Local Power of Entrepreneurship Showcased in “Curvilicious Diva” Fashion Show

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · September 4, 2008

Chicago—Sure, an upcoming fashion show called “Curvilicious Diva” doesn’t by itself hold the power to transform a neighborhood. But this event, sponsored by a growing Chicago small business, is yet another part of the entrepreneurial success story aided by the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship. For the past decade, the IJ Clinic has helped transform struggling Chicago neighborhoods by providing free legal services to upstart entrepreneurs building honest enterprises where once there were vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

MerriBella Fashions—the fashion boutique sponsoring the “Curvilicious Diva” fashion show this Sunday—provides not only plus-size fashions that cater to young black women, but also plus-sized hope for local residents seeking nearby shopping opportunities in an urban area badly in need of trendy new retail outposts. Tickets for the fashion show are $30 in advance, $35 at the door. The show will be held this Sunday, September 7, 2008, at 3 p.m. at the DuSable Museum, located at 740 E. 56th Place in Chicago.

LeRona Johnson, MerriBella Fashions’ owner and founder, grew up in the Auburn/Gresham neighborhood and always dreamed of running her own business and serving her community at the same time. Johnson, 36, had long been aware that young, fashion-conscious black women seeking to buy plus-sized clothing were challenged by a lack of options. Not only did they feel marginalized by fashions designed with the tastes of white women in mind, but major plus-size retailers, such as Ashley Stewart and Lane Bryant, cater to a more mature clientele, not urban trend-setters like Johnson and her teenage daughter. So, after working for a number of years in corporate America, Johnson set out to open a local boutique where young women in her community could find clothing that made them look fabulous in sizes up to 24.

Because she didn’t have much in the way of start-up funds, Johnson decided to lease a modest storefront in a strip mall on 1905 W. 87th Street, landing a spot near a Chinese restaurant, a discount beauty store, a loan business and a pizzeria, all of which generate valuable foot traffic. As she put together her retail collection, she took care to stock a broad range of inventory, from more affordable pieces to the upscale “Baby Phat” and “Apple Bottoms” styles to a wide array of designer jeans for different body types. After much hard work and perseverance, Johnson threw a grand opening party for MerriBella Fashions on September 2, 2006.

Two years later, Johnson’s business has beaten the odds not only by staying open (some statistics show that the failure rate for small businesses in the first year is as high as 80 percent), but by growing. There have, however, been big bumps in the road; for instance, the travails of dealing with legal stumbling blocks, such as making sure she complied with laws about employees and taxes. But Johnson got a big boost during her first year in business when she became a client of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, which provided her with legal advice on matters ranging from corporate governance to protecting MerriBella’s intellectual property. University of Chicago Law School students enrolled in the IJ Clinic gained a tremendous breadth of experience from helping Johnson tackle her legal problems under the IJ Clinic’s licensed attorneys’ supervision, as well as from learning about the “booty-enhancing” padded underwear also available at the boutique.

Johnson said, “The assistance provided by the IJ Clinic has been a tremendous asset to my company. The IJ Clinic has always been there when I needed them.”

The IJ Clinic, located at the University of Chicago Law School, has helped hundreds of low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs across Chicago who need legal assistance, but who cannot afford it. For more information on the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, call (773) 834-3129.