“I used to say in high school all the time, I’m going to be a designer,” Fhonia Ellis says. “I didn’t even know what a designer was, but I just knew that that’s who I was going to be.” The fashion designer was a little girl when she had this ambition and she has nurtured her dreams to a point where she now styles top celebrities.
When she was only 15 years old and with no experience in sewing, she picked up a thread and needle and decided to add some flavor to her mom’s jeans. As her passion for sewing and fashion evolved, so did her skills.
Like many entrepreneurs, who were inspired by their mentors and top achievers they look up to, Ellis has honed her craft, drawing inspiration from top clothing designers like Betsy Johnson and the late Alexander McQueen. With her ingenuity, she has created a niche for herself and caught the attention of NBA player Derek Anderson.
At the time, Ellis was in high school when Anderson, who owns a clothing store, contracted her to design a line of jersey outfits for his clients. “That’s how I made money in high school. I was making jersey dresses for people and costumes. I made my prom dress. I would wear all of it.”
Following the impressive and meticulous work she did for Anderson, she started getting recommendations for her hand-stitched designs and in no time, she began receiving loads of requests. At the time, Ellis did not know how to use the sewing machining that was gifted to her by her stepmom.
Somehow embarrassed that she didn’t know how to use a sewing machine, she reached out to a friend with an excuse that her machine had broken down and requested her assistance.
“I called [my friend] and was like, ‘Hey, I think my machine is broke.’ I didn’t want to tell them I didn’t know how to sew because at this point everybody thinks I know how to sew on a machine. So I was like, ‘Hey girl, I think my needle broke but I don’t know how to fix it. Do you think you can come and show me how to fix it?’ And she was like, ‘Oh girl, don’t worry about it. I’ll fix it for you,’” she narrates.
While her friend was fixing the machine, Ellis was observing how her friend threaded the needle and worked the machine, which was all she needed to see to take over the reins. “As soon as she started out, I was like, ‘Bingo! I got it.’ And I took a Sharpie marker and highlighted it on my sewing machine— the way to thread it like one, two, three, four. Then I started [machine] sewing everything.”
She took advantage of her social media presence to advertise her designs. What is more, with the taste of her success, she could no longer confine her dream of being a big fashion designer to a small town in Louisville, Kentucky. She set her eyes on New York City and with her success under her belt, she landed an unpaid intern job at the wardrobe department of BET. This was after she cold-called BET and requested to send over her designs for review.
“I moved to NYC and worked for BET as a stylist assistant for eight months. I shortly had to move home, back to Louisville after receiving news that my mom was sick (and three months later passed away). I later took a few years to grieve and then gathered myself and moved to Atlanta to start my journey here,” she says.
For three years, she focused on making a name for herself and showing Atlanta what she can offer. Within that period, she styled over 64 celebrities, did over 30 film and TV productions as well as had three store partnerships.
Ellis says her journey to success has not been easy. According to her, she has been through many challenges. Over the course of eight years, she lost her mom, 11 friends, and their families. She also recalls periods she did not have money, was homeless, and had to resort to sleeping in her office.
Despite all the odds against her, she successfully launched her fashion firm Touched by Fhi, a custom Atelier & Traveling Tailor Company. The company specializes in Alterations & Tailoring, Custom Clothing, Bridal, and Ready to Wear. Ellis has since styled the likes of Diddy, Cardi B, Marsai Martin, and Missy Elliott.