Within the first year of the Leading Education and Economic Development (LEED) initiative, Foot Locker, Inc. created 45 new relationships with Black firms and creators as part of its 5-year, $200 million commitment to investing in Black communities via education and economic development. This endeavor brings new, fresh faces from the creative world into stores, allowing designers to directly profit from the sneaker and streetwear industry’s economic benefits.
As a part of Black History Month 2022, Foot Locker spotlighted their partner designers who create casual sportswear culture. One of those designers is Atlanta-based Melissa Mitchell of Abeille Creations, one of the 45 partnerships Foot Locker launched in the inaugural year of the LEED Initiative.
In conversation with The Source, Melissa highlights how her journey in art started, her goals for Abeille Creations collections, and her experience as a Foot Locker partner.
How did you get your start for those who are being introduced to you?
Melissa Mitchell: I like to say I became an artist by mistake. In 2014, during the snowstorm, I was at home bored. My dad had just passed away. I was kind of just managing those emotions. I’m walking past a box of wood and paint in the garage and started arts and crafts during a snowstorm. I start just taking those tools out, and I just start randomly doodling. I go on Instagram, and people are telling me I am an artist. I’m telling people that I’m stuck in the house. This is not my thing. When I get out of here, I’m going back to work. But I started doing it every day, just like for a personal thing, and I started selling art.
Fast forward a couple of months from that, I shave off all my hair. That’s what women do when we go crazy, and I needed something to cover my head when I was going to shows. I said to myself, what if I figured out how to put art on my clothes and my hair wraps. That’s really when the wearable art empire got its start, around 2016. Then Lupita showed up in a Vogue magazine with the head wrap, and then I started designing for celebrities, and that is when I became a real staple in the world of the art community. I pitched it to the largest company you can think of, and I didn’t get it, but I put the post-it note, literally at my desk where I’m sitting now. I said, one day, I’ll have my own global deal. And I’ll call it ABL. In 2021, I had a chance to meet with Foot Locker leadership. And they’re like, we love everything about you. What would you call your brand? I told them, ABL. So I believe that in 2014, the seed was planted, but like a bamboo tree, it doesn’t sprout up until many years later. Now I’m in my bamboo season where it’s like, the trees are like eight feet tall now. But I believe I put the work in and that I was ready for this. It’s happening, but it took me many years to get here.
You were speaking about Lupita wearing the head wrap. Did you know that was going to happen, or did she just happen to buy it?
I reached out to her stylist, and I said, “Hey, I just started this head wrap thing, but she’s my dream person to wear it.” That was in 2016, like June, July. He says, okay, cool. Ship us some, and I don’t hear anything else from it I’m cool. I’m like, well, you know, I did my part. I gave my faith a walk, so fast forward a year, literally almost a year to the day he shows up and says, she’s been traveling with them for months, and she loves your work. So again, what seemed like just a seeding ended up being like a moment that really catapults my whole career.
How did it feel to receive that call or be involved in that conversation with Footlocker about the opportunity?
So, the funny thing is I quit my job in February 2021. I woke up one day and said, I cannot do this anymore. It felt like I had two loves, I had a mister and a husband. I was like, I got to go. And so, I felt like I wasn’t fully married to my passion. I felt like that’s why God wasn’t letting things happen. Because I had a hard stop every day when I could create. So I felt like I was blocking something. I quit my job with no plan in February last year, but I kept saying, but this Abeille thing is standing out it’s because something gotta happen with it. So I go to donate some artwork to Clark Atlanta’s president, my friend from Atlanta, who influences everything, said I needed to be in stores, and they were going to make it happen. He puts me on the phone with Riece Bentley, and after that, I feel like I’m just getting another email to have another meeting, but I’m already approved and fast-tracked to get a line in the store. After that, I talked to the VP of women’s business. One conversation changed my life. And so, of course, I was emotional. But I was ready.
