Mode Meets Culture
A Bit of East Austin Fashion and History
By Ana Richie
Get out your history books, folks. SUSTAIN is taking you back in time.
It is no secret to those who have experienced East Austin that the area is a destination for novel shopping, unique cuisine and mesmerizing live music. The swanky shops, flipped houses, hipster bars and eclectic vibes draw people from all walks of life into the streets of this quirky district.
Alta Y. Alexander, a local patron and distinguished shop owner, gave us schooling on this particular part of Austin through the lens of a black female entrepreneur. We sat down with Alta in her charming shop: Altatudes, in Austin, Texas, as she illustrated her experience as a shop owner, fashion enthusiast and advocate of revitalization.
To give readers some history about East Austin (once referred to as the Negro district), it’s important to note that this enclave was once home to freed slaves after the Civil War. Many black Austinites sought to reside in this part of town for safety in numbers, proliferate conveniences and create stronger cultural opportunities. Back in 1928, an all-white city council sought to institute and simplify segregation lines in Austin by only providing utility services to African Americans if they lived east of Interstate 35. Thus, the eastern part of town became one of the only places blacks could commune and live out their lives. Today, throughout the blocks of the east side, predominantly African American churches, cultural centers, sorority and fraternity houses, murals of activists and small businesses occupy the streets.
As Austin grows and changes, so has the east side of Austin. Alta shared how East 12th Street has seen the cues of change with recent developments in the area. Gentrification (the process of transforming the character of a neighborhood through the inrush of more affluent residents and establishments) has become a controversial topic. Though it appears very evident that the East Austin radius has experienced these growing pains, there has been push back by blacks and allies of communities of color who see the need for making sure newcomers can co-exist without dismantling the vibrant culture and history of this side of town. In fact, Alta’s present-day mission is to help bring awareness of her shop and other small business owners in her area to the new settlers of Austin. She expressed to me, “I want my shop to be a place for all people to feel comfortable and at home.” Her mission has so far been accomplished. Alta’s quaint boutique is a port of call for women of all backgrounds and especially women of color to shop the latest trends on the market, sustainable pieces and exclusive clothing created by African American designers. Some might conclude that the business owner is a microcosm for merging culture, awareness and unity through fashion and hospitality with the operation of her boutique.
Alta is the first African American woman to own an upscale boutique in East Austin. But her impact reaches far beyond being a trailblazer for black female entrepreneurs. She makes sustainability a key practice in her business. Alta’s shop features high-end women’s apparel and accessories from over 25 labels of international designers. However, what makes her store even more special is that she carries African American designers who incorporate sustainability and eco-friendliness into the fabric of their beautiful creations. Nina Means, one of the designers Alta carries, is committed to producing her clothing freely and fairly with artisans that treat their employees with dignity. In addition, Nina’s brand strives to formulate outstanding garments that reduce fabric wastage significantly and last for a long time. Tracey Reese is another famous fashion designer whose trendy garments are showcased in Alta’s shop. Tracey Reese uses sustainable materials, and maintains ethical production and handwork. I was able to model one of her dresses made of a sustainable linen material made from flax plants.
Alta Y. Alexander’s shop is a one-of-a-kind destination for upscale and ethical fashion. Her incredible style manifests in the carefully curated clothing that makes its way into her store. As Altatudes goes on its second year, it continues to bring the awareness of culture and revitalization of the east side into collective consciousness for all those who walk into her shop. Through her shop, Alta is paying homage to those who came before, while pioneering the new age of fashion. That is a style that no one can replicate.
Photography by Keelyn Costello