walker Wear; how has it morphed, how do you maintain relevance in a changing industry?
It was easier the first time around because I was just living it, I was right there in the moment. Now that I'm older, I'm not going to the clubs. I'm not in the mix like I was; so I embrace reverse mentorship. We can all grow and learn from each other, especially if we are trying to stay connected to what’s coming, not hold onto the past. Getting in the heads of our young people allows me to respect our differences then move to find common denominators. The digital platform has helped me. Brick-and-mortars are shrinking day by day. It's a way to pick up my bullhorn and talk to my people directly and not have to play the real estate game like before. We’ve done some cool retail and brand collaborations (with the likes of Starter and Vinnie Styles). It’s fun to be able to keep things fresh and do different things with different collaborators. There’s a lot of good stuff coming down the pipeline: a really cool pop-up experience for the end of the year in New York, Miami, and Atlanta; relaunching custom on Instagram; some cool limited editions and our first big retail collaboration. I have a lot of young designers getting involved; shout out to the team!

You're a serial entrepreneur from fashion and even the pet industry in the early aughts to now stepping into the cannabis business as well.
Yes! I'm delving into the cannabis lane. I saw that the industry was untapped but is going to be huge. When I found out how healthy cannabis is, I wanted in. My whole lifestyle is health and wellness. I learned of an opportunity to distribute a CBD (hemp) oil with nanotechnology— it breaks down the particles and absorbs them into your system faster, with more potency. I take it, and it’s been very beneficial (reducing the pain of a long-ago femur fracture). I'm also cutting a deal on cannabinoid water. I’m excited about all the possibilities. The cannabis category is growing faster than any other industry and women are the fastest growing group in this space.

April Walker fit at 52
With all that you juggle, how do you find your center?
I like to workout outside, stretching and yoga. I enjoy working out; it frees me. I’m right there, present and being present is a challenge in our lives. Working out anchors me and it centers my day. Our health is our wealth.

That's one of the many "WalkerGems" you share on everything from entrepreneurship to wellness.
Yes, they started on Instagram. I’m an entrepreneur, and I remember what it was like when I first started. Most startups don’t have the resources to pay for consulting in that first year. To have someone drop a jewel that says this is how it is or here’s an app that’s going to help you with your journey — it's great. So I compiled them and expanded them into a book, the first of a series.

I think the biggest inhibitor, the thing that holds us back, is fear and I wanted to address that. You have to have faith over fear. Once you know things are going to work out, it’s just problem-solving. Taking a chance, stepping out on a ledge, trusting your inner voice and knowing that, guess what? It’s okay to be different.

It’s so satisfying to see that you continue. The Brooklyn of your beginnings is very different from the borough today. So many people and businesses are gone.
That’s one of the reasons I want to keep the brand around. It’s not to become this multi-million dollar machine; it’s more important as a legacy to have people that look like us still standing.

How do you stay on top of your game?

Sharon Pendana is the creator of THE TROVE, author of Secret Washington DCand on a relentless quest to discover treasures, human and otherwise. Find her on Instagram, Medium, Twitter or binging on Netflix and Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps.

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