Alyah Baker's Unapologetic Style, Joyful Living, and Community Roots
Anjelika Temple here, artist, fellow connector of creative humans, and co-founder of Brit + Co. I'd like you to meet Alyah Baker, dancer, designer, and owner of Show & Tell, a concept shop that stands for unapologetic style, joyful living, and community roots. Started as a brick-and-mortar store in Oakland, Show & Tell was built around Alyah's mission to create a space that amplifies and celebrates identity, provides BIPOC, Queer, Trans, low-income and women makers with solid ground to create community, and fosters creativity in all its many forms. And over the past 10 years, Alyah has done just that.I had the privilege of virtually sitting down with Alyah to learn about the 10-years-ago impetus for Show & Tell, how she’s shifted her concept shop from brick-and-mortar to online marketplace, and how her identity as a dancer, advocate, and Black Queer Woman informs everything she does. Read the full interview below.
Anj: Let’s kick things off with your beginnings. Tell us about the where, what, and why that’s brought you to this moment.
Alyah: I am from the East Coast, I was born in New Jersey, but really grew up, up and down the Eastern seaboard, mostly in North Carolina. But, I'm a ballet dancer in my other life. I went away for school for a bit in Pennsylvania and New York and danced there, came back to North Carolina for college, graduated from college, got a dance scholarship to go to San Francisco for a couple of months and then ended up staying in the Bay Area for 16 years. I didn't leave after I got there.
At 21, I was in a great place to start to fully step into myself as an adult. Something about the Bay Area resonated, I landed in Oakland and from the jump I was in the East Bay, rather than in San Francisco. I just responded to the people and the culture and the fact that it was a little bit warmer on that side of the Bay. Just everything kind of took root from there. After being there for maybe two months, I called my mom and I was like, "I think I'm staying".
Everything sprung from there. I had primarily worked as a professional dancer for a while, then worked in a corporate career with Gap Inc. I'd worked on and off with Gap Inc. since high school, in the store and then started my corporate career with them. From there, I took the leap into being an entrepreneur because I wasn't seeing the self I was growing into represented in my work with corporate America. That's kind of how Show & Tell got started. I was like, "Let me take these skills that I have." I've been working in retail for a long time, I was a merchandiser, I was doing product development and design. I thought, "What happens if I curate an assortment that actually has the things that I feel like represent me, represent my community, represent the people that I don't feel get a lot of shine in the mainstream?" That's how we ended up with Show & Tell.
Before we get into more about Show & Tell, let’s hear more about you. You describe yourself as a multi-genre creative. Tell us more about what this means for you. What do you love about expressing creativity?
If I think back to my earliest dreams of what I wanted to be, when I was four, I knew I was going to be a fashion designer and a dancer. I always knew I was going to be dancing, that was from early on, a passion and a love. I'm finally starting to feel like I can integrate all of the parts of my creativity and that they really are an extension of the same thing. It's about self expression and how I am able to connect with other people. Dancing, and movement in general, is a way that most people are able to communicate and express things without a lot of words associated with it and other humans and things on the planet can pick up on these movements without a lot of explanation. I think that fashion and style do a similar thing. You're able to make a choice, even sometimes a not super conscious choice – like the subconscious choices we make about what we are putting on our bodies can actually communicate a lot about how we feel on that day and what our values are.
I know in the life of a creative entrepreneur, it can be difficult to carve out time for your own creativity because your work *is* your creativity. What does expression and creativity look like for you now on a day to day basis?
That's such a good question because even today I'm having one of those moments where I'm not feeling super tapped into my creative impulse or inspiration. The last year has been interesting because I've had to relearn how to be creative in a different way, the pandemic kind of forced me to make some pivots and changes and explore creativity in a different way. I think that parts of it were great, like having a little bit of that slow down to say, "What if I want to try this kind of creative practice? Or, what if I want to think about collections this way or start taking my own pictures and styling and doing stuff like that?" I had more time than I did when I used to sit in a brick and mortar, eight, 10 hours a day. That's what's happening in terms of Show & Tell and the creative business.
I've started doing more to try to share my creative ideas and visions with my customers in a different way, but I'm also still dancing. The reason that I'm in North Carolina was actually because I got into a dance MFA program. I decided right before the pandemic that I was going to move back across the country, not necessarily to be here permanently, but to take two years to really fully invest in myself as a creative person and dancer.
