Fort Worth’s Shawn Florence Is a Self-Taught Celebrity Fashion and Costume Designer


The life of a celebrity costume designer is fast-paced. One moment, you’re at the gym in Fort Worth, and the next you receive an unexpected phone call requesting your wardrobe expertise for none other than Chloe Bailey. Hours later you’re on your way to Dallas, sitting backstage with Bailey as she warms up her voice, holding her hand as she prays before the show. But that’s just business as usual for fashion and costume designer Shawn Florence.

Florence has worked for a host of big names: Beyoncé, Erykah Badu, The Chicks, Lizzo, Daddy Yankee, Michael Bublé, Karol G, Carrie Underwood, Alanis Morrissette, The Jonas Brothers — the list goes on. Right now, he works as a costume and wardrobe designer for Earth, Wind & Fire.

While the self-taught designer engages with various styles as a costume designer, his passion for design started with womenswear, designing timeless gowns and taking inspiration from old TV shows such as Dynasty.

Florence grew up in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood. At just 5 years old, he was diagnosed with a rare tumor behind his eye.

“The doctors told my parents that I probably wouldn’t live to be 7,” he says. “I began to have so many surgeries [that] I would go to school with so many bandages, scarring from the surgeries.”

Showing up with bandages and scars was not a look that made him popular in school, and kids teased and bullied him for his appearance. But Florence remembers his parents still encouraged him to take pride in himself.

“My parents made sure I was impeccably dressed going to school,” he says. “I’m not saying worried about labels, but very neat.”

He also remembers his parents themselves dressing well — how his mom dressed his dad. Their style wasn’t about labels and flashy looks, Florence says. Instead, his childhood fashion education was one in which very little could be turned into an impressively stylish look.

Florence took that education with him to the University of North Texas, where he studied criminology. While on track to go to law school, he continued his education in fashion, entrenching himself in the world from a distance by studying Vogue, Vibe and Details magazines. He learned the names of designers and analyzed all of the editorials.

Later, working on his master’s in journalism and public relations at UNT for a possible fashion journalism career, Florence studied abroad in London. There, he could finally step foot in one of the fashion meccas he had read so much about.
Looking back, Florence remembers sneaking into shows, passing as an Important Person Who Belonged because he looked the part and walked with purpose.

“I actually sat in a show next to Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter,” he says.

The glamour of the European shows was short-lived, as Florence returned to a U.S. workforce teetering toward recession. He lived at home in Fort Worth, and he looked for work.

All the while, his mother’s sewing machine sat in the corner of their living room.

“I was just at home one day, didn’t have a job,” he says. “I picked it up [and] taught myself how to thread it.”

Between leaving and returning and tasks around the home, his mom guided him as he taught himself this new skill.

“As I got better with sewing, I started to seek other apprenticeships and things to learn,” he says. “I started looking up YouTube videos, kind of perfecting my craft of sewing.”

He worked as a teacher in Fort Worth schools for the following 17 years, sewing items for clients on the side. At this point, Florence still didn’t view sewing or fashion as a viable career option on its own.

“Coming from where I am from in Fort Worth, growing up in public school, on career day, you don’t have a fashion designer or stylist,” he says.

He sewed prom dresses for teens and birthday outfits for socialites, increased his social media presence and ultimately dedicated himself to making this sewing side hustle a career.

“The skill of sewing has become a dying thing. People don’t learn from their grandmothers or how they did in the past,” he says. “The skill is very much needed.”

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A design from Shawn Florence.

Diabe Sale

Flying back and forth between New York and Fort Worth, Florence would go to fashion houses and apply for job after job with hordes of other candidates. He even did an episode of What Not To Wear, the early 2000s reality TV show.

“I went to New York, and I filmed it and was like, ‘This was my big break,’” he says. “That didn’t happen.”

After a string of faux “big breaks,” Florence moved back to Fort Worth, where his career took off. His first entertainment wardrobe job was with the Cirque du Soleil Michael Jackson tour. This job required Florence to flex a different skill.

“Working in entertainment, more so I’m thinking about the functionality, how it’s going to appear,” he says. “Most of the time people are dancing and performing in these garments. When I am working with them, I have to think that this [one thing] has to hold up. Make sure the stitch is in place. I got to make sure this bead isn’t going to fall off.’”

He works a lot of “save the day” jobs, as he calls them. That is, when somebody calls him in, it’s usually because something has gone massively wrong.

“The thrill is totally different than what I was doing before,” he says. “You really have to be able to be creative off the cuff and on the fly.”

During a show Florence worked for Ariana Grande, he got to see the A-list vocalist’s talents up close.

“She was performing on stage, and her zipper popped,” he says. “She came off to the side of the stage, and she was still singing while I was sewing up her dress. That was one of those ‘wow’ moments, just, like, amazing that you get to experience in this business.”

Wardrobe and costume design can be problematic, Florence says. Messy work can lead to dancers getting hurt or even wardrobe malfunction controversies. During his time working with Karol G, Florence was tasked with re-costuming 15 dancers in just two hours.

“It’s fast execution, but you also have to be a little bit meticulous because they are going on stage,” he says. “There is a lot of dancing. You don’t want anything to break or fall off because it could potentially cause a hazard.”

Despite the allure of the stage projects, the job itself isn’t always so glamorous. The backstages of stadiums seldom have the readily available resources of a design house, and the time crunches prove extremely stressful.

With his work, Florence sees himself as a part of something much larger than any one of his own singular designs or stitches.

“I worked on Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour,” he says. “I went to go see the film just knowing that some of my stitch work went into this big moment in history … is something.”

He continues, “I realized that what I do on my machine, and what I do when I go in the store to pick something out for someone is a much bigger part than just clothes because that goes on to translate to image, to translate a moment for someone and that moment becomes a part of history.”


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