Metro-East Living

They’re buying sewing machines, making art. Meet 10 black creatives with big ideas.

Visionary Square, an incubator for local fashion designers

Visionary Square, a local clothing and accessories boutique, serves an incubator and a source of inspiration for new designers and fashion enthusiasts. The store is located at 904 S. 4th St. in downtown St. Louis.
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Visionary Square, a local clothing and accessories boutique, serves an incubator and a source of inspiration for new designers and fashion enthusiasts. The store is located at 904 S. 4th St. in downtown St. Louis.

Almost twice a week, Tim McNeese turns heads when he walks into a Jo-Ann fabric store.

At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, the East St. Louis native, who grew up in the “Haymoes” neighborhood, frequently visits the shop where he’s usually questioned by a curious cashier.

Store clerks tend to ask what McNeese plans to make with his purchase.

“They look at me crazy every time I go in the store,” McNeese said. “I love it though. What I do is not common, I make all kinds of stuff and appliques.”

McNeese, the founder of Serz Life Clothing, graduated from Talladega College with a computer science degree in 2017. He currently pays about $53 a month for an embroidery machine that supports his business, and he’s not alone.

The self-taught designer is a part of an underground group of metro-east and St. Louis creatives, hoping to make their mark in fashion and art. Most the of the artists use Instagram, Facebook and other online platforms to promote their businesses. Everyone in the small group makes an effort to support one another by promoting new pieces and teaching techniques.

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Fashion designer Tim McNeese is wearing one of his designs. Derik Holtmann

Visionary Square, a local clothing and accessories boutique, serves as an incubator for small businesses and has become a source of inspiration for new designers and fashion enthusiasts, including many from the metro-east.

“We’re always looking to grow and have more people,” Visionary Square owner Craig Baxton said as the sun leaked into the store on a Wednesday afternoon at 904 S. Fourth St. in St. Louis, Suite 102.

Baxton and his brother, Keelan, launched Visionary Square more than a year ago. Next door, Magnify Art Gallery, owned by metro-east artist and resident Kas King, gives local artists a place to showcase their work.

In a recent interview with the Belleville News-Democrat, 10 creatives with connections to Visionary Square, Magnify Art Gallery and the metro-east shared their stories.

Duke Liddell: Real People Clothing

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Fashion designer Duke Liddell. Derik Holtmann

At age 32, Duke Liddell dedicates most of his time to brand building.

His company, Real People Clothing, launched in June 2017 when Liddell was working as an adolescent case manager in the metro-east.

“I was working with kids that dealt with trauma,” Liddell said. “It was hard for me to judge them seeing how they grew up. I just started looking at everyone like ‘Real People.’ Everyone has situations and issues.”

Liddell grew up in the Griffin Homes on Lincoln Avenue in East St. Louis. He now gives back to the community in different ways and often uplifts other small businesses in the area.

“I don’t want to be the only person who makes it,” Liddell said. “I look at all of us as one.”

Liddell’s clothing line features his signature handwritten logo.

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Track pants with fashion designer Duke Liddell’s logo “Real People.” Derik Holtmann

Former NBA player and East St. Louis native Darius Miles is one of his biggest supporters.

Kas King: Magnify Art Gallery

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Artist Kas King stands next to his mixed media work titled “A Lady.” King is planing a July 7th show featuring this work and others. Derik Holtmann

The father of young three boys, Kas King has taken the St. Louis art scene by storm with support from his wife Tiffany King.

“Magnify Art Gallery is like another child of ours,” Tiffany King said. “It requires such hard work, but the results give you an overwhelming sense of being proud.”

The couple traveled with their children to Springfield early this year to celebrate King’s work being added to the Central Illinois African-American History Museum in Springfield.

“I made history in my city,” King told his Instagram followers after a ceremony in Springfield. “You have to know what I’ve come from to understand.”

King opened his gallery April 14, 2017 at 904 S. Fourth St., Suite 103, right next door to Visionary Square. His next show is set for 8 a.m. to noon, July 7 at the gallery.

Tyrus Armour: Culture Creatures

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Fashion designer Tyrus Armour. Derik Holtmann

After two trips to Chicago and a $7,500 investment, Tyrus Armour brought home the embroidery machine he needed to jump-start his clothing line, Culture Creatures.

The 2004 East St. Louis Senior High School graduate works as a dentition center officer for St. Clair County five days a week and, when he’s not at work, Armour is working on his latest design.

