Macy’s recently honored mother-daughter business duo Cynthia and Najla Burt with the opportunity to display their designs in the Macy’s Red Dress Collection show at New York Fashion Week 2018. Founders of the brand Dur Doux and alums of the DC Fashion Incubator, Cynthia and Najla sat down with Rachel O’Connell to share their journey into the fashion industry, their path to the Red Dress Collection show, and their aspirations to empower other DC-area designers through their experiences.
Hard and soft, edgy and elegant
Cynthia and Najla Burt, the duo behind fashion brand Dur Doux, seem perfectly at ease with one another as a mother and daughter, friends, and business partners. When I approached their table at The Smith restaurant in Washington, DC, they were intimately leaning in toward one another to chat in the dimly-lit room.
Yet in spite their comfort, the two looked like an unlikely pair. Cynthia had a classic and composed style, with a strand of muted multi-colored pearls, neat pixie cut, and structured black leather bag perched on the chair at her side. Najla sported close-cut blond hair, prism-shaped gunmetal stud earrings, and a leather jacket with fringe dangling from the length of its sleeves.
I would soon learn that this simultaneous comfort and clash was a hallmark of their relationship – and a source of strength for their brand.
Dur Doux’s first entry in the Macy’s Red Dress Collection show competition.
“It was one of those spiritual moments in my life”
We rapidly placed our orders for Sunday brunch and dove into their background. Cynthia raised Najla and her family in Tallahassee, Florida. The self-taught designer and seamstress regularly created colorful clothing for her children. Najla experimented with fashion and beauty throughout high school but pursued a career in advertising as a young adult. Still, her passion endured, and she received a scholarship to study fashion design at Parson’s in New York City.
Upon graduation, as Najla laid the groundwork to launch her own fashion label, she called her mother. “It was one of those spiritual moments in my life,” recalls Cynthia. “She asked me if I would be her partner. I went silent. I was stunned. I never imagined she’d turn to me to help her.” Yet Najla knew that her mother had the years of experience as an administrator, budgeter, and supervisor needed to manage a brand.
The timing was perfect for both of them. “I was looking for the right next step,” Cynthia recalls. “We were meeting each other at just the right time in our life path.”
Dur Doux’s second entry in the Macy’s Red Dress Collection show competition.
“We’re both women, trying to create our own personal brand”
Dur Doux means “Hard/ Soft.” The duality stems not from tensions within every woman, but rather from Cynthia’s and Najla’s strong and divergent styles. Najla describes her look as “edgy, almost a punk rock feel,” and her mother’s look as “French chic.” She explains that this clash leads to productive “turmoil in the way we design.”
They constantly go back-and-forth on the patterns and fabrications that will best express their brand’s principles. However, they are in exact alignment on what those principles are.
First, Dur Doux aims to participate in, and have a part in furthering, what they define as “the global female fashion style”. It combines influences from cities across the globe into new and harmonious looks. Their Urban Biota collection, for example, melds influences from across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Second, Dur Doux strives to empower a wide range of women united by their desire to approach the world with confidence. They assert that age and race no longer “pigeonhole women.” They seek to create designs that any woman, from any background, can wear and feel powerful.
Dur Doux’s third entry in the Macy’s Red Dress Collection show competition.
“She was able to take what we wanted verbally and make it happen”
When they heard about the opportunity to compete for a spot in the Macy’s Red Dress Collection show at New York Fashion Week, Cynthia and Najla decided that they would invest heavily in building a competitive application. The rules required them to submit three design options. They felt that images were key to conveying both fit and fabric: “If you really want to be able to see [how the dress will look], you drop in the fabrication,” they explain.
After etching their own rough sketch, Cynthia and Najla worked with an illustrator. Over two weeks, they translated their initial visions into refined sketches. Cynthia and Najla then digitized the illustrator’s images and added potential fabrics with their own software.
All three of Dur Doux’s entries are flowing gowns in shades of red – and all three demonstrate the brand’s characteristic tug-of-war between Cynthia’s French chic and Najla’s edginess. The first entry shows Najla’s influence, with its body-baring cut-outs. The second design is clearly more in line with Cynthia’s style, with its bold fan of loose feminine pleats framing the neck. The third design combines the two women’s styles, strewn with classic ruffles in a dizzying cascade down the front.
“The pattern is the biggest thing”
As the February 2018 show approaches, Cynthia and Najla anticipate working on a tight timeline. The biggest challenge that they foresee is “making sure that when [we] do the fitting with the celebrity, [we] don’t have to make any major adjustments.” Macy’s will reveal their celebrity model in the near future. As they wait, Cynthia and Najla take comfort that “the style of [the] dresses allows for easy adjustments.” The flowing length and asymmetric hems will simplify fitting models of different heights.
“We want to be able to give back to the Incubator”
Cynthia and Najla intend to use the Red Dress Collection show to not only showcase their designs but also lift up other designers in the DC Fashion Incubator. The pair participated in the early years of the DC Fashion Incubator at Macy’s. During the program, they most enjoyed the opportunity to display their designs in two fashion shows.
“What we can achieve [in the Red Dress Collection show] will flow back into the Incubator,” notes Cynthia. First, elevating Dur Doux brings coverage for the brand itself as well as positive associations for the Incubator. Second, the business duo intends to walk Designers-in-Residence “through the nitty-gritty” of applying to the Red Dress Collection show. Sharing their experience-backed advice will better “enable every group that comes in [to the DC Fashion Incubator] to be competitive.”
“We’re at that place where we need that extra attention”
Cynthia and Najla look ahead with excitement about future opportunities with the DC Fashion Incubator and Macy’s. They are eager to continue empowering women of all backgrounds to feel confident, whether a celebrity model walking the runway or a broader audience going about daily life. They feel that the “extra attention” and “extra support” from a brand like Macy’s has been – and could continue to be – instrumental to their success.
The Macy’s Red Dress Collection show, in support of the American Heart Association, will take place at New York Fashion Week in February 2018. Learn more at https://www.goredforwomen.org/red-dress-collection-2017/.