Meet the Wilson College Student Designing Looks for NBA All-Star Zion Williamson
By Sarah Stone
NBA All-Star Zion Williamson may have worn a Duke uniform in college, but he takes his off-court fashion cues from NC State.
Wilson College of Textiles student Meredith Howell designed an anime-themed game day outfit for the overall first round pick of the 2019 NBA draft and forward for the New Orleans Pelicans last fall. That bold look garnered a lot of attention in the sports media world.
Anime is a genre of illustration that has origins in Japan but appears in popular television shows and comic books around the world, from Pokémon to Naruto and Dragon Ball Z. Howell, a fashion and textile management (FTM) student, created a custom pair of screen-printed pants for Williamson covered in his favorite anime characters.
The pants are just one of four pieces she designed for the household name. The designer’s Instagram account is full of comments apologizing to fans for having already sold out of the newest Maison de Laflare product. Other clients include professional stylists and nationally-touring musicians.
The senior attributes her success as a business owner and designer in part to her time at the Wilson College of Textiles.
In fact, she created apparel for the first time in order to apply to the college’s fashion and textile design (FTD) program.
Then, a project in one of Howell’s FTD courses inspired her to start Maison de Laflare. Tasked with creating a garment out of unconventional materials, Howell was scouring through bins of $1 bolt fabric at the local scrap exchange when a tapestry caught her eye. She turned the vintage fabric into a pair of pants and posted them from her personal Instagram account “Just to be like, ‘Look at these pants I made,’” she says.
“Then people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you selling those? How much?’ That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, I have to probably keep going.’ People kept asking me, ‘Are you making any more?’ And I was like, ‘I guess, sure, I’ll try!’ And then I just kept trying.”
Tapestry didn’t just kickstart Howell’s business, it also became a recurring element of her brand’s distinct interpretation of streetwear. She’s transformed tapestries into everything from shorts, to pants, to corset-style tops and puffer jackets. The demand for her tapestry-made pieces has risen so much that Howell now makes her own by creating designs to print on blankets.
Religious imagery also plays a big role in her designs through angels, classical religious art and the gothic, medieval fonts often used in traditional bibles.
“Whenever I look for inspiration, I always pray about it,” she says. “I feel like it’s directly correlated because I always feel like my angels are watching over me.”
As business continued to grow, Howell changed her major to FTM with a concentration in fashion development and product management.
“The business classes are definitely helpful,” she says. “It helped me realize I needed an LLC. So now, I’m finally able to separate the money I’m making for my business from the money I’ll keep for myself.”
Howell estimates she spends five hours every day working on her business and admits she’s still searching for the best way to make time for both her business and her schoolwork. Finding that balance became especially difficult when she was commissioned by Zion Williamson’s stylist during her second week of classes.
“He literally one day was just like, ‘Hey, you want to make something for Zion?’” she remembers. “I didn’t get much sleep that week.”
Howell is close friends with the stylist, who attended Duke University with her sister. Within 24 hours of the call, Howell had to submit a spreadsheet of nearly 30 custom designs for the superstar to choose from.
“Then Zion basically just chose the designs that he wanted. He chose four pieces even though I was originally only commissioned to make two. I really hope he shows up to the game wearing one of my other designs because personally, the ones that he wore, I love them, but they were actually my least favorite of the four,” she admits.
Designing for a 6’6”, 284-pound professional athlete presented some unique challenges.
“Just one coat took, like, an entire 60” by 80” blanket to make,” she says.
But the extra effort — and fabric — was worth it. Howell’s design reached an international audience overnight when a picture of Zion’s outfit went viral on social media.
“So the stylist sent me a picture of him wearing it to a game, and I thought that was it. Then I literally went to sleep and then I woke up and one of my friends had texted me, ‘Is this you?’ And he sent me the tweet of Zion’s outfit from SportsCenter. And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is me.”
With graduation just a few months away, Howell is applying for full-time positions with plans to gain more experience in the industry. That doesn’t mean her business will stop growing.
“Maison de Laflare is my end goal. My dream is to participate in New York Fashion Week and in Paris. Regardless of where I work and what I do, I do want this to be where I end up. I feel like if I keep going, I’ll get somewhere.”
STEPping into her calling
Born and raised in Raleigh, Howell says she’s always wanted to attend NC State. What she wanted to study was less clear. Then, one of Howell’s teachers suggested textile engineering at Wilson College.
“I went to the Summer Textile Exploration Program and so then I realized what all the programs were, and I was in design. I went to the sewing lab, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” she remembers.“It was just very natural for me.”