Late on a Friday night, a pair of independent fashion designers sat down to swap notes in a highly unlikely setting, the Wallkill Correctional Facility, where both of them reside. Gary Robinson, aka Giz, 32, and Troy James, 23, could pass for brothers. Both have tightly shaved hairlines and waves like spinning disco balls. During our conversation, Giz assumed an attentive posture, cool and relaxed as he prepared to be interviewed. James looked carefree and cavalier, as if he’d already earned his first check as a designer.
Elsewhere in the dayroom, our fellow inmates shouted excitedly at a football game playing on the TV, slammed domino pieces at an adjacent table and whipped up impromptu meals in the kitchen area. Most wore standard prison greens. But that didn’t stop Giz and Troy from fantasizing about the flashier, more high-end apparel they hope to create one day soon.
Rayvon Gordon: What’s up, guys. Tell me about yourselves and your fashion lines.
Giz: What’s up. My name is Gary Robinson, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I design the upcoming female clothing line Michelle Milani.
Troy: Nothing much, you know, just getting to the bag. I go by the name Troy James, born and raised in Harlem. My fashion line is also for women, and it’s called Desire Legacy.
How did you two meet?
Giz: We’ve known each other going on nine months now. We live in the same “house” on the C-side.
Troy: We happen to have the same knack for drawing. Once I was presenting some designs I made on handkerchiefs and custom pillowcases, which I trade for food and smokes. [Other inmates send these handmade pieces as gifts for loved ones.] He took a liking to my work, and I got to see his.
You two seem pretty tight.
Giz: That’s my lil’ brother… I do not take a liking to too many fellow inmates that come around, especially the type I call “silly’onskee’s,” who have no clue on life. He is always looking for a way out, so I try my best to uplift him, as a big brother should. So I inspire Troy on a positive note and try to keep him from making the mistakes I made.
Troy: He is all right. I believe we’ve built a lasting friendship.
How did each of you get started doing fashion?
Giz: The day I started was like an epiphany. I’m 32 and this is my fourth bid upstate. I was tired of coming into the system. So I was sitting in my room one day and it just hit me that this would be a way to release the pain and frustration. Nobody in my family owns a business. I wanted to break the cycle of poverty. This is my way to get out the fucking hood. I now have over 50 pieces in each collection, including shoes, handbags, dresses, jackets, bikinis and lingerie.
Troy: Giz inspired me. I had tried my hand at fashion design, but nothing too serious. It was when he showed me his craft that the bug bit me and I went and got started. In the first month, I designed over 400 sketches.
Giz: The first piece Troy showed me, I could see the potential. It didn’t surprise me much, since I already knew he could draw. Now, he’s the prime orchestrator indeed. I’d trade a few pieces of my own for his.
Troy: He would advise me to keep practicing, take my time and focus. For him, he already had it in the bag; I couldn’t say too much other than, “Let me see more!”
What inspired the names of your lines?
Giz: I wanted to reference a powerful woman, and thought of Michelle Obama. And for the last name, I was looking for a foreign appeal to it, so I came up with Milani.
Troy: Desire is a name I’ve had in mind for my unborn child; I always wanted that for my first girl. And Legacy, well…it’s a birthright, something inherited.
How would you describe your work?
Giz: I’d say it’s a clash of sugar and spice; urban sex appeal and class. My target market is urban women who favor classy, elegant attire.
Troy: At first, it was more urban wear, and then I adopted a more regal taste — women’s pantsuits and lingerie, among other things. More grown-up and sexy.
What inspires your work?
Giz: Women’s appearance, their anatomy, the way they walk, talk, smell… and their personalities overall.
Troy: I think of my mother and what she’d expect from me as her creative son. I know it was rough raising two boys on her own. I just want to show her that I fully understand a women’s part in life.
What is your favorite clothing brand?
Giz: Ralph Lauren Polo and Levi’s.
Troy: True Religion.
Who would you most love to dress?
Giz: The former First Lady, Michelle Obama.
Troy: Cardi B.
Do you find it frustrating that you can’t get your hands on material and actually produce these pieces?
Giz: Not so much, because I’m still learning the ins and outs of fabrics. Although trying to keep up on the latest trends is a challenge.
Troy: The limitations definitely frustrate me. I can’t buy the fabrics I need to make my designs, display the pieces on mannequins, or put them on social media. But for now I’ll just keep making more collections.
Do you know how to sew?
Giz: No, but I’m eager to learn — probably taking a class in tailoring will be one of the first things I do when I reach home.
Troy: I have some experience sewing, just making pillowcases out of handkerchiefs.
Would you ever consider working for another designer?
Giz: Absolutely, so I can grow as a fashion designer and learn the business side of things.
Troy: Of course. Because I am fresh to the game, I have a lot to learn. The opportunity to work with an [established] designer would show me the business side and help me refine my ideas.
Any tips for budding designers or other creative types?
Giz: Always motivate the next person with the talent you have. Find yourself; discover your gift because everyone has a talent. Surround yourself with good, positive people as I did with my brother Troy. Push forward and strive, and take it a day at a time.
Troy: Do the right thing and good things come back to you. No matter what people tell you, always be yourself — do not be a follower. Don’t ever try to be somebody you’re not. And remember, patience goes a long way. It’s something I’ve learned from my boy and future business partner, Giz. It’s key. Lastly, do not force yourself to work. Let it come naturally, even if it takes days, weeks, or months to orchestrate the vision.
This story has been approved for publication by an official with the Wallkill Correctional Facility.
Rayvon Gordon is a student in NYU’s Prison Education Program. Email him
at [email protected]
A version of this article was published in the Monday, March 25 print edition.