There is success to be found in a well-timed direct message on social media.
Just ask Model Atelier founder and CEO Robin Harris.
‘‘When I started as a designer, I needed to figure out how to get my designs to tall women,’’ Harris said. ‘‘I slid into a [WNBA] player’s DMs and said: ‘Hey, I love your look. I think you will look amazing in our brand. Can I do a photo shoot with you?’ ’’
That player was Cheyenne Parker, whom the Sky had selected fifth overall in the 2015 WNBA Draft. (She now plays for the Dream.)
The relationship Harris fostered with Parker, who responded to her DM with a resounding ‘‘yes,’’ led to an official partnership with the Sky in 2016 and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association in 2018. Both partnerships put Model Atelier on the map, Harris said, and helped her to establish relationships with her target audience: women’s athletes.
Since then, Harris has built a client list that includes not only Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike but a long list of coaches and agents in women’s sports. Harris’ designs have been worn on red carpets, including those of the ESPYs and the Oscars.
Now she’s taking her Chicago-based brand to new heights and is doing it by establishing an unprecedented partnership with the WNBA’s budding stars. Harris’ goal is to provide athletes with a service that opens a door to new business opportunities.
‘‘These players have an opportunity to develop their brands through fashion,’’ Harris said. ‘‘I feel like it’s a missed opportunity there when they aren’t highlighted in such a way.’’
At the WNBA Draft this month, Harris teamed up with her second group of draftees to provide a full-scale fashion experience. She calls it ‘‘the style suite.’’
The suite includes custom looks, plus full hair and makeup. But before the athletes even enter the suite, which was stationed at the draftees’ hotel, Harris had to do her legwork.
It started with establishing her 2023 draft roster, which featured six players, five of whom were top-10 draft picks. Last year, Harris worked with Dream guard Rhyne Howard, the No. 1 overall pick and 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year.
One aspect of the women’s game that has prevented athletes from capitalizing on lucrative endorsement opportunities before draft night is timing. There is about a week that separates the NCAA women’s championship game from the WNBA Draft, compared to the nearly three months between the NCAA men’s title game and the NBA Draft.
For the men, that time translates to lucrative partnership deals before draft night. For example, Johnny Davis, who was selected with the 10th overall pick by the Wizards in 2022, was featured in a Taco Bell ad that ran for more than a month leading up to the draft.
Name, image and likeness agreements have closed that gap by allowing athletes to sign with agents and receive financial compensation without penalty, but brands still need to provide WNBA athletes with the same draft-night opportunities they are providing their NBA counterparts.
‘‘You’ll see endless posts of suits from the NBA Draft,’’ said Rheann Engelke, the senior director of talent marketing at Stoked Management Group. ‘‘Not only are they getting that custom suit provided for them, [but] they have a paycheck coming with it. There is no fashion partner that is stepping up to do that on the women’s side.’’
Harris is changing that.
Second overall pick Diamond Miller, third overall pick Maddy Siegrist, fourth overall pick Stephanie Soares and 24th overall pick Brea Beal were wearing custom looks from Model Atelier for the WNBA Draft. Harris also styled fifth overall pick Lou Lopez Senechal and sixth overall pick Haley Jones in looks from Barbaton Atelier and Sergio Hudson, respectively.
Once Harris had her roster set, she created individual mood boards for each player that detailed their look, including hair and makeup inspiration, fabric swatches, shoes and accessories. It took Harris two months to speak with each player individually about their draft-night vision, get measurements, source materials and bring everything together in the style suite.
Harris was intentional about working with a team of Black artists to bring each athlete’s vision to life. Tinika Blackmon was in charge of operations, Crystal B. King and Egypt Bucks were the hairstylists, Dominique Bones-Lark was the on-site tailor, and Kim Roxie and Nordia Gordon were the makeup artists.
By the end of draft night, social media was ablaze with commentary about the exclusive looks designed and styled by Harris and her team.
‘‘I felt like a superwoman with these shoulders and shoes,’’ Jones told Harris before leaving the suite.
Harris’ fashion career began as a model. After traveling the world with Ford Models, Harris — who graduated from Proviso East and lives in Hyde Park — experienced firsthand what it was like to don garments tailored to fit her 6-1 frame properly. The confidence she felt in clothes that allowed her to embrace her height was a feeling she wanted to provide to other women.
Harris launched Model Atelier in 2015 with that feeling in mind.
‘‘I took that same energy once I was ready to be done with modeling and said, ‘I’m going to do this for the tall girls who are left out,’ ’’ Harris said. ‘‘No one is making long pants for a 6-6 person. Stephanie Soares, for example, Model Atelier designed a suit to fit all of her, and she’s never had that before.’’
Model Atelier is operating out of a studio space in The Penthouse in Hyde Park. Harris’ vision includes a brick-and-mortar fashion house in Chicago, with the storefront, design space and operations all under one roof.
More important to Harris than any social-media buzz she saw after the draft, however, was the look on the six athletes’ faces as they glanced in the mirror at their vision brought to life. As she watched each athlete walk across the stage, exuding the confidence she dreamed of helping provide ‘‘vertically blessed’’ women when she founded Model Atelier, she was overcome with emotion.
‘‘It means a lot to know I am doing something that is setting the bar really high and opening doors,’’ Harris said. ‘‘I invite other luxury brands to give access to these players, as well.’’
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