For Kimberly McGlonn, Ph.D., founder of sustainable apparel brand Grant Blvd, clothes are not just about making a fashionable statement, but modeling a path forward.
McGlonn launched her company in 2017. Grant Blvd’s mission is to challenge systemic issues like climate change and mass incarceration in bold and undeniably stylish garments. The brand uses reclaimed fabrics for t-shirts and accessories that read “End Cash Bail,” and “Sustainable AF,” in addition to eco-friendly womenswear pieces like slip dresses and jumpsuits. Still, it’s McGlonn’s commitment to building community, fostering safe and inclusive spaces, creating employment opportunities for women, and supporting incarcerated and returning citizens that propels her vision to fight for justice and reform.
During our year of pandemic and immediate calls for social and climate action, McGlonn has doubled down on her business, opening a storefront location at 36th and Lancaster Ave. in West Philadelphia. McGlonn is also a recent recipient of Beyonce’s (yes, that Beyonce) BeyGOOD grant, a $10,000 grant to Black-owned small business owners to help deal with the economic impact of the pandemic.
We caught up with SBN’s newly elected Board member to discuss her experiences owning and operating a Black-owned sustainable apparel business in Greater Philadelphia, and her vision for the future of triple-bottom-line business in the area. Read below!
What prompted you to start Grant Blvd, and can you share more on the brand’s name and its meaning?
I first conceptualized Grant Blvd in 2016. I was really engaged in my work as a classroom teacher, but came to more fully realize the injustices built into the fabric of the American criminal justice system. Specifically, my perspective changed through my time in volunteer service at Books Through Bars. On my first day in training there, I read through letters written by incarcerated people who had very limited access to books. I felt called (hard to describe it any other way) to do more to resist a system that has always been so unjust. As an English teacher, lover of books and fashion, I wanted to find a way to bring the things that brought me the most profound sense of joy and inspiration together. But I also wanted to do it in a way that addressed the realities of climate catastrophe. These are ultimately the problems we aspire to use fashion to address.
But even that’s all because of 2677 Grant Blvd.
That’s the address where I grew up in Milwaukee, where my dad wanted to make sure that people living on the predominantly Black north side of the city had access to fresh food, and where my mom spent time going to Taycheedah, a women’s correctional institution, to council incarcerated women. But in fuller truth and transparency, living there also gave me a good deal of personal experience with parental abandonment, adult depression, and ultimately, poverty. These are only a portion of the things Grant Blvd aims to be an antidote to.
How has your understanding of the U.S. criminal justice system inspired Grant Blvd’s aesthetics?
It inspires Grant Blvd’s very DNA, and what I mean by that is the mission for Grant Blvd is bigger than just fashion. That’s not to detract from the power, originality, or beauty of our garments; those, I hope, are undeniable.
Thoughtful fashion design is what we lead with, but our driving mission is to do what’s good for people and spark conversations to inspire resistance through fashion. That’s why we invite our customers to wear their positions on their chest with tees that read “End Mass Incarceration” and “End Cash Bail.”
One of the most amazing things about Grant Blvd is that you and your team use sustainable materials to make garments. Can you share the reason to do so? How important is ethics in fashion design and apparel making?
We work intending to design from a place of love: Love of fabrics, of our bodies, of other people, and the Earth, but also from a place of logic. Clothes constructed with a sense of environmental and social consciousness are the best kind of style for us.
To make this happen, we reimagine menswear in each collection and reimagine other household items like drapes and tablecloths. This is married to our effort to guide folks into broader notions of reuse through remixing and lengthen garment life cycles. Beyond that, we play with sustainably sourced fabrics, including deadstock, organic cottons, and Tencel. We can’t leave ethics out of the conversation. This is why we’re committed to producing our garments in Philadelphia and why we pay everyone on our team a living wage.
2020 was a challenging year for many local businesses in Greater Philadelphia. How have you maintained operations during the pandemic, and what have you learned in your business? What has sustained you during this period of change, uprising, and COVID?
It’s been challenging indeed, and yet we’ve persevered. We’ve maintained our operations by reducing occupancy in our studio and by pretty immediately switching our production last spring to include face masks and partnering with the Greater Philadelphia non-profit community to better stand in solidarity with the larger work that they’re doing and that we believe in.
We also learned that we have to keep moving, which is why Grant Blvd launched its storefront last summer despite our apprehensions. That would never have been possible without everyone’s resolve and determination, both team members and customers, rooting for our survival.
What are some sought-after pieces from the brand?
People are really feeling our remixed loungewear, especially pieces that feature our logo on reclaimed fabrics. We can’t seem to keep those in the store! Folks also love our take on joggers, which come in deep olive and sand, and are constructed from organic cotton twill.
How long have you been an SBN member, and when did you first hear about SBN and its mission? Can you share the benefits of being a member and how has SBN helped you in your business?
I’ve been a member of SBN for nearly three years now, almost immediately after I founded Grant Blvd. I heard about it as I began my journey to discover businesses that valued sustainability in the area.
I think the two most important benefits of SBN membership are becoming part of a community with other business leaders who share your values. In a culture so dominated by a disregard for sustainability, it’s affirming to align with folks who aspire to move forward in the direction you do. This has been a definite help to my business. Another benefit is working in unison with those folks to promote legislative needs at a local and state level that acknowledges the work that lies ahead to address sustainable change.
Can you share an experience that solidified your commitment to triple bottom line principles of people, planet and profit?
There are so many! But one that often replays is whenever a new customer comes into the store and inquires about our brand, the material, and fabrics we use. In these moments, we share more about the value we as a company find in taking the approach we do. They are often excited and enthusiastic about learning more and discovering that we’re truly thinking not just about profit but people and our planet.
What’s your vision for local independent businesses in the Greater Philadelphia region?
My vision for them, for us all, to continue to grow in their/our commitment to the triple-bottom-line philosophy.
What inspires you to do the work that you do?
More than anything? My 12-year-old daughter, Hana. She’s such a compassionate, creative girl, one who has so much respect for science and justice. Thinking about my legacy and the example I aspire to craft for her inspires me every day.
To up and coming local independent businesses, what is one piece of advice you would give them?
Discover a sense of purpose in what you’re building because the way is long and without many firm directions, and sometimes without guides. However, your values will sustain you when the hills feel high. I’ve learned that if you keep your “why” out in front of you, you’ll never lose sight of the direction you want to go.
Discover more Black-owned businesses in the SBN network, including Grant Blvd and others by clicking here.
To learn more SBN membership, including how we provide businesses in Greater Philadelphia with relevant content, meaningful community, and effective advocacy, please click here.