The Block Beat multimedia series is a collaboration with The TRiiBE that roots Chicago musicians in places and neighborhoods that matter to them.
Sheila Rashid is on the hunt. The 31-year-old Chicago designer slips in and out of the aisles at Fishman’s Fabrics in the South Loop, her eyes lingering on a vibrant cheetah-print spool.
“I like a lot of upholstery-weight fabrics,” she says. “Anything that’s kind of movable, breathable, and soft. That’s one of my favorite things to look for.”
More than any particular pattern or texture, Rashid has come looking for inspiration. “Usually I start with the fabric, and then I do flat sketches,” she explains, reaching into the racks to pull out a beautiful wine-red spool. “Even if I don’t know what I’m going to make out of it yet, I still know it can be a fabric that I can basically profit off of.”
The Sheila Rashid Brand attracted interest around the world in 2016, when Chance the Rapper wore a pair of Rashid’s now-famous drop-crotch overalls at the MTV Video Music Awards. Since then, her designs have turned up on the likes of Zendaya, Fucci, Bella Hadid, and Lena Waithe. When ComplexCon came to Chicago for the first time this past July, Rashid was one of four local designers it named “Brands to Watch,” with her own booth on the convention floor.
Today, Rashid is successful enough that she can afford to let her imagination guide her. No fabric, no idea, is out of reach. But it wasn’t always that way. Fishman’s, now a veritable playground for the designer, was once her own personal Everest.
“I remember the first time I came to Fishman’s probably had to be over ten years ago,” Rashid says. “At that time, I wasn’t shopping at Fishman’s, because most of these fabrics are expensive—but for good reason.” Back then, she would come to the store just to look at the fabrics and dream, or sometimes snag something on sale.
The store’s owner, Gregg Fishman, claims that its inventory consists exclusively of western European imports, and the prices reflect that: they range from $3 to $300 per yard, depending on the fabric. At a typical JoAnn Fabrics, they might start at $1.99 per yard and top out at $40 to $60.
“I knew I would come back here one day,” Rashid says, remembering her years as a window shopper. “I knew this was the spot that I always wanted to work up to.”
This spring, Rashid’s dream finally came true. She secured a sponsorship from Nissan to create a collection for the 2019 edition of the Wearable Art Gala, Tina Knowles-Lawson’s annual philanthropic fashion-centric celebration. The theme for the event was “A Journey to the Pride Lands,” but Rashid’s challenge was more specific: her collection was supposed to blend the aesthetic of the 2019 Nissan Rogue with that of Disney’s new photorealistic version of The Lion King.
With a sizable budget at her disposal, Rashid made a beeline for Fishman’s. It was the first time she’d ever spread her wings in the store. “It felt good to have a budget and know I don’t have any restrictions,” Rashid says. That feeling—the culmination of more than a decade of dream chasing and diligence—stuck with her all the way through the event. “I just knew I had the best fabrics and I had the best craftsmanship, so it was good. I just felt confident.”
In 2005, when baggy jeans, tall tees, and streetwear brands such as Billionaire Boys Club and Icecream reigned supreme, Rashid was a junior at Kenwood Academy. She found her calling by drawing on T-shirts for her high school friends. Rashid was a huge N.E.R.D. fan, and her earliest pieces were shirts that filtered the group’s colorful, playfully futuristic, anime-influenced aesthetic through the street style of the day. (Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. had cofounded BBC.) She also took inspiration from her favorite Adult Swim cartoons at the time, especially Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
“It would be characters such as Hamburger, French Fry, and Drink, and I would just hand-paint it,” she says, not quite remembering the names Meatwad, Frylock, and Master Shake.
Rashid’s classmates loved her shirts, and before she knew it, she was in business. Her high school friend Marcus Ivory, now a stylist in New York, was also making shirts and hoodies as part of a streetwear collection he called Nouveau Riche. Once Rashid’s creations caught on, he asked her to join him. The collaboration was a local success, generating buzz for both partners and their brand among Chicago streetwear enthusiasts.
After high school, Rashid began studying design at Columbia College Chicago in late 2006. She ultimately had to drop out due to financial pressures, but her fashion education was just beginning. Immediately after leaving Columbia in 2009, Rashid studied under designer Horacio Nieto, then based in Chicago. In 2010, she broke out on her own with a fashion show in Pilsen—her very first solo outing. She moved to New York the following year and debuted a collection at Brooklyn Fashion Week, the first to include her popular drop-crotch designs.
Rashid couldn’t afford to stay in New York for long, though, and she returned to Chicago in 2012. But the design thread she introduced there has persisted all the way to Chance’s VMA overalls and beyond. In a way, it started her on a victory lap that brought her back to Fishman’s for the Wearable Art Gala. That return was more than a merely symbolic triumph. “I just felt free,” she says. “Like, I can get any fabric out of here now.”
Rashid has little use for gender norms, and almost all of her designs, from her early T-shirts to the work that’s made her famous in recent years, have been unisex. “Doing unisex clothing was just kind of a reflection of my own style,” she says. “In high school, everybody was wearing baggy clothes and stuff like that. So I didn’t really get much pushback for that.” She pauses to think. “Maybe from my mom when I first came out” as a lesbian, she adds. “But then again, I would actually hide my baggy clothes until I got really comfortable around my mom.”
She remembers being afraid of how her mother would respond to her sexuality and her style. “I would get on the train on the way to school, in high school, and I would bring a change of clothes and actually change on the train,” she recalls. “If anything, I had to get comfortable, like, with myself.”
Rashid’s high school struggle certainly informs her present-day mission as a designer: “to create pieces that confront and curtail gender identity.” Her work helps other people find the same sort of freedom of expression that’s so central to her own story, and gives them an opportunity to shake off labels and be their most authentic selves. v