Terrance Williams (he/him) has always stood out. As a Black queer kid growing up in a rural, mostly white town in Pennsylvania, blending in wasn’t an option.
“Kids would make fun of me for everything: the color of my skin, my nose, my hands, my hair,” he explains. “They pointed out things that I wasn’t even aware of, so then I became self-aware of those things.”
This was especially true when it came to his queer identity. Williams says that other kids labeled him as “gay” before he even had a concept of sexual orientation. “I didn’t even know what [being gay] was,” he says. “There were no queer people in my life. There was no representation. So, when people would say that to me, I’d always say, ‘I’m not gay’—because how was I supposed to know?”
But, as Williams entered his teenage years, his self-awareness grew—and so did his sense of style. In the pages of Vogue magazine, he found possibilities for who he could one day be. In the aisles of Goodwill, he found clothes that helped him learn to love the things that made him different and to celebrate his full identity.
Forging his sense of style
Williams attributes his personal style to growing up poor and having to be creative when it came to putting together outfits. Mixing thrift finds with hand-me-downs, he began to craft not only a unique style profile, but a sense of self.
But like most adolescents, there was a phase when he tried to fit in with the crowd. He recalls that, in high school, he was unable to afford the popular designer brands of the time, like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch. So, as soon as he was able to get a part-time job and make his own money, he bought clothes from those stores, hoping that they’d shield him from the jeers of his peers.
“I came into school wearing the style of the day: sandals, ripped jeans, and a polo with the collar popped,” he remembers. “And the same kids that bullied me for wearing hand-me-downs were the same kids that bullied me for wearing Hollister and Abercrombie.”
So, his “trying to fit in” phase abruptly ended. “It clicked that it didn’t matter what I did or what I wore, they were still going to make fun of me regardless. So I might as well just show up as myself and wear what I want to wear because they’re gonna say what they want to say,” he shares.
“From that point forward, I said: I’m not wearing this overpriced crap. I’m gonna wear my hand-me-downs and the stuff from Goodwill, and I’m gonna make it work.”
Williams says that accepting that he liked to dress differently from other people was the first step in the process of learning to accept himself as a gay man. From his love of fashion flowed his love of self, and his family soon began to take notice.
Betting on himself
Williams’s design dreams were kick-started by his sister, who bought him a sewing machine for Christmas one year. That early investment, along with a gift card for a fabric store, launched his self-taught sewing journey and foreshadowed his future fashion business.
He started selling handmade clutches, purses, and handbags on Etsy in 2014 under the name Clutch89. What began as a side hustle would eventually make him enough money that he could quit his retail job, sell all of his belongings, and move halfway across the US—from rural Pennsylvania to Dallas, Texas—to chase his dreams of full-time entrepreneurship.
In 2019, he rebranded and launched an eponymous line of ethically handmade clothing and accessories. Characterized by hand-sewn headbands, colorful caftans, and floral dusters, Terrance Williams Designs offers genderless, size-inclusive, ethical, and sustainable attire for all.
Betting on himself and his business has paid off. After his brand went viral in 2020 through news features and influencer reviews during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Williams’s sales more than quadrupled overnight.
Before going viral, he was fulfilling fewer than 50 orders in a month. Afterward, that accelerated to hundreds of orders per month. At one point, he made more than $20,000 in sales in 1 day (compared to an historic average monthly revenue of $6,000).
Beyond the viral moment
But with that astronomical success came challenges. “Every small business owner wishes for a viral moment,” he says. “While it can be amazing—especially when you look at your bank account—you’re never fully prepared for it.”
When demand for his items skyrocketed and supply chains collapsed, he struggled to keep up with the influx of orders. He’d previously been able to control the fulfillment process and orders were being shipped at a decent pace. But when his business went viral, that sense of control went out the window.
Things got so busy that, at one point, he considered shutting down new orders altogether. In fact, he did for about 10 minutes. “I was prepared and ready for the volume that I was doing on a consistent basis, but not for the hundreds and hundreds of orders I received overnight,” Williams explains. “And the pandemic supply delays made it additionally challenging.”
But a friend provided some much-needed perspective and encouraged him to keep accepting orders. “My best friend said, ‘No, open it back up and just communicate with people. Let them know that it might take a little longer for them to get their order, but you don’t want to shut down production and potentially miss out on those sales,’” Williams recalls.
Williams heeded his friend’s advice, but it wasn’t easy. In the following weeks, he’d learn some important lessons about the fundamentals of his business. First, he had to get real about time management.
