Celebrating KC’s Black-owned businesses
Meet several Black business owners in the Kansas City area: a partnership between The Kansas City Star and Black Kansas City Magazine.
Alesha Bowman says fashion is the soundtrack of her life.
She was in the third grade when her grandmother, Brenda Thornton, first took her “thrifting.”
At first she didn’t want to be in the store. Then she spied a pair of black bell-bottoms with pink and red flowers and she was sold. Vintage clothes were cut to better fit her plus size, and she could get 10 items for $10.
“It was a whole new world of possibilities for me in fashion,” Bowman said. “You aren’t dressed like everyone else. It’s cool. It became a thing I was known for.”
She grew to love fashion so much, she earned a degree in fashion merchandising.
Now she has a boutique, Unleshed+, at 4243 Troost Ave. The shop caters to women sizes 14 and up, with gently used, vintage and new apparel and accessories.
“I’ve been a plus-size girl all my life. We need to try things on,” she said. “They feel comfortable here and for a lot of plus-size people it is hard to find stuff in your size that is cute.”
She named it Unleshed+ (pronounced unleashed) as a play on Alesha and also for the definition: “To suddenly remove restraint so that you can run freely.”
Customers can buy, sell (up to 30% of Unleshed+’s resale value) or swap items (up to 50% of resale value).
She also stocks merchandise from local companies, such as candles shaped like a curvy woman’s torso — for body positivity — made specifically for the shop by locally owned R.E.I.N Therapy.
But Bowman never considered a career as an entrepreneur while growing up.
She received a bachelor’s degree in fashion business from the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg in 2013 (the first in her family to get a college degree). Then she earned a master’s in college student personnel administration with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
She worked for the university before moving to Indiana, where she was the director of Multicultural Student Services at DePauw University.
All the while she would host multicultural hair and fashion shows. And she typically had boxes of thrift store finds in her car — in a variety of sizes.
“I just loved the clothes. Then my car was totaled and I had to find an outlet,” she said.
Unleshed+ opened as as an online shop.
Bowman returned to Kansas City in 2018 to look for a less stressful day job. But as her online business grew, she searched for a brick-and-mortar location, self-financing since she didn’t want to add more debt on top of student loans.
She first landed “all the way in back” of a yoga studio at 27th Street and Troost Avenue. But some of her customers complained that they couldn’t find her. So she relocated to 39th and Troost, a space she quickly outgrew.
She scheduled a March 14, 2020, opening at her current location. Then the shelter-in-place orders for the pandemic were announced.
“I am very confident in pretty much everything I do because I went to school for it,” she said. “But no one can really teach you how to be an entrepreneur because it changes so much.”
She did Facebook and Instagram Live stories to keep connected to her customers, along with a couple of virtual dance classes focused on body positivity.
With the pandemic, her customers were initially stuck at home, so she stocked up on joggers and loungewear.
She tapped into her savings to pay for rent and utilities. Then “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” called. Bowman thought she had a Zoom interview with a producer but instead went live on the show.
Shutterfly, a California-based photography and image sharing company, was giving Bowman $10,000 to help support Black-owned businesses.
This summer Bowman hosted Kansas City Plus Size Weekend, a four day festival with a plus-size fashion show, pool party and burlesque dance “to help plus-size people feel comfortable in their bodies.” The next event is planned for June.
She also will host the Plus-size Market, teaming up with other local plus-size fashion merchandisers on Nov. 28 at the shop.
As a Black woman, a product of the inner city and a business owner, she said it is important for her to give back to the community.
She has an annual bag sale, where customers can fill a large pink tote with merchandise for just $25. She raised nearly $1,000 to make care packages for Black Lives Matter protesters.
Bowman would like to relocate to the 18th & Vine area when her lease is up a year from now, and also have satellite locations around the metro.
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
“I would say just do it. Start wherever you are. I had extra money monthly that I could put into my business,” she said. “Don’t feel like it has to be big from the beginning. In time, if you keep grinding, it will happen.”