A true born and bred Jersey boy, from birth Qaysean Williams had to fight. Born with Erb’s palsy and raised in the city streets of Trenton, Qaysean was determined not to let his disability define him. Having established a client roster for himself in his late teens and early 20s, Qaysean went on to establish his own business and star in the Netflix hit series Next in Fashion. Qaysean sat down with Out In Jersey to share his inspirational story.
Did you grow up in New Jersey?
Qaysean Williams: Yes, I was born and raised in the Garden State.
Where were you born, raised, and how was life growing up as a Jersey boy?
QW: I was born and raised in Trenton. I grew up within the inner-city community, which had its challenges with violence. For me, being born with a disability, I was around family often. Many things you would normally experience in the inner city I did not, due to being surrounded by family. However, as a kid, I felt misunderstood by the outside world and even by myself to an extent.
What is your disability?
QW: I was born with the disability Erb’s/Klumpke’s palsy which occurs during birth. It is a nerve condition that affects the nerves connecting to my neck and shoulder area which control the function of my fingers and mobility of my arm. In my case, it is my left arm. As a kid, it was difficult growing up with this disability and not knowing what it was because there was no one else like me around. From not being able to pick up a baseball bat to not being able to play regular activities, it was difficult for me to connect with my peers. This led to bullying and me feeling isolated. Nevertheless I was always a creative kid, I was into Marvel and DC, and gravitated to the female characters because they came across bolder to me. It kept my brain sane and as I grew older fueled my “fantasy fashion.” Growing up in New Jersey was unique. It motivated me to persevere given my upbringing was out of the norm.
I would have never known you had a disability when I met you at the Out In Jersey 20-year anniversary party. It is rough growing up in general in New Jersey let alone growing up with a disability. Is everything under control now? How are you holding up health-wise?
QW: When I was 13 I underwent a minor surgery to hold up my wrist. Prior to that my wrist just hung and I needed to wear splints to hold it up. During surgery they inserted a rod to keep my wrist stabilized. Thus, I am not able to bend my wrist at all. Ironically, now I am into fitness, which I have been taking seriously since the pandemic. I have been working out and exercising my left arm which has increased 2x and the strength of it has grown tremendously. I can hold bags for a longer period of time without my arm tiring out. Health-wise, as of now, I am still learning and growing. I am grateful to myself for always believing in the impossible.
How did you originally enter the fashion industry?
QW: Fashion found me. During middle school and high school, I always wanted to make sure I looked the part. For me, fashion was a way of escapism, to divert people’s attention away from my arm and disability. In high school, I developed my own aesthetic of clothing, and while working for the Boys & Girls Club, I helped put together a fashion show for kids. That is when I began to immerse myself in fashion. From the seams of the clothing to the flow of the show, that is when I fell in love with fashion, and felt I was enough. I realized this was something I could do that did not require two hands and decided to pursue it. Then, when I graduated high school and started college at Mercer County Community College, I started to produce my own fashion shows. Someone in the audience loved the pieces I designed myself and wanted to purchase them, and then I realized I could profit from this. I produced four shows before I went off to Montclair State University for my bachelor’s in fashion merchandising. Finally, in 2014, I established my brand Manikin.
You have such an interesting story and such a deep connection to fashion due to what you experienced growing up. You really did it all yourself and from scratch no less. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of Manikin, Congratulations!
QW: Yes! I can finally say it has been a decade. I can’t believe I can finally say it has been a decade. I am not a newbie. When I started college, I already had a roster of clients. I would take four trains a day to get to and from MSU. Then I would sew dresses for my clients on top of my homework. I remember at one point breaking down crying during finals, but I had to remind myself I could do this. When my teachers found out everything I was doing they were shocked. They were shocked I could sew with one hand, let alone that I had my own career already! With God and a support system around you, there is so much you can accomplish, and I am a testament to that. You can do anything you put your mind to.
Exactly! You are not sewing with one hand because you want to, but because you have to. Thus, you always had to work harder to ensure your visions became a reality. Now, how did you make your way on to season two of Netflix’s Next in Fashion?
QW: My agent submitted me to various casting agencies including similar fashion programs. We started making connections. Then, they reached out to me directly and loved me. They requested I submit an application if I wanted to move forward and it all came together.
I love how it came together. You were eyeing up another show but then this show came about. This is a huge show too. It is hosted by one of the biggest supermodels and names in fashion, Gigi Hadid, along with Queer Eye’s Tan France. How was it trying to make connections on a competition show where you are all in it to win it at the end of the day?
QW: I am a spiritual person and I vibe off of energy. The entire process was amazing from start to finish. Season 2 was so fresh, so bold, and so vibrant. Hello, Gigi Hadid, she has been on my mood boards [laughs]. To be in the same room as so many people I admired while I worked my way up was surreal and such a full-circle moment for me. We were a big family on the show and I can’t say anything bad about my cast mates. Gigi and Tan were so supportive in guiding us through the competition. We were put to the test, yes, but that is needed for any creative talent to grow. When you step outside your comfort zone, you will always grow. I am so grateful the world was able to see my work and my story.
As a viewer, the show came across as very intense. How long did you film for?
QW: Two months. It was pretty impactful mentally because I wanted to perform to the best of my ability, impress the judges, and come across well on television. Thus, the intensity of all of these factors was very intimidating. However, these are the moments when it is essential to step outside your comfort zone as an artist in order to propel. This was the most pivotal moment for me as a creator and designer because of the immense pressure I had to perform under.
What was your biggest takeaway from the show and what did you learn most from Gigi and Tan?
QW: To trust myself and never be afraid to embrace myself even if I doubt myself. I always shone the most whenever I tapped into my individuality and embraced my entire self. As a kid through my teenage self, I ran away from my identity because I just wanted to be normal. As an adult, when I tapped into that, it was like a baby learning how to crawl. Thus, my takeaway and advice is to step into yourself fully. Gigi and Tan noticed this and hearing it come from them made it hit so much stronger. I value their perspectives and what they bring to the industry, so I will have to say that owning and amplifying my own creativity was what I learned most.