Kalilah Wright on Rebuilding Her Clothing Line After an Armed Robbery
“Just Keep Going — signed the Universe.”
When Kalilah Wright left her six-figure architect job to follow her true passion of becoming an entrepreneur — crafting cool sayings on cotton t-shirts for her brand, Mess in a Bottle — she never thought she would come face-to-face with crime. More importantly, she never thought the city she loved and called home would be where her nightmare took place. But the root of her story stretches far beyond fashion and entrepreneurship, its premise focuses on empowerment and having the fortitude to forge ahead when you’ve given up hope. Today, Wright will tell anyone who listens, the importance of being happy and living your dreams, even when they’re interrupted by trauma. Here’s her story.
Teen Vogue: You were an entrepreneur at the young age of 12. How did you pull that off?
Kalilah Wright: I’ve always just had this leadership mentality so I started a kid’s club and charged a membership fee. I even laminated the little cards that said, ‘you’re in the cool club!’
TV: You’re originally from Brooklyn, New York, so how did you end up in living and starting a business in Baltimore, Maryland?
KW: I received a Master’s in architecture from Morgan State University in Baltimore. Morgan was one of the only schools in the United States that had a night program so I went to school from 6 to 9 PM. It allowed me to work during the day and then get my Master's at night. After I graduated, I felt like Baltimore was the city where I could explore my career options. It wasn’t expensive.
TV: How did you start Mess in a Bottle and what’s the message behind it?
KW: In college, I studied architecture, but I really wanted to create a company that allowed people to be vocal without saying anything at all. So, I launched Mess in a Bottle during the Freddie Gray uproar (January 2016) so people could [wear the clothes and] have a voice.
We put messages on T-shirts. And they came packaged in a reusable bottle. I’m very in-tuned with what’s going in politics, so I create different messages that are funny and sentimental. Customers can either pick one of our standard messages, or they can create their own custom message.
TV: What’s one of your favorite messages?
KW: I created a shirt that says, “Just Keep Going — signed the Universe.” That reminds me of a traumatic experience. Unfortunately, last year two guys came into my shop and I experienced an armed robbery. I was the only one in the shop at the time and they held me hostage for 20 minutes and tried to go to the ATM with my [debit] card.
I was so excited to be a young, black woman in West Baltimore, opening a store and servicing people who looked like me. But this incident made being an entrepreneur so hard. It was definitely a difficult and traumatizing experience. But through that experience, I created a great message for others.
TV: Wow! You’re so brave.
KW: Thank you. I definitely wanted to give up my business after the crime. Fear set in and I was depressed. But, the universe pushed me along and I decided to push forward and use my voice within my messages.
TV: What’s your advice for teens and women looking to get the strength to keep going? How can they overcome challenges in their lives, both personal and professional?
KW: One thing I’ve learned is to be kind to you. That’s first. Be kind to you and allow yourself to feel mad, upset, happy — any emotion. It’s important to keep going because the world does not stop for you.
TV: Yes, and there’s always a way to find the good in everything.
KW: Yes! We launched a campaign with to encourage women-led start-ups to crowdfund and raise money. Now, I’m raising $10,000 [so I can move] into a safer neighborhood.
TV: Once you launched Mess in a Bottle, how did you generate funds?
KW: Initially we went to local wholesale places to get T-shirts and once we started creating messages that people really liked, customers started to buy them. They posted on Instagram and told their friends, who, in turn, told other friends. We were so fortunate to have the opportunity to go on The Harry Show last February. And once that happened, it started a snowball effect. Then celebrities like Yvonne Orji began to wear our shirts. So, all of those things began to really resonate with our audience and that’s how we began to regulate and transition our business.
TV: How did you get to be on The Harry Show?
KW: There was a casting for an entrepreneur segment and they selected us to come on the show and talk about my company. Mark Cuban was able to give us a little bit advice on where he thinks our business should go.
TV: Is there a dream celebrity you’d love to wear your shirt?
KW: Yes, I am a big fan of Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, and Karen Civil. Karen Civil is a philanthropist as well as a young woman who’s always embodying rap culture and confidence. They all inspire me.
TV: Which fashion trends are you really into this season and which can go?
KW: I’m a good mix of rap culture — think Cardi B. and flashy bling — with a mix of sophistication. Right now, we have an army jacket that says, “Queen, don’t be afraid to rule like a king.” The army jacket is so masculine but feminine. Also, I think crop tops are in. And I’m in love with wide-leg pants. I’m over the bell bottom and bootleg cut pants. Straight legs or really wide pants work for me.
TV: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?
KW: I strongly believe that you can start a successful business with zero money. You can start a business with no money, but you need money to grow the business. Starting a business and having a great idea doesn’t cost you anything. For starters, I would register your business, start up a website, start an Instagram page, gain followers. I started my business with under $500. I bought materials from Craigslist, and I started going to local shops like Target and buying T-shirts. Don’t be afraid of the logistics.
TV: That’s great advice. How can business owners stay encouraged?
KW: You also have to put it out to the world, and see if it’s going to be something successful. Utilize your resources whether that is going to your local library or to any local meet-ups or business meet-ups, conferences, anything that will help support or push forward your idea is where you need to be. Be a fly on a wall in any room you can get into to push your idea along. No matter what you pursue in college, whether it’s finance, law, or even a doctorate, use your education to really reinforce what you want to become. I used my architecture background and design and creativity to push me forward to now go back into fashion design. Creating T-shirts may not be as extensive as architecture, but we design and create our own bottles. So, it all worked out.