- Associated Press - Saturday, August 16, 2014

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Superstar Beyonce Knowles Carter last month posted to Instagram photos of herself wearing the African-print fashions of Reuben Reuel. Harper’s Bazaar hailed him as her favorite new designer.

Yet Reuel is not really new to the design world. He simply is new to the massive limelight and sudden interest that erupt from practically anything Beyonce does or says.

“I’m really about the normal woman,” said the 28-year-old Virginia Beach native formerly known as Reuben Riddick (his moniker is now just his first and middle name). “I was star struck, but it really didn’t hit me until I saw it on her.

“I feel great and even more confident.”

Before this rush of attention, Reuel quietly gained credibility for his DemestiksNewYork brand through his e-commerce store on Etsy.com.

Beyonce is not the first celebrity to wear his handmade apparel. Her Destiny’s Child group mate Michelle Williams and vocal powerhouses Jill Scott and Ledisi have the trump cards on Queen B.

But because of her global stardom and social media prowess, Beyonce is hands-down the most visible. Reuel’s garments came Beyonce’s way through a friend of his who is working as the singer’s stylist. The stylist was looking for items that Bey could wear offstage during her current “On the Run” tour. There were no guarantees that she would even try anything on.

That’s why Reuel was taken off guard when another friend alerted him to the Instagram posts. And as we know, news travels fast on social media. In the three weeks since, Reuel has been fielding one interview request after another from fashion publications. Her fans also have given their approval with more than 1.9 million “likes” of her posts.

The timing of this turning point, which he said has been seven years in the making, couldn’t be more surreal. It has been two years to the month since he debuted his handmade line of apparel. He’d started the business “just to be able to eat.”

By fall of that year, the pace of sales had taken off so much so that he realized he would need assistants. The demand was a relief for the 2004 First Colonial High graduate who’d done a few fashion shows while in college at Norfolk State.

The curriculum he was enrolled in didn’t meet his needs, so he headed to the city of dreams in 2007 to attend New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Its cost soon proved too much; he was unable to finish the program.

Determined to keep growing, he hustled to gain real-world experience. He landed work making sample garments for established designers. But a disagreement over vision led to his being fired by an employer he doesn’t want to name. He even got evicted.

“Being in New York has not been the easiest transition,” Reuel said. “I was seeing my work being prosperous in other people’s hands. It was time to strike out on my own.”

There through it all has been Norfolk-based hairstylist, restaurateur and tastemaker Quincy Brown. Reuel and Brown became acquainted through church functions in the mid-2000s. Brown noticed Reuel’s interest in fashion and became his mentor. Brown sponsored Reuel’s first fashion show, held at Bradcon International salon in Norfolk. And it was Brown who allowed Reuel to stay at his New York apartment.

“He quickly found his own way and has always remained humble,” said Brown, owner of The Beauty Parlor and the newly opened The Parlor restaurant next door, both on Granby Street in Norfolk’s arts district at the north edge of downtown. “That makes him easy to talk to and has a lot to do with his success. He’s very grounded.”

Reuel’s work has found a niche because it is consistent and relatable, Brown said. “Anyone from churchgoers to your fashion connoisseurs and fashion gurus would be drawn.”

Reuel uses ankara fabric exclusively. Ankara is an African wax-cotton textile, which is marked by a subtle sheen, vibrant patterns and an exceptional ability to maintain shape. Reuel balances the energy of the patterns with clean lines and feminine silhouettes.

Admiration for his style is not limited to women of African heritage; his work has attracted buyers from as far as Russia, Japan and Ireland, he said.

“When designing, I ask: ‘Is it chic? Is it classy? Is it sexy?’ When a woman wears something that makes her feel great, she exudes a sense of power. She stands up more; she projects herself better.”

The refinement in his collections is reflective of his upbringing, said Alison Allred of Virginia Beach, who has known Reuel since middle school.

“He was clean-cut and mature when his peers were sloppy and distracted,” she said.

His concentration is on ensuring that his garments are timeless, well-crafted and accessible.

“The ‘70s and ‘80s were the best times in fashion,” Reuel said. “People didn’t realize that they were wearing elaborate things, but they were. Today, access to fine fabrics is limited because of cost. I want to give women something that they can afford and that is a pop-out piece.”

His prices typically range from $90 to $300.

“I think about longevity: how long can you keep it, how long will it last and how far you can go in this garment.”

Although Reuel has a team, his hands touch every garment at some point, he said.

And despite his rising star, he has no immediate plans to abandon Etsy and open a brick-and-mortar boutique. A storefront would limit his reach because each piece is made on demand, and it’s difficult to maintain inventory and do made-to-order concurrently, he said.

However, he does plan to showcase his work on home turf when he returns this fall for a fashion show at The Parlor in Norfolk. The date is still being worked out.

“It’s been a really great ride, really unexpected,” Reuel said. “I could have stayed home and continued to sell custom to people, but I believed I could have a greater impact on fashion.

“I want to dress the world.”

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SHOP FOR YOURSELF Reuben Reuel sells his DemestiksNewYork fashions at Etsy.com. He said he has no plans for a brick-and-mortar boutique.

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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