With a work ethic as strong as her instincts, Tori Nichel Gibbs was destined for success. After graduating from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Science in Apparel and Textile Design, she rose through the ranks within the fashion industry, working in various positions including Assistant Fabric Researcher for Dana Buchman, Senior Designer for Kenneth Cole, and Head Designer for Tibi. Now, with more than 25 years of experience, she’s working to ensure that other Black creatives have equitable opportunities and is paying it forward to the next generation of Black designers.
On Sunday, May 7, Tori Nichel will bring her inspiring message to the Class of 2023 graduates as she returns to MSU’s campus to deliver the commencement address for the College of Arts & Letters ceremony at the Breslin Student Events Center.
“It is such an incredible honor to be invited back to my college to speak to our future,” she said. “I would love for the graduates to think about how they want to show up in the world and how their personal footprint will positively impact their community.”
The power of giving back is something Tori Nichel knows all too well as the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Maison Black, a curated online retail destination that exclusively carries Black designer brands. Launched in October 2021, the site showcases the work of emerging and established designers and serves as a resource where they can grow their own businesses.
“It is such an incredible honor to be invited back to my college to speak to our future. I would love for the graduates to think about how they want to show up in the world and how their personal footprint will positively impact their community.”
“This is a destination that’s curated, that’s inspiring, and that everybody can shop,” Tori Nichel said. “It was so important for me to create this platform because there are so many Black designers that have a phenomenal background and a phenomenal design aesthetic and they often are underrepresented and overlooked in the industry. I’ve walked the walk of Black designers. I’ve experienced, whether it’s on an entrepreneurial level or a corporate level, the barriers and roadblocks we have.”
As Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Tori Nichel curates the Maison Black product assortments, comprised of men’s and women’s apparel and accessories, from more than 20 emerging and established Black designers. She uses her extensive breadth of experience, coupled with the latest fashion trends, to curate the Maison Black product capsules.
Tori Nichel graduated from Michigan State University in 1998. At the time, the Apparel and Textile Design major was offered through the College of Human Ecology. The university memory that stands out the most for her was spending her junior year in an exchange program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Upon her return, she rounded out her four-year degree by completing independent studies.
She says she always knew she wanted to be a fashion designer since she was a little girl.
“I never struggled with school in the sense that I always knew what my North Star was, which helped keep me on track,” Tori Nichel said.
She began to make a name for herself with the release of her namesake collection of contemporary womenswear in 2006, and, before accepting what would become a long-term position as Design Director for Kohl’s, she competed in the second season of NBC’s Fashion Star, a reality television show where department store retailers make offers on the designs of contestants.
“Fashion is global, we’re the connection of culture. We’re the bridge between sports, music, and entertainment. If we were showing up in a more diverse and inclusive way, just imagine the impact and how that spider webs into these other industries where we have a tremendous amount of influence.”
“I tell my design teams we’re the feel-good doctors, people buy clothes to build their confidence and look good for their special life moments,” Tori Nichel said. “Fashion is global, we’re the connection of culture. We’re the bridge between sports, music, and entertainment. If we were showing up in a more diverse and inclusive way, just imagine the impact and how that spider webs into these other industries where we have a tremendous amount of influence.”
Tori Nichel also is looking to have a positive impact on the next generation of designers by creating mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities. Most recently, she recruited five Black industry professionals to mentor five Black young men who are members of the Fashion Industry Club through the Boys and Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan. This six-month mentorship program gave the up-and-coming fashion designers the opportunity to attend New York Fashion Week in February 2023 and to create a designed look under the guidance of their mentor, which was displayed at Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Towers during New York Fashion Week.
“The day these young men realized they were going to New York at the culmination of that program, it just blew them away,” Tori Nichel said. “They spent four days in New York meeting designers, visiting design studios, art galleries, Black-owned retail stores, FIT, and speaking with iconic designers such as Dapper Dan and Ouigi Theodore of The Brooklyn Circus who paved the way for their generation to flourish. It’s the whole notion that you have to see it to be it, to know it’s possible.”
After the success of the mentorship program, Tori Nichel intends to establish it as an annual opportunity for the young Black men and women in the Boys and Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan.
“Everyone has expectations for their own community and the only way to really ensure that is to make sure you’re doing your part to contribute. We are a reflection of what we desire our community to be.”
The formation of the mentorship program also was anchored by the launch of the Maison Black Foundation, an intersection of community and commerce, all rooted in the elevation and advancement of Black design talent. The three pillars of the Foundation are design excellence, business acumen, and advanced technology that aims to provide opportunities for the next generation of future design leaders.
“As I look to how we continue to evolve the e-commerce and the shopping experiences, everything we do for Maison Black will have a percentage that goes back to the Foundation to fund our mentorship programs,” Tori Nichel said. “Everyone has expectations for their own community and the only way to really ensure that is to make sure you’re doing your part to contribute. We are a reflection of what we desire our community to be.”