Three people standing next to each other.
Maurice Gattis, Ph.D., (center) attended a fashion show at DC Fashion Week this fall that featured the designs of his company, Fort Mosé 1738. "One of the models that I cast for my show was a VCU student, unbeknownst to me at the time that I cast them," said Gattis, who is photographed with VCU students and Fort Mosé 1738 models Elijah Brown (left) and Keely Buchanan (right), both of whom are juniors majoring in fashion merchandising at VCU's School of the Arts. (Photo courtesy Maurice Gattis)

Social work professor connects with ancestors through clothing design

Collection from Fort Mosé 1738, founded by VCU’s Maurice Gattis and shown at DC Fashion Week, complements Gattis’ work in social work through business collaboration with Ghanaian family.

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Fashion model Diamond Minnetta first saw the designs of Fort Mosé 1738 LLC, a clothing company founded in 2021 by Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member Maurice Gattis, Ph.D., at DC Fashion Week last fall.

“I was in awe over the colors, and I loved how the fabric felt on me and how it looked,” said Minnetta, who models around the U.S. “It was absolutely stunning. It made me feel great.”

Minnetta modeled one outfit from Fort Mosé 1738 at the event but ended up purchasing one of the company’s fashions, a jumpsuit with matching headband, that she saw modeled on the runway.

“I thought it was great. I had to have it,” she said. “His designs stood out because they were so authentic. When you put it on you, it feels like a celebration. I really admired that. I liked the cultural aspect as well.”

Gattis, an associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work who hasn’t had any fashion or design classes, never imagined that he would have his own clothing line, he said. But last year, nearly a dozen pieces of Gattis’ clothing line were featured on the runway, including one piece modeled by a VCU student.

“From childhood, I did have an interest in clothing, especially colorful clothing,” he said.

The panel that reviews designer applications for DC Fashion Week, held at the Capitol Hilton Hotel in September, thought Fort Mosé 1738 would be a good fit for the Emerging Designers Showcase, said Ean Williams, executive director of DC Fashion Week Inc.

“The collection boasts bold colors, the staple of fabrics found in Ghana,” Williams said. “Gattis’ modern silhouette using traditional fabrics is sure to appeal to the fashion world.”

A chance meeting becomes a business opportunity

Getting into the clothing industry was serendipitous. Gattis didn’t consider starting a clothing company until he visited Ghana and met a couple, Nathaniel, Gattis’ driver during his visit, and his wife, Faustina, who made custom clothes for Gattis while he was in Ghana.

“He had the idea that I would design the clothes, and he and his wife would make them. I thought to myself, ‘That sounds like an interesting idea,’” Gattis said. “When I met Nathaniel and his wife, the stars aligned.”

Gattis started Fort Mosé 1738 to support the couple and named it after the first free Black community in the U.S., founded in 1738 for formerly enslaved people from West Africa. His company’s designs are sold in-store and online via custom order and have been featured in fashion shows in Richmond and Washington, D.C.

“This company helps connect me and Nathaniel with our ancestors,” Gattis said.

The handwoven material used in the clothing is made of cotton or a silk/cotton blend. Gattis designs the contemporary West African fashions, and Nathaniel and his wife make the outfits and ship them to the U.S.

“The reason I said yes to Nathaniel is that I believe in them and the quality of the cloth. The clothes are so well made,” Gattis said, adding he loves designing the fashions. “It’s a nice creative outlet. I’m finding that it helps me do my work at VCU. It creates a nice balance because I get to interact with people who don’t know me or what I do, and I find that to be stimulating.”

Where creativity and academics meet

Originally from Daytona Beach, Florida, Gattis always enjoyed exploring both his creative and academic interests. At Emory University, he majored in sociology and also danced with the Emory Dance Company. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University of Social Work and his doctorate from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

Gattis came to VCU three years ago after being a tenured faculty member at University of Louisville. He serves as an iCubed scholar in the Intersections in the Lives of LGBTQIA+ Communities Core at VCU. He was appointed senior adviser to VCU’s Queer Research and Advocacy Center (Q Collective) in fall 2021. He is also co-founder of the Center for Youth-Engaged Research to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness at the VCU School of Social Work.

His research activities focus on health disparities; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ+) populations; homelessness and adolescent risk behaviors in the United States, South Africa and Canada. His primary work spotlights the role of contextual figures (family, peers, stigma and discrimination) on negative psychosocial outcomes such as mental health and substance abuse.

After the D.C. fashion show was over, Gattis was proud of himself for doing something in fashion and succeeding, he said.

“I think it complements working at VCU with LGBTQ youth and homelessness,” he said. “It complements my discipline of macro social work and community development because this was a family looking to expand their financial abilities.”