The Future of Fashion with Devon James

I first met Devon circa 2008, playing beer pong at a house party in Peoria, and naturally, we bonded over our shared name, as well as our ability to sink a white ball in the last red cup to seal a glorious win. 

We connected sporadically over the years following, and more recently, through Instagram (what else), I asked if I could interview him about his role in the fashion industry. 

*Clapping hands in between each word*

I. Was. Not. Disappointed.

Once our faces were side by side on the screen, I did the high-pitched “hi, oh my gosh, it’s so good to see you… how long has it been?!” which prompted us to reminisce about mutual friends that I’m sure neither of us have seen in years. 

Devon Figueroa is 29; he was born in Glendale, Arizona and grew up in Peoria, Arizona. 

“I always knew I wanted to go to New York City,” he started, looking sleek with his crisp black t-shirt, fresh haircut, and new air pods. I felt like such a loser with my red plug in headphones, but hey, I don’t have an Apple laptop, so the pods don’t always sync easily.  JUDGE ME! 

“Wait, wait, wait,” I ordered, “what do you mean, you always knew?… you never wanted to be a fireman or a police officer like everyone else?” I asked, remembering my ‘I want to be a princess’ days. 

He smiled, and I promise it would charm you. 

“Well, as a little boy, like every week, I had a new fascination with something… you know, football, dirt biking, whatever it was, but what’s really interesting, is whenever I’d pick up a new hobby, I’d always hand-make t-shirts and build this whole brand about what the apparel should look like,” he explained, moving his hands around like he was conducting a symphony. 

Talk about finding your purpose. 

He continued, telling me at ten years old, he created t-shirts for his favorite brand at the time, which was Fox Racing. 

“I made this line sheet, all hand-drawn designs, and at ten, I guess I was super resourceful, so I found Fox’s headquarters and mailed them everything, and the owner actually responded asking if he could use some of the designs,” he remembered earnestly. 

K… at ten, what were you doing?  Because I certainly wasn’t sending my writing to publishing companies.  Can I get a REWIND? 

“So where do think your inspiration came from?  Because I can tell you, as much as I heard ‘you can be whatever you want,’ I didn’t even understand how big I could dream… I didn’t know I could be a successful writer, or interview people as a job… maybe that’s just my small brain, but did you have anyone around you to influence your passion?” I wondered aloud with enthusiasm.

Alas, Devon’s mom was a buyer growing up, and according to him, has all the strength and ambition in the world, but perhaps the biggest influence came from his Grandma. 

“When I was like seven, eight years old, we didn’t have a lot of money, so she would sew up my pajamas and make my clothes to go to school…” he paused, “I don’t know if at that time I thought it was something I wanted to do with my life, but I’m sure seeing it, helped me believe it could be a reality,” he beamed as he recalled life twenty years ago. 

He gave his dad significant credit as well, telling me they have similar brains – liking the same type of clothes and music.  I laughed, imagining my dad when I was fifteen in that deep voice; ‘you’re not leaving the house wearing that, are you?’

“Well,” I smiled genuinely, “it sounds like your parents were fully supportive of you pursuing your dream of becoming a fashion ingenue, then.”

After nodding his head in agreement, he threw me a curve ball, telling me he went to GCC for a degree in Business Law.

“Wait, what?” I heard my octave raise from a three to a six.  Business Law?

“Yeah,” he laughed, “I did that as my undergrad and then my counselor handed me a stack of papers when it was time to decide my major, and I remember feeling so overwhelmed at the permanence of picking a major,” he paused and I nodded my head fervently to express the feeling being mutual.  “So my mom told me not to rush it if I wasn’t sure… she said I could take a year or two off to really decide, so I did… and I sold cars briefly which was terrible, then I managed a shoe store,” he adjusted in his seemingly backless seat, while I crossed my legs in the oversized beanbag chair from my grandparents.

Devon reaffirmed his message, that he always knew what he wanted to do; in high school, he would show people the new up and coming brands and tell them where to shop. 