I closed both Show & Tell locations and moved everything online, and started the dance program in the fall of 2019. It was a minor miracle because I don't even know what I would've done had I still been in Oakland full time with two brick-and-mortars. My experience of having a brick-and-mortar for eight years in Oakland was that it's a grind, it's a hustle, and it really required in-person attendance and presence every day. When March 2020 happened and then the whole world shifted, turns out it was a kind of blessing in disguise that I made that decision a few months earlier and already started to navigate online before it was an absolute necessity to do it.
Which brings us elegantly to your business! What is Show & Tell? How did it start? 10 years in, we would love to hear how it's evolved and what's next.
As I mentioned, the initial impulse was a response to the corporate world I was working in. As I came into myself and my identity and really got in touch with Black history and the history of the community in Oakland and my Queer identity, some of the things that a corporate environment tries to force you into, the boxes they try to put you into just weren't really fitting for me anymore and at a certain point just became a cultural mismatch. I didn't experience any sort of explicit discrimination, but there were definitely microaggressions all the time.There were not that many Black or Brown women in the decision-making in that corporate environment. There were just some things that started to become more apparent to me. Then, there was a major life event, my brother passed away at 40.
I took time off, and my boss at the time... this is going really into the nitty gritty of the details of the story, but my boss was really giving me a hard time about taking time off to fly across the country for his funeral. “You need to get back and figure out which of these white T-shirts is the best one to have in the store.” I was like, “ No, I don't... my values don't say that's the most important thing to focus on.” Yes, it's a big business and it's a lot of money, but this time with my family to grieve is actually way more important. That kind of shook me up a little bit. I realized, "I need to jump ship and do my own thing because this space is not going to be the space for me to really spread my wings and grow." That feeling of you only live once. He passed so young, I thought, "I can't really play small anymore. I have to just go after the things I really want."
I followed the impulse to create something that was still in my wheelhouse, still in retail, but really looking at my identity and how I could amplify other people who have shared identity points, and then also other people I was coming into contact with in downtown Oakland where I lived. That's how Show & Tell started. I opened it with my partner at the time who was also an ex-Gapper. Occupy Oakland was happening at the time, and the 99% message was super big for us. We wanted to curate smaller-run items, things made ethically and sustainably, things that actually represent our community by being able to connect them with makers that share experiences with them and really having a story behind each item.
That's why it's called Show & Tell. Each item has a story, a reason, and a meaning to be in the shop and there's a real person behind it. It's not a big machine or an algorithm, that wasn't even a thing we were talking about back in 2011. It also happened to be the time in the military that the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" rule was being discussed, they were going to overturn it. As two Queer women, we were like, "We're Show & Tell. We're about wearing your values out loud, up front so people know what it is and putting your dollars behind the things that you stand for." That was the impulse to start it.
We called it a concept shop because it was curated around a couple of different key concepts and key values that were important to us. We wanted everyone to feel like they were able to come in and be welcome in the space. We started primarily with a lot of local California-based makers, people in Oakland, a lot of people who were just starting to make items or had small runs of their assortment. At that point it was 90% things that we bought off of other people's lines and then 10% of stuff we made in house. Over the years, that mix has shifted and now we're probably 75% things that we curate and make or partner with other people to make and then 25% things that we buy off of the lines of brands that we know and love. That's been the shift, store-wise.
Over the years, I've learned even more about the power of community to sustain a business and how the entrepreneurial road can look glamorous from the outside, but it's a lot of work. But it helps, having that creative community around you, a community of customers. A lot of the folks who have shopped with us over the years I’ve gotten to know them and know their families. A partner would come buy something for someone and I'd see the other person out and they'd be like, "They picked this out and it was the perfect thing for me" because I knew that person. It just became a really beautiful way to connect with people, which I think is ultimately what I wanted to do anyways. I really want people to be connected to the pieces they're buying, connected to the makers, connected to us as a business and what we're standing for.
That happened pretty organically in Oakland, and I think Oakland in particular is just a really special place to be a small business, especially the kind that we are. I can't imagine having built it anywhere else. The ethos and the grind and the hustle, but also the desire for joy and the desire for giving back, all of that stuff comes from having grown the business in Oakland with all of that rich culture.