His initial prediction was to sew up to 12 orders in a day. But when he broke down how much time he needed to cut out a pattern, sew a garment, package an order, and then ship it, he realized that he’d only be able to get half as many orders done each day. “I wasn’t really thinking about how much time it took,” he remembers.
Over the next few weeks, his days started at 4am and would end in the early hours of the morning. To stay awake, he listened to music and podcasts and talked to friends on the phone. To stay organized, he kept meticulous lists. “I used a physical notebook planner where I wrote everything down, took notes, and manually marked things off my list,” he says. “I’m a very visual person, so I need to be able to see my tasks and check them off.”
As the global Black Lives Matter protests began to subside, so did the overwhelming demand for Williams’s products. “When it’s not a cool, trendy thing to do, people aren’t as willing to support a Black-owned or queer-owned small business,” he says.
But that’s not to say that his business is suffering. Williams shares that he’s back to bringing in $6,000 to $7,000 a month in revenue—a pace that’s both profitable and sustainable. He credits these steady sales to repeat customers and says that it’s important to create new products that keep customers coming back for more.
“As a small business owner, it’s great to get that first sale from a person. But, for me, having repeat customers is one of the greatest achievements because not only did you trust my business the first time, but you trusted it again and again because you liked the product so much,” he says. “It’s a true testament that I’m doing something right when someone comes back and purchases from me.”
Showing up authentically
Part of what keeps his customers coming back is his communication strategy. When his demand was at its highest, he learned that speaking regularly with customers is key.
Williams updated his website to let people know that there were going to be shipping delays and emailed customers directly if there were going to be lags in delivery. If people reached out with questions about their order, he responded promptly.
“It was about being as open and transparent as possible,” he says. “I let people know: ‘Listen, I’m sitting on hundreds of orders. I’ve never had this amount of volume before.’ I feel like that transparency really helped ease customers’ minds.”
He also leaned heavily on social media to cultivate authentic relationships with his customers. With more than 50,000 enthusiastic TikTok followers and his podcast Dreams, Seams and Small Business Things, Williams spreads a message of self-love and positivity to thousands of people each month.
But as his social media profile grew, so did the presence of homophobic trolls in his comments. While some content creators prefer to ignore or block haters, Williams often takes a more direct approach. His (clap-back) videos have become almost as much a signature of his social media presence as his beautiful garments and positive attitude.
Williams views responding to hateful comments as both a professional responsibility and a personal duty. He says it’s not just a way to preserve the peace and dignity of his social media pages, but to help protect more vulnerable people online.
“I don’t hesitate to clap back when trolls leave disrespectful comments to me on social media because I don’t want them to think that it’s OK to do that to me or other people,” he explains. “While I may be strong enough to take it now, the next person might not be.”
He continues: “You never know the impact that your words can have. So, for me, it’s about letting trolls know that we’re just gonna nip this in the bud right now and, hopefully, it’ll discourage them from doing it to other people.”
Standing up for himself and others is a characteristic that he learned from dealing with bullies early in life. As he grew to love and accept himself, he set boundaries. “I let people know that I wasn’t gonna take their sh*t and that the things they were saying to me weren’t OK.”
Since then, Williams has continued to practice this sense of self-love and self-acceptance for himself and his customers with every garment he makes.
“That’s why I show up as my authentic self—a femme Black gay man—every day,” he says. “Because you never know who’s watching and you never know who you’re gonna inspire. I never had that representation growing up, so it’s important to be that representation online and in person.”
Terrence Williams’s journey to where he is today hasn’t been an accident. His creative work, professional approach, and resilient attitude have helped him create a business that’s successful and resilient to changes in demand. But, above all, his ability to weave his true self into the fabric of his brand and his community is what truly sets him apart. Here’s a recap of the key takeaways from his story.
Get real about time management. You never know when demand will change, and being organized and meticulous about how you manage your daily schedule will help you stay flexible in a time crunch.
Be honest and open with your customers. Customers value transparency, even if you’re sharing bad news. Giving them visibility and being honest about any potential delays or problems will minimize the risk of letting them down further down the line.
Take care of repeat customers. Retained customers are more valuable than new ones, so it’s worth looking after them. Williams does this by continuing to innovate with new designs to keep them coming back for more.
Always show up as your authentic self. Customers can sniff out people whose online personas feel inconsistent with their brands. Williams’s approach to showing his true self across his social media and podcast helps build trust and engagement with his audiences.