So, after a year passed, he took the plunge and enrolled in MCC’s fashion program and once the bell rang after his first class (the bell didn’t actually ring, but I like the added effect), the teacher and director of the program pulled him aside and said, ‘you… I need more of you’ which he claims was ‘straight guys’ but I’m sure there was something about him specifically that the director felt pulled towards.  

And the rest is history.

Just kidding – I’ve got the juicy details.

One day after class, as fate would have it, his roommate was late to pick him up, so Devon had 45 minutes to kill.

“Everywhere on campus, I saw these signs that said ‘Disney program meeting’,” he pointed his fingers as if to show me where the signs were, “so I figured I’d go check it out… and it was this Disney college intern program where students would go live there for a full semester.”

Umm… sounds absolutely IDEAL.  Damn it, ASU, you failed me.

Each student was put into different sectors based on their major, so Devon was put into merchandising and was able to meet product developers which expanded the vision he had for himself.

“Yeah, I mean initially I was told there were just designers and buyers, but I always thought there had to be more,” he pulled his hands apart to represent the big picture. 

“So, you go to Disney World, then come back, then graduate…” I pause, “then what?… do you move straight to New York?”

He laughed, which told me… nope, I did not

“Literally every school I applied to in New York denied my application so I looked at FIDM in LA, which oddly, was the only place I saw with a dedicated Product Development program, so I decided I would move to California.” 

Those NY admissions people will be thoroughly embarrassed one day. 

When he moved state lines, he realized everything at MCC was just theory; at FIDM, it was hands on – dealing with textiles and fabrics.

“What were your feelings after your first week?  Were you just as excited as your first day at MCC?  Or were you overwhelmed at all?” I asked three more questions, realizing I needed to slow down and let him answer.

“Oh, for the first two weeks I thought I made a mistake, but… hold on, let me rewind for a minute.  I applied for every grant and scholarship out there in order to go to school, and once my grandparents saw how serious I was, they paid for the rest of it,” he glanced out his window which showed the glisten in his eyes.  I felt my tear ducts open as well, recalling the constant family support I received over the years.       

But, despite his diffidence, Devon had a come to Jesus moment, as they call it, and realized there was no turning back.  So instead of hating LA, he decided to embrace it and explore his new home, connecting with old friends and making new ones.

“Soon enough, I was like ‘I actually like this a lot better than New York’ because one day you can be in a city environment and the next, you can be at a real beach, swimming in the ocean.  It’s just so diverse, I fell in love with it.”

We talked about the vast array of food, and laughed about me mistaking his praise of the Subway system with the sandwich shop… I mean, I do love a Subway sandwich. 

“So, talk about Product Development for those, including me, that don’t know what that entails,” I asked. 

“Well, a designer might kill me if they heard me say this, but it’s like three prongs – design, technical design, and then the product developer oversees it all, from the gage of a yarn, to the verbiage in which the factory would understand how to execute, but what I really like dealing with are textiles, from a sourcing angle.  I like people telling me what types of fabrics they need but not really knowing what it is, and then figuring out exactly what they want,” he radiated with passion as he explained his job. 

With a discussion on fabrics, we segued into my question about big names brands using low quality material… as well as higher-priced items made out of less than appropriate materials, which Devon’s seen a lot in men’s streetwear. 

“Sometimes, I’ll even be able to tell what factory it was made out of because I pretty much know what each factory is capable of doing by now,” he said freely.   

“Okay, so you said your first actual job was in streetwear, right? … talk about that for a moment,” I couldn’t help but initially think of the sad “streetwear” shop in the Prescott mall, then redirected my brain to 2020, to brands like Talentless, Yeezy, and Supreme.

“Yeah, so my friend from FIDM sent me a lot of things he thought I’d be good for, and I did the same for him, and then I just emailed my resume to the owner of my favorite brand by using their name [Black Scale], plus the company name… it was a total shot in the dark but he actually got it and emailed me back saying they were looking for someone like me, so I was able to go in for an interview right away,” he recalled.

Of note – Devon was interning at Nordstrom in Seattle at the time – he’d been there for three months when they offered him a permanent position working with their private label brands; he smartly looked inward to reassess why he wanted to be in the fashion industry in the first place.  I can assure you; it was not for the Seattle coffee.