What type of door does this open for you now?
Oh my goodness. So I think that it’s almost like when you’re not the cool kid in school, and you get that nod from the cool guy. And so now all the other brands, like we love your work. It gave me this really universal nod that other brands now see my worth in a different way. I mean, they recognize me, but now it’s like, whoa, you’re on a billboard. Whoa, you’re a best seller at the largest sports apparel company. So I think it gives me a validation that I could not have done on my own. I am seen as a Black woman, a Black brand in Atlanta, self-taught, self-inspired, self-funded. So it just gave me so much validation that everything that it took to get to this moment was not in vain.
Did working alongside Foot Locker alter anything in your creative process?
No, I think sometimes we think we have to create, to match what people are asking for. But what Footlocker allowed me to do was show up as myself, and then they worked around who I already was. I worked with other brands, who would ask could you use a little less orange, a little less pink. And then Foot Locker was like, girl, give me all the color, give me all the busyness. It was them teaching me, and if they did want me to fix something, it was more so now let’s think about what’s marketable, and they gave me choices. They taught me what sells and what doesn’t. As we roll into the new collection, it now understands the numbers. So you could come out with something else that you like, but if you want to have another million-dollar situation, let’s go back towards what worked. And so, looking at the fact, a creative, it made me switch on my business hat a lot better. If my number one seller with a jacket, then I give two options for a jacket this time instead of one. I’m really learning how to shift gears. The process really didn’t change me as a creative. It sharpened me as a businesswoman.
What piece of the forthcoming collection are you excited about?
I’m excited about possible unisex clothing because a lot of men liked it, and made me think that I need to start dipping into what men want. I need to start dipping more into what the children want. I can’t wait to outfit an entire family and to walk down the street and see a baby, a toddler, a mama in her fly leggings and see a daddy in an adult bomber jacket. I would love to see a family photo in the Bronx in an Abeille collection in the summer. So to me, I just want to see more people from all walks of life in the pieces.
Congratulations on your new book, Pages From My Notebook, available online. What drew you to release your declarations for everyone?
So here’s the thing. My dad was a pastor, and he and I used to be on Facebook. That’s when Facebook was just like your family, your friends from college. And so he passed away in 2010. But one thing that he told me was one day, these words that you share every day are going to open the door to your next level. And for 10, 12 years, I’ve just been collecting all of these mantras for myself, and people always ask what’s my secret to success. And I was like, just words. Like literally, I am like on Being Mary Jane. I have post-it notes everywhere in my house. You know what? It’s words, and I speak words over my life. I speak words over my art. I speak words over my apparel. Words have kept me alive. And I said, if I could share at least one word with someone, I feel like it could shift paradigms and it could change lives.
I feel like this is an energy shift that people need. I can remember somebody walking by and saying, “you are gonna make it.” I’m like, who sent you? You know, just that one sentence. And so, imagine having hundreds of quotes that can shift a mindset. So literally, you pick up like, oh, if Melissa did it, I know I can do it. And so instead of telling y’all to pay to sign onto my master class, I said, listen, go to these words, go to the Bible, listen to these podcasts, read these books. And I believe that is that’s my contribution to my legacy and life just to leave these like breadcrumbs of success behind me.
Is there a favorite declaration in the book that you think will resonate with readers the most?
Of course, if you want to get something different out of life, you have to be prepared to do things differently. People want this overnight success with the same things they’ve been doing. You have to adjust. So today, we had an early morning interview, so it caused me to have to be up earlier, different from my normal routine. And that’s what success is. That’s what success becomes. If you wanted a collection with Footlocker, you’re going to learn how to be flexible, hire a team, learn new skills, answer emails, and be live on interviews, uh, with folks in the source. I believe that is learning how to be flexible with life. That’s really what my book was about for me. Dreams won’t work until you do. I feel like I just posted that in my time, but I believe that the work has to be done personally before you ask anybody else to work for you.