“At 6 years old, my mother bought me a sewing machine for Christmas — not a toy one either,” said Phoebe Lee as she recalled how she developed an affinity for fashion. “I was so mad at her. I wanted shoes, toys…”
Her father loved to thrift and one day took her into a store where she discovered sequins.
“I think my parents wanted to encourage me to do my own thing…got tired of buying the trendy stuff,” she continued. “So, I started making my own clothes.”
On top of that, Phoebe’s best friend worked as a model, which also nurtured her growing interest.
By the age of 18, the Shaker Heights High School graduate found herself at the Magic Show in Las Vegas. There, she was wholesaling some of the biggest, Black brand names in fashion at the time. She’s even opened a store in Atlanta and dabbled in modeling. She has also appeared on Good Morning America, the Today show, New York Live, VH1 and other networks.
Lee eventually found all of that to be a rat-race and wanted out.
She complained to her mother about the nature of her business and how she desired to do something with more consistency. Her mom — her confidant — is an entrepreneur who understands the ins and outs of the Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification landscape and suggested that Lee sell uniforms.
Phoebe established VDP Safety and Uniforms in January 2013 while still living in New York. Eventually, caring for her father during his illness brought Lee back to Cleveland but also allowed her to work more closely with her mother.
“That was a changing point in my life. It was the first time I had to put family before myself. Changed my world for the better,” said Lee.
From there, she hasn’t looked back.
“I put some retail thought into the B2B world,” said Phoebe. “Uniforms are a product that can service everyone. It’s a small necessity…As [there are] few females [that] are providers of safety equipment and uniforms, I became interested in how the uniforms fit women.”
Her knowledge of fashion paired with solid business acumen lead to her current position as majority stakeholder and chief executive officer of Affinity Apparel, a nationwide uniform company based in Fairborn, Ohio.
“Now, I’m just making sure the orders are delivered,” said Phoebe. “It’s funny because, when I go back and see my professors they always say, ‘We knew you would do something with fashion once you figured it out.’”
Lee earned a business administration degree from Clark Atlanta University (CAU) with a concentration in supply chain management. During her time there, CAU become a testing ground for this program so administrators heavily recruited business students and she was one of them.
Interestingly enough, loving to be different, she never wanted to wear the mandatory business attire.
“I always found a way to put a spin on it. But, I could get away with it because I got straight A’s.”
She honed her fashion skills and studied fashion design at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Atlanta as well as the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City.
“I’m a third generation, Black woman entrepreneur and we all had to be creative,” she said.
She used to bag candy for her mother’s business, and her maternal grandmother — and namesake — owned a general store in Glen Allen, Mississippi.
Lee’s hard work has been recognized by many, including former Ohio governor John Kasich, who, before leaving the office, appointed her to serve on the board of trustees for Cuyahoga Community College.