Alexis Willis embraces beauty from within
IN PERSON, ALEXIS WILLIS IS STYLE PERSONIFIED. ON THE DAY I sit down to talk with her, the young African American woman is wearing a simple black skirt topped with one of her own T-shirts in white with black lettering—and close-cropped, bright red hair along with her signature red lipstick. Her skin positively glows. She would be noticed anywhere.
But Alexis’s journey to where she is now, an entrepreneur with her own line of shirts and totes, as well as an incipient cosmetics line, has not been a straightforward one.
Yet she was fascinated by style from an early age. “My mother was very stylish, never afraid to be on the edge,” she says. “She would wear a cobalt blue suit—she loved bold colors.” As a student at GPS, Alexis walked her own road as well. “On the days when we could wear our own choices, I didn’t wear PJs. I wore heels,” she says, smiling at the memory.
She was accepted into a design school in Atlanta. But as she describes it, “I ended up giving my identity to other people. I lost a sense of purpose.” Dysfunctional relationships derailed what had seemed to be a pre-destined path. And that, she explains, is why her company, Natural Beautiful Me, is about more than just selling shirts and totes. Alexis also organizes and conducts seminars designed to empower women to value their identity—along with creating their own style.
At 30, she has embraced the growing “natural hair” movement among black women, although by natural she doesn’t necessarily mean color. “Flaming red hair is not natural to me,” she laughs. But while as a child, she felt compelled to try to distract people from her features, now she calls attention to them. “In the NBM seminars, we talk about the mind/body/soul connection, and we help people to discover their purpose,” she says. She recalls an incident when she volunteering for the Glass House Collective in which a young girl came up to her, “and I talked to her about the concept behind Natural Beautiful Me. I could see the purpose come into her eyes.”
Alexis interned with Co.Lab and participated in the Female Founders version of the organization’s popular 48-Hour Launch. During the Launch, she proposed a line of organic, handmade lipsticks called “The Red Lipstick Experiment.”
Though she was not one of the final winners, the experience was invaluable, she says. “I had a great team, and what I discovered is that I am an expert at finding the experts. We created an actual product during the project,” one for which she is now seeking investors.
Retailers are expressing interest in carrying NBM products (currently available only through contacting Alexis through the website www.naturalbeautiful.me or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org). Her T-shirts come in both all-cotton and cotton blends and she is hoping to include plus-sizes soon.
I asked Alexis what she thought about the state of style in Chattanooga as a whole. “As a young child, I lived in New Orleans,” she said, “so when I came here in 1997, everything looked very Mary Tyler Moore to me.
But now people are taking more risks with style, and there is more high fashion. There are more younger people, and they’re changing the style of the city.”
As for her own future: “I’ll continue to cultivate my creative side. My daughter, who’s 5, is already setting her own style. I’d like to expand my clothing line, but always keep my connection to the meaning behind it.”
She recalls a hurtful incident in which someone judged her for the choices she’s made. “My dad said, ‘She may have had a sense of purpose before you did. But your journey is unique.’”
Just like her style.