'My clothing is definitely a conversation starter': Local entrepreneur builds brand promoting strong Black messaging
EDMONTON -- A tiny den, where every square foot has a purpose. Table space is at a premium as neatly folded product takes over much of the real estate, stacked high, flirting with the window sill, ready to be shipped across North America.
"These are all orders that I did yesterday, " says Sherrell Aliza, the owner of Zen Lion Design who creates handmade, customized loungewear out of her home in northeast Edmonton.
"The web host that I use automatically has this little 'cha-ching' when I get an order. My whole house, they all get excited when I get an order and it's really cool because when I first started getting orders I'd do a happy dance and that hasn't stopped. We are all still so excited for every single order that we get."
Fueled by iced coffee, a go-after-what-you-want personality and a strong desire for her three daughters — Ariella (8), Leilani (5) and Zeniyah (18 months) — to "know their Blackness and be proud of it," Aliza founded her business in 2019, just months before the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the death of George Floyd.
"My brand is about Black Lives Matter, it's about celebrating Blackness and it's about allies wanting to support us," she says. "A lot of people ask me what is acceptable for them to wear, can they wear Black Lives Matter shirts, absolutely, that's the point. It shows you're an ally, but it's not just wearing the shirt it's also doing the work."
Education is paramount to her "why," witnessed in the works of her Black History Collection. The designs don't shy away from issues facing the Black community. In fact, they're big and bold, tailored to start some difficult conversations.
"I've always been the one, 'the firestarter' they call me, to just put out my opinions everywhere and see where people go with it. Now I can kind of put it on clothes and I didn't realize how much people would appreciate that."
Quick maybe to share opinions, but Aliza is careful not to speak for all Black people. She insists her voice is hers alone, only speaking to her own lived experiences.
Growing up, she didn't even know she was Black until a friend in second grade asked her why her skin was a different colour. The 29-year-old was raised by a white mother, had white siblings and lived in Sherwood Park. Aliza struggled with her own identity for years, until she met her biological father, a man she now has a deep connection with.
"Realizing there was this other part of me that I didn't know, it was hard. When I was 23, I actually found my dad's side of the family and since then I've just been completely motivated and inspired to use my voice to fight for Black lives."
Zen Lion's social media accounts serve a dual purpose, to promote her business and push the comfort levels of her followers at times. "Whenever I post anything about BLM or racism, I lose followers. Every single time. But I'm OK with that because those aren't the people I want supporting my brand anyways, " says Aliza. "Really staying true to that part of my business is why I'm successful."
From filling orders on her bedroom floor with a seven-week-old by her side just over a year ago, to paying off her debt, moving into a bigger home and now building a dream work space in her basement. It's the manifestation of a life she wanted to live.
"To be able to look back and say, 'I said I was going to do it and I did it.' That is the coolest thing," Aliza says proudly. "If you really find what you love, what sets your soul on fire and you can put that into your brand, into whatever you do, that's when you'll reach those heights that you never thought were possible."