You're creating community, you're curating, you're creating stuff, and all of it has shifted online. What is coming next for Show & Tell?
With our 10 year anniversary coming up in November, we’re celebrating by curating a gift shop featuring goods from Black-owned brands from around the country – so be sure to check it out online at Show & Tell Oakland.
I'm happy being online primarily now, but I really do miss in-person so much. I think the next step, once it’s safer to go out into public again and gather, is looking into more ways to connect with people in-person, maybe longer term pop-ups and potentially coming back to a brick and mortar experience at some point. For right now, I'm navigating learning what it means to be online. The silver lining is that we were so entrenched in one community and that can maybe keep you small in a certain way. Now I branch out and get to reach people from all over the country.
It's beautiful to see that there are people who want to support us from around the country and folks that resonate with our mission and our products across all 50 states. That's been amazing to see. It shows me that there's also potential for what we're doing beyond Oakland. I can keep my roots in Oakland and keep those relationships strong, and then also take the people from my eight years there that I really love with me and we all continue to grow up together.
I'm so grateful that people will still support me if I'm in-person there or if I'm not, so that's really amazing. But it's also been an opportunity to, like I said, shift the assortment and really focus on making even more of Show & Tell branded stuff and that's where we're going. There's a whole different piece of my creative brain that I'm getting to exercise as we build into what Show & Tell as a brand stands for. The tagline we've been using is "Unapologetic style and joyful living" because that's what we've always been about. Being who you are boldly in the world and then having a good ass time while you do it -- curating a life that really brings you as much joy as possible each day.
I know that creating community and opportunities for BIPOC, Queer, Trans, low income, and women artisans and folks is a key part of what you do and why you do it. Talk to me more about the importance of representation and advocacy in your work.
It's really working with people who look like the communities we want to serve and who are designing with these communities in mind. I think a lot of people saw last year, particularly after all of the traumatic events that happened in the summer, that there are a ton of Black entrepreneurs out there that are offering something that's different than every other boutique that's not assorting for Black folks and Queer folks. There are people who are designing with Trans and non-binary folks in mind. There are people who are tapping into things that are literally, as they say, for the culture, that speaks to Black American experience and the Black diaspora more generally.
It's always been important for me to have that in my store so that when people walk in, they see themselves reflected in the clothes, from various different vantage points. I don't want to have only things in the shop that are at this inaccessible luxury price point. I don't want to have things in the store that feel like they're asking people to be different than who they are or that they can't fully express who they are, that don't come in sizes that are for a variety of bodies. That's always been important to me. How do I get a mix of products? It's a store that's constantly changing and constantly evolving with a bunch of different types of ideas going on. Again, that's the concept piece, I try to curate it season by season around something different.
I've also had to narrow it down [during the pandemic] but I’m really focusing on Black culture and Queer culture as the things that I want to stand behind, to work with those makers and to sell products that speak to those experiences. It doesn't mean that I don’t want allies, of course, to be shopping with us. We know clothes don't have a race and clothes don't have a gender. A lot of these items anyone could buy, but I'm specifically curating with that point of view in mind. I'm learning, that usually helps customers who get it to find you, if you're really curating with their taste and sensibility in mind. It's a balancing act of digging into things that I really love and feel like represent me, and also things that represent my chosen family. They might have a slightly different experience than me, but still can't find the things that they're looking for in other shops.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
That's another one of those terms like we talked about in the beginning that I'm definitely a little more comfortable with after time in Oakland. I think that being adjacent to activist communities in Oakland who are locking themselves to the jail and shutting down the bridge and being so badass and amazing and really putting their whole self on the line for what's right, makes it so that claiming the term activist doesn't necessarily sit with me super comfortably. But, I think there is a type of activism in the work that I'm doing.
I've always seen myself as going about it in a different way. I go to rallies and marches and stuff, but I'm not going to be the one who's up at six o'clock in the morning to go and do a direct action. But I am going to be the person who keeps my shop open so people can meet there afterwards, or sends care packages to people or reminds folks that we need to be in the street, we need to advocate, we need to be angry and feel that rage and Also, we need to tap into the things that just make us feel like full human beings. We can be joyful and celebrate who we are so that it's not only about trauma, but it is about the fullness of a life. Trauma and joy go hand in hand. For a lot of the products that I make, both of those things are at play.
