Karen James first discovered her love of designing clothes and modeling fashion at age 12 when her mother, Dorothy, gave her a sewing machine. Initially she said she made clothes featuring her designs in fashion shows for her Barbie dolls. Unfortunately, Karen said, one of her sisters had a habit of sabotaging the fashion set with a sweep of her young hand.
Karen quickly developed an eye for fashion and an undying belief that one day she would be discovered by a top designer who would help her achieve another unconquered dream: that of becoming financially independent for the rest of her life.
“I’m still working on the financially independent part,” she said, “but God has blessed me to connect with some wonderful people in Milwaukee. Milwaukee is my home. I continue to expect to be discovered someday.”
Karen relocated to Milwaukee from Chicago when she was five years old. She is the owner of Creations and Designs by KCJ. At her studio, she designs and creates custom clothes for weddings, proms, children’s clothing for school – whatever the occasion for women of all sizes and shapes. She said she typically spends an average of 10- 20 hours on each design, depending on what the customer wants.
“God downloads my brain,” she said. “If you can imagine something in your mind, you can create it. Whatever I do has to have that look, that flair that says ‘look at me’. My goal is to have a vision to create something unique for each person.
“I design for all sizes,” she said. “I question why someone would spend money for something that doesn’t flatter a full-figured woman and costs as much to alter as it did to buy, especially when you can have something custom made.”
The gift of the sewing machine was made possible in part after her fourth-grade sewing teacher at Victor Berger Elementary School helped her obtain a scholarship.
“That was where I began to develop an eye for style and design,” Karen said.
Karen had her first adult fashion show at age 15. She also began modeling at that time, something she continues to do. She attended Riverside High School and graduated from Robert Fulton High School which has since been renamed Malcolm X High School. After graduation, Karen briefly attended Mount Mary University in Milwaukee on a scholarship, but her passion for fashion was too strong and she left before graduating. For a number of years after college, Karen said she worked out of her home.
“For years I prayed for a landlord who had a compassionate heart,” she said. “I moved into my own studio for the first time in 2014. It was a test. I didn’t have enough money to get started, but pretty soon the money started coming in.”
Business varies depending on the time of year, according to Karen who said that prom season and weddings are her busiest time. In a typical year, she said she will create about two dozen wedding dresses which she said tend to be the most glamorous design.
Except for one year in Chicago, Karen has called Milwaukee home since relocating here at age five.
“At first I felt like Mary Tyler Moore,” she said of her fresh start in a new city. “But it wasn’t what I thought it would be when I first arrived there. It was hard to find a job that permitted me to continue to pursue fashion. I made most of my money that year in Milwaukee.”
In order to help make ends meet while living in Chicago, Karen said she began doing alterations, interior design work and customized apartment painting.
“The pace was exhausting and it didn’t pay the bills,” she said.
In addition to designing and creating unique clothes, Karen said she also creates custom gift baskets, arranges flowers, draws, recovers shoes and boots and she designs and creates personalized dolls which resemble the client.
Karen attends Greater New Birth Church where she volunteers with the outreach ministry, helping to provide clothes and food to the homeless. The most recent project undertaken by the church involved assisting the tent city residents located underneath the Pere Marquette viaduct.
“We do clothing drives under the leadership of Bishop R.J. Burt, our pastor” she said. “If you have a talent or a gift, he encourages you to showcase it on the third Sunday of the month as a way to inspire other members of the congregation.
“I look at where I started and where I’ve come. I didn’t learn a whole lot in school. If it wasn’t for God blessing me, there would be a lot of things I wouldn’t know how to do. Most of my education has come through experience.”
Karen has two adult children: a daughter, Starresa and a son, Karayne.