New Orleans native Tommy Douglass couldn't wait for his years to catch up with his ambition to be a businessman. Before he was old enough to legally hold a job, he learned to sew and began to make clothes and fashion accessories for women and girls he knew, always careful to keep his talent a secret from his male friends -- and his father.
Today he sells his Upstairs label women's clothing designs to several stores in New Orleans and Houston, makes costumes for a dance group that tours inside and outside the country and has won a scholarship to study costume design at a college in Missouri.
It all began when he moved with his family from New Orleans to Houston, where his father had a new job, and the youngster found an old Singer sewing machine that belonged to his mother. She taught him the basics of sewing and before long he had set up a four-machine production room on the second floor of the family's new home.
"I was in the seventh grade," remembers Douglass, now 17. "One of the first dresses I made was for a friend, who wore it to school the first day; it was a zebra print with a red belt. I was very embarrassed at the time to tell people I made it and that I sew -- not many people who were guys sew. I began to get some orders for clothes, but it was a secret."
He developed a small business making clothes for his teachers, their daughters and his mom and designing costumes for a girls' dance group -- all the while keeping his newfound passion from his father for fear he would not approve of such a traditionally female diversion. His fears were unfounded.
"When I finally told my dad, he was happy with me, and I was making money," Douglass says. "I didn't have a label or anything at that time; I was just sewing. I would make things for my mom left and right. One morning she was wearing a skirt I made and my dad asked her Where did you get that,' and she said Upstairs.' That's where my workshop was and he never went up there. That's where the label (name) came in."
Douglass began selling his designs to a boutique in Houston, which still keeps him busy, and he periodically designs costumes for the Darryl Martin Dancing Fusion Group. While spending the summer with his mother in New Orleans, he developed local business contacts and now has skirts, dresses and blouses at Fairy (3634 Magazine St., 269-2033), Turncoats (1926 Magazine St., 299-9004) and Cream of the Frock (2137 S. Carrollton Ave., 865-1665).
"The whole market here is so much more accepting of my designs because they're different but wearable," he says of New Orleans. "Here the culture is unbelievable and their outlook on fashion is they wear what they want. I love this market."
He also has maintained close contacts in Houston.
"The shop in Houston really keeps me busy," he says. "They usually sell out of my stuff in three to four weeks. It really opened up a lot of opportunities for me. I was in a fashion show for the Houston Area Fiber Artists; I was the youngest guest artist they had ever had at 15 but people started to try my things on right after the show."
Douglass recently graduated from high school and currently is attending Webster University in St. Louis on a costume design scholarship. He plans, however, to keep supplying clothes to local shops and plans to hold a trunk show of new designs at Fairy in December. "I love to sew and I'm passionate about it," Douglass says. "I'm making money from selling what I love to do, and you can do it at my age. I'm just very happy to be where I am right now."