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Fashion designer Tyrus Armour’s signature denim jacket with his Culture Creatures design. Derik Holtmann

“The most important thing about any brand is the story behind it, “ Armour said. “If you can go in the mall and see different designers in Dillard’s and Macy’s, why can’t there be 100 designers from East St. Louis.”

Armour hopes to launch a website for Culture Creatures this summer.

Ciera Finger: Versatile Styles Boutique

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Fashion stylist and social media personality Ciera Finger. Derik Holtmann

Ciera Finger, an East St. Louis native and Belleville West High School graduate, loves styling unique looks for clients both old and new.

Her curated collection of women’s clothing is for sale at Visionary Square. Finger carries items for women of all sizes and soon she’ll take her passion to Atlanta.

The mother of one dreams of being a well-known influencer and personality. She’s currently host of an online forum for men and women. She launched “Keep’n It Real With Cici” after recovering from domestic violence. More than 1,400 people follow her Facebook page and watch her videos.

“I always keep it real,” Finger said. “We talk about different things that people swept under the rug.”

Jamel Stamps: Fr3$H Clothing Line

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Fashion designer Jamel Stamps is wearing a shirt with his signature logo. Derik Holtmann

The father of four wants to leave a legacy for his children. Jamel Stamps started his clothing line while in culinary school. His clothing line “Fr3$H”, which means “For Real East Side Hustlers,” has become his full-time job and he’s working to put him out there even more.

“I got tired of working for other people,” Stamps said. “Right now, this is my full-time job. I also want to venture into catering or having my own food truck.”

His line features causal wear shorts, t-shirts, pants and more.

His advice to young entrepreneurs: “Don’t doubt yourself.”

Craig and Keelan Baxton: Visionary Square

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Fashion designer Craig Baxton. Derik Holtmann

They’re not twins, but the creative brothers who run Visionary Square brothers share an Oct. 20th birthday. Craig’s son, Gabriel, shares the same birthday.

The trio shares a creative spark that Craig nurtures as a big brother and a dad. He came up with the concept for Visionary Square with his friends and the business has blossomed since then. The storefront has become a space for local designers and small business owners to come together.

“We have several community-based organizations that we spearhead and chair,” Craig Baxton said.

Craig’s nonprofit CHAMPS, which stands for A Change in Habits and Making Profit, gives back to the community every year. They support the national organization Kicks for the City, a nonprofit that provides shoes for the homeless. His support team also makes care packages for local veterans in need.

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Keelan Baxton Derik Holtmann

His brother, Keelan, has his own line Ethots Vogue. Craig lines include True Elite and Local Legends.

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A jacket by designer Craig Baxton. Derik Holtmann

“I’m inspired by my big brother,” Keelan Baxton said. “That’s where my passion comes from.”

Kisha Kandeh: Let Me Create Your Tee, The Woke Brand

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Fashion designer Unlimited the Poet. Derik Holtmann

Kisha Kandeh can’t stop, won’t stop.

From fashion design and event coordinating to credit repair and custom t-shirt creations, Kisha, also known as “Unlimited The Poet” does it all.

She found Visionary Square last year when she was in need of a pickup point for her home-based businesses. Her clothing line “The Woke Brand” has a fan base and she’s also become a go-to coordinator for local poetry slams and mixers.

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A hoodie and pants designed by Unlimitd the Poet. Derik Holtmann

“My one goal has turned into five streams of income for me,” Kandeh said. “I’m using everything inside of me that God has given me as a gift.”

Her father is from Sierra Leone, West Africa, and she lived their until the war broke out. Her heritage is reflected in her creations.

Arion Gilkey: Mudd Brothers Clothing

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Fashion designer Arion Gilkey wearing his signature Mudd Brothers logo on his shirt. Derik Holtmann

Friends and family came together to help Arion Gilkey launch his company. On Instagram, Gilkey announced that his tribe raised $100,000 to help him launch Mudd Brothers Clothing Line based in East St. Louis.

Gilkey makes hats, shirts and sweatsuits that feature his Mudd Brothers logo. He hopes youth are inspired by his effort and the brand.

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Fashion designer Arion Gilkey’s signature Mudd Brothers logo on a track suit. Derik Holtmann

“We’re really trying to come together to build our city,” Gilkey said. “It’s not always negative. Our city is run by entrepreneurs, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear.”

Cara Anthony covers restaurants and retail for the Belleville News-Democrat, where she works to answer readers’ questions about restaurant openings, business closures and the best new dishes in the metro-east. She attended Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville and grew up in East St. Louis.
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