“How long were you with Black Scale then?” I asked, quickly following with a sip from my Goldthread tonic – #NotAnAd

“Two years.  I did so much and learned a lot, but when he had to shut down the LA office, I knew I wasn’t going to follow them to San Francisco, so a week later, I started with a trading company,” he offered casually… can we all agree we’re impressed with his work ethic and ability to follow his morals? 

Think of a trading company like a middleman that works with brands and retailers; they would send over inspiration pictures for ideas they had about products… like a real-life Pinterest board?! 

One of Devon’s biggest clients was PacSun; he acted as a Salesman, Designer, and Product Developer.

“Yeah, sometimes, I’d ask what they were looking for, but sometimes I’d just look around at what other retailers were buying and put together mood boards until they were ready to order units, and then from there, I’d engage with the factory until we were ready for production,” he shrugged and I swear I had a vision of him waving to a clapping audience after a successful runway show of his own creation. 

He stayed with the trading company for two years; the stunted creativity ultimately solidified his decision to leave

“I couldn’t do one more shirt with a single cactus on it,” he joked.  But seriously, imagine being an artist and not being able to implement any of your own ideas.  Thank U, Next.    

Speaking of Ariana… or singers, really.  I asked Devon if he ever held on to certain designs or got nervous that the ideas would stop flowing – I mean, look how many one hit wonders we’ve seen.  Sing it with me now – I’m Blue, Da Ba Di, Da Ba Da…  

“I never get in my head about that.  We actually launched a menswear brand in Tokyo that ended up falling through because the financial backers had a way different vision for the company than the creative minds… so, I decided I’d rather bury it than put my name on something I didn’t believe in,” he paused, “and that’s when I realized one of the most important things in the industry is who you partner with.”

SIGN UP HERE to take Devon’s first class through Coursera.  But really, some day.   

After a short stint at Vince, he got tired of the Devil Wears Prada attitude and went to a cut and sew factory for a year; he wanted to be there at the ground level, to be part of the process and really learn how everything happens. 

“Devon, how the hell have you fit all of these jobs in?  It’s insane!” I applauded.

“Well, at the factory, I got severely overworked.  I worked into the nights and had to wake up at 5am to do Postmates to make sure bills could get paid,” he widened his eyes to say ‘never again.’

I’m telling you, guys… WORK ETHIC.

“In addition to feeling overworked, I started resenting it; I just felt like my heart was running out of beats and had to get out, which is when I got a call from my former contact at Hot Topic, asking if I would be interested in working with their team to develop all of the Box Lunch store products… I was half asleep when she called and I remember just shouting a number I needed for my salary,” he laughed.

Taking bets on when Devon leaves this company to start his own. 

“Okay, Dev, I know we both probably need to go eat dinner, but I have just a couple more questions and I’ll let you get some delicious LA cuisine,” I smiled, pondering if I should eat the tofu in my fridge or run to the ever alluring Subway. 

“Shoot,” he said confidently. 

“Sustainable fashion…are all the big names taking that route?” I asked. 

“Oh yeah… it’ almost non-negotiable at this point.  It’s way more expensive to make an organic cotton t-shirt, but all the companies I work with don’t care; they know what the consumers expect.  Oh, also, pay attention to disclaimers… like on Zara’s website, for instance, they claim they’re ethical, but at the bottom of their site, there’s verbiage that nullifies everything… it’s a marketing stunt, really.” 

Well shoot… Zara, you’re on my watch list. 

“Okay, last question… what are your dreams?  I’m talking big, big dreams…” I trailed off before I could project mine out and let him answer.

“Well, I want to do production for meaningful brands, but the end goal is to have my own brands – one more of a mass market, and then one super high end… maybe when I’m 40.  I have so many ideas about how I think the fashion industry should look like; I want to make sure the whole process is done as ethically as possible, while also making it accessible to the masses.”

Needless to say, Devon James Figueroa has already made a name for himself in the fashion industry, and if I don’t have a dress designed by him when I’m a uber-successful writer / interviewer / whatever title I land on, there will be hell to pay.

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