There is a history, a cultural ancestry that I'm thinking about when I make something. And I'm also thinking about the people now who can take this product and be proud of who they are and feel like that item can speak to their experience, what they've come through and maybe make them feel good.
On the topic of activism and advocacy, we want to encourage our readers to take action on the daily! Please share any organizations we should learn about and support, and one other action you recommend our readers take.
Oakland Black Pride (featured in the photoshoot) was founded in 2020 and hosted its first major event during Pride Month in June 2021. OBP is committed to advocacy, empowerment, and providing resources for Black LGBTQ+ folks through intersectional and creative solutions to the social challenges impacting these communities.
In my book, it's super important for folks to support Black and LGBTQ+ communities year-round and not just during the peak months of Pride and Black History Month.
MuvaBoard and JustBe (both in the shoot). Both orgs are helping to equip BIPOC entrepreneurial communities, especially Women in these communities, with the business and wellness resources needed to grow and thrive.
Watch the new Eyes on the Prize Hallowed Ground and be sure to watch or revisit the original Eyes on the Prize, too.
What stories would you like to see covered in the media that you haven’t seen enough of?
I'd like to see a progress report on how Black-owned businesses are doing after the surge of attention and sales last year. Also, all the people who pledged to support Black businesses and work towards equity and dismantling white supremacy, I'm curious to know if that is still happening or has this support died down now that the protest and high profile deaths are no longer in the media.
Who are some artists/artisans/makers the REP CO audience should know about and support?
Some of my faves from the shoot:
- Candid Art Accessories and Candid Art Kids: I've known and worked with Candice for years. Her jewelry is on regular rotation in my wardrobe and the new kid's line is incredibly chic and cute
- Natty Belle: I love their earrings and accessories and their jackets are beautiful statement pieces to invest in and love for a lifetime.
Other faves not in the shoot but available at Show & Tell this holiday season:
- Iyoba: They make the most amazing all-natural handmade bath and body products.
- Bright Black Candle: Candles that honor the brilliance of Black people and Culture. They helped us create our signature collection of candles
Finally, when you are in a creative block or moment of self doubt or you're just f*cking tired but you have to get it together, what does your self pep talk sound like?
Wow, that's so close to home today. I think what I have learned is to just allow myself actually to go through that lull of feeling and not have to be like, "I'm going to turn it on today and I'm going to pretend like everything's okay." For instance, I went to bed a little stressed about the business. I woke up this morning and I was still feeling a little heavy, I didn't sleep well and I decided to share this feeling with my community via Instagram: "I'm going to be real with you. Amazing things have happened this year and it's also really hard to do this business. I don't know what's going on with the algorithm, I don't know if anyone's seeing the post. I'm not sure if folks are connecting." I put that all out there and just the response you get from people from being real is... it's amazing.
They can see my humanity. That's the piece that I have been holding onto, that I don't have to be superhuman. I don't have to pretend like I'm doing it perfectly and I figured it all out after 10 years. I make mistakes often, I'm still primarily a solopreneur and I'm juggling a lot of different things. There are a lot of things I'm not an expert at, I could have much better pictures on my website or I could have something else be shinier and... if I had the budget of a huge company, maybe it would be that way, but I'm getting okay with my humanity. I'm a person behind this business, not a machine.
That it's okay, and it's probably a good idea if I'm feeling super down to tell somebody and give them an opportunity to reflect back at me, things that I might not be able to see in that moment. That's been really powerful all through last year. That's it's been us, the community of Black women, Black Queer folks that have really been the folks who step up and lend a hand or give you the pep talk or tell you, "No, actually you are doing a dope thing even if it feels like nobody cares about it. People do care and this is the way that you're impacting folks." They remind you, your group of folks reminds you when you can't actually see that because you're, in my case, too stressed out or too tired.
That's why the community is so big to me, because then you don't have to hold those things by yourself. As a parent, I'm sure you really know what that's like. It's not easy, it can be challenging. It can be so rewarding. At the end of the day, am I doing it with integrity? Am I putting things into the world that I really want to stand behind and that I love? Am I doing it with people that I love and who support me? 10 years later, if I only learned one thing, that's it.
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