Terone “Tea” Montgomery has one guiding principle of style: to dress according to how he feels. I met him on an uncharacteristically warm September afternoon, seated in Koffee next to a garment bag containing a riot of colorful clothing. “I can’t really say that I’m into fashion, so I can’t tell you the brands and the trends or things like that,” he explained, “but what I know is style.” He wore a white t-shirt, a snapback hat, and crisp custom-made tracksuit joggers sharpened by contrasting grey and white patterns. Striped socks wrapped up his look with a hint of color. Frustrated by a lack of originality and variety in the clothes he found at stores, Tea decided that if he couldn’t find the garments he wanted, he’d have to create them himself.
So he started Threads by Tea—a one-man business that sells “wearable art,” specially customized apparel designed and crafted by Tea. The start-up operates out of Tea’s New Haven studio and reaches customers through word of mouth, his “organically grown” local network, and social media platforms; he plans to expand soon to an online store.
Tea doesn’t work from a catalogue. Instead, he provides clients the space to express themselves through clothing designed specifically for them. As he explains it, his process of getting to know customers is simple: “First, tell me how you want to feel,” he said during a presentation reported by the New Haven Independent. “Then, tell me how you want to look.” Tea’s end goal is to make a garment that’s not just aesthetically appealing, but that captures the essence of a customer’s personality. Less interested in building pieces around his own style or brand, he custom-designs clothes to enhance the confidence of the people wearing them.
Tea exudes a sense of ease with himself. He recalled how he got his nickname: “As I grew and discovered myself, I recognized how people naturally feel calm and safe around me. I noticed how, much like a tea bag in water, I change my environment for the better.” As he enters an industry ruled by trends and characterized by a preference for models who look alike, Tea is determined to spread his commitment to self-expression. In just two years since generating the idea for his business, Tea has not only taught himself how to sew, but also welcomed others to join him as clients and collaborators. Threads by Tea’s Instagram and Facebook accounts brim with quotes set against its logo, a spool of thread spilling out of a teacup. The posts are punctuated by characteristic “.. .” dots, meant to act as both Tea’s signature and a pause for the reader—a brief “moment for thought,” he explained.
Tea prides himself on the fact that his business draws people from all walks of life; the typical Threads by Tea customer does not exist. “Regardless of what they do,” he said of his clients, who range in age from 4 to 70, “they want to make some noise in their worlds.”
This past spring, Tea eagerly took on his first large-scale project for Tia Russell Dance Studios: creating costumes for the Shubert Theatre’s summer production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He had little experience in constructing dancewear and only two and a half months to complete the commission. Still, he tirelessly pushed through trial and error to create fifty-four costumes full of whimsy and color.
When we met at Koffee, Tea unpacked his overflowing garment bag and handed me a plaid snapback. The shimmering, sleek underside of the hat, lined with a trimming I could imagine on the hem of a dress, took me by surprise. Tea sifted through his collection of jumpsuits and two-pieces: a patchwork of paisley squares popped against black knit pants, floral pinks met geometric reds and blues, and patterns exploded with each shifting hem.
Tea, looking up from his clasped hands, said that he was born and raised in New Haven. “I left for school and such, moved away a couple of times, but I always come back,” he said. A Bachelor’s in Marketing at UC Berkeley, a Master’s in Entertainment Business Management at Full Sail University, and an unfulfilling position in sales and hospitality led him back to his hometown. After returning to New Haven, he said, he set out on a “journey” to discover “how to use my real talents and abilities to make a living my way.”
Tea had mentioned that he incorporates music into his practice, so I clicked through his SoundCloud page, where he sometimes refers to himself as “Montgom’ry Tea.” The page’s description muses: “An artist’s journey…is to teach themselves to the world.”
Scrolling through track after track, I saw Tea reappear on each album cover. On one, he is accompanied by ghostly cartoon characters splattered with purple and green at a table littered with doodled bottles. On another, he beams in sunglasses and an elegant black blazer. I click on a song entitled “I Guess,” not knowing what to expect. Diana Ross’s booming intro to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” merges with Tea’s rapping and an echoing melody. I can sense the same impulse to fuse Diana Ross with Tea’s own voice in the collision of fabrics in a single garment. His plans for a Threads by Tea showcase within the next year or so include five collections, each accompanied by a corresponding EP album.
As his philosophy of individuality continues to steep and spread in the communities he works with, Tea encourages his customers to wear their personalities boldly on their sleeves. Artist and educator Meghan Shah was struck by Tea’s ability to create statement pieces that empower his clients. She remembered several instances in which strangers approached Tea and told him they would never have been able to pull off his look, but Tea makes it his mission to encourage these same people instead to embrace these outfits in what Shah calls “accessible” clothing. Since their meeting, the collaboration has “developed a voice of its own” through a mixture of Shah’s fabric and Tea’s clothing design, with her textiles set to be included in an upcoming line of his clothing. They even worked together to fuse Shah’s purple, blue, and white pattern with Tea’s vision in a tunic made especially for her. “I felt like I was all that,” Shah laughed as she fondly recalled the process of making the overcoat with him. Above all, she admires Tea’s ability to dress for himself, not for the occasion.
—Lakshmi Amin is a junior in Branford College.