CHICAGO – Dinah Clottey learned how to crochet at the age of 12 to teach her mom the craft. While teaching did occur, Clottey’s mother did not pursue crocheting. Her daughter, however, a 2022 University of Chicago graduate and U. of C. Diversity Leadership Award winner, has centered her entrepreneurial dreams around crochet with her fashion brand, T’Kor Couture, the name being an abbreviation of her middle name.
Amid the lockdowns of the pandemic, the studying and the 2020 protests around the racial reckoning, Clottey came back to what she knew, grabbed her tools and upped her game.
“I just had so much on my mind, so much penned up inside of me, it really started as a project for me to release a lot of the feelings I was having in a creative way,” said the London-born Clottey. “I would make something that just inspired me from whatever was going on at the time.”
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People took notice and what Clottey refers to as a “cute little thing” has taken off in a year’s time. T’Kor has almost 11,000 Instagram followers, and Clottey is focused on custom work for Chicago singer-songwriter Jamila Woods. T’Kor Couture was also selected to participate in the 2021 Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Accelerator Program, a competitive 10-week summer program designed to help early-stage ventures develop key elements of their business, with coaching and a $6,500 grant. And her accomplishments don’t just stem from her entrepreneurial skills. At 21, Clottey’s resume also includes serving as an organizer and communications fellow for Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign in Iowa and being one of the several college students from around the country selected to pose a question to former first lady Michelle Obama for a 2021 televised special.
“One thing that I noticed about myself is how many different dreams and aspirations I have — a lot more in the creative realm,” said Clottey, an alumna of Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island. “I grew up not having a lot of barriers in my mind as to what I could accomplish.”
Looking back, Clottey recalls a conversation with a fellow high school student whose dream was to go into the film industry. She said he never entertained following up on his passion, instead opting for something more practical. In her mind, she just couldn’t understand why he didn’t go for it. The young man would eventually share his reasons for forgoing his dream: taking care of family and no means to go to film school or invest in film equipment.
“I didn’t realize how much of an effect that conversation would have on me until I came to the University of Chicago and I sat during the pandemic,” she said. Law school was out, sociology was in. Now, she’s looking forward to working as a program manager at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies in the fall, helping a new leadership development initiative develop a curriculum.
“The one thing I’ve remained the most consistent in is my need to want to propel and amplify underrepresented voices and creators,” she said. “I’m still juggling exactly how I want to do that.”
As an undergraduate, Clottey juggled her advocacy needs as a board member and president of the Organization of Black Students. Under her leadership, she developed and launched the annual Black Convocation, an event designed to celebrate the accomplishments of Black students at the U. of C. Clottey also served as outreach manager for the award-winning podcast “Kinda Sorta Brown” — that discusses policies affecting Black and brown communities.
“I’m very much inspired by Black culture,” Clottey said. “That’s really the model that I have for this business. I took a look at the fashion industry and a lot of those household names, and essentially saw how white it was and thought it’s just very important for Black people and underrepresented people to put their names on things, to let them know where it comes from. So for me, this (T’Kor Couture) also became a project of embracing my own heritage and embracing who I come from and who I am and that I’m Black and that I’m proud about it.
“I did a whole line based off Ntozake Shange’s work ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.’ To me, the agency I have to express myself and to interact with works that have inspired me and inspired the way I think, has been so amazing.”
T’Kor Couture’s rich colors in oversize and form-fitting silhouettes invoke thoughts of comfort, playfulness and pride. Clottey’s Enuf Collection is about Black women being seen for their strength, and Clottey’s Crowned Collection features a crown on items. She drew inspiration from Jean-Michele Basquiat. Music, literature, art, politics, Clottey’s fashion is inspired by so much in Black culture.
“I appreciate fashion in all of its forms, how people show up from the clothes they wear to the hairstyles, to what accessories they’re rocking or what tattoos they have. I love paying attention to it all. But at the end of the day what I want to do is uplift Black people.”
When thinking back to the conversation Clottey had with the student at her high school, she said that doesn’t always have to be the experience for people of color. They can go for it. How? With a support system, hard work, and remembering the why to what you’re doing.
“One of my favorite quotes: ‘It’s very hard to fail if you don’t quit,’” Clottey said. “That’s why I love ‘For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.’ It’s natural as a Black person, to feel like we’re not good enough to do the thing that we want to do. It’s a mindset change that’s going to take practice and support. It’s going to take surrounding yourself with people who believe in you, and who want nothing but the best for you, to help you change that mindset.”