From Pre-Med School to World Tours: Galerie.LA's Dechel Mckillian on Her Path to Sustainable Fashion

The celebrity stylist worked with 'Next in Fashion' designer Marco Morante before opening her Row DTLA shop.

Whenever we visit Row DTLA, we always make a pit stop to see what's new at Galerie.LA. Founded by celebrity stylist Dechel Mckillian, the cool boutique stocks ethical and sustainable fashion, vintage clothing, clean beauty products, and other lifestyle goods from female-founded brands including Back Beat Co., Father's Daughter, Noyah, Earth Harbor, HFS Collective, Taylor + Thomas, Warp & Weft, and many others.

Galerie.LA has been closed since March 17 "right before L.A. announced the lockdown" due to the pandemic. "I had to let go of my full-time sales associate. We just had this uncertainty about what was going to happen," Mckillian tells UncoverLA. Now that retail businesses are allowed to reopen under safety guidelines, Galerie.LA is finally set to welcome in-store shoppers back in mid-July.

L.A.-born Mckillian opened her shop in 2017 after stepping back from her whirlwind career as a wardrobe stylist for music superstars including Drake, Lil Wayne, the Blackeyed Peas, a then-unknown Nicki Minaj, and Lionel Richie, to name a few. Her globetrotting lifestyle helped her see the devastating impacts of fashion and consumer waste on the environment.

"I remember going to Peru, and it was a visceral feeling seeing a lot of trash on the beach," explains Mckillian. "I'd been meditating, so I was already slowing down. I recognized what I was I doing. I'd put something on a celebrity and people would buy it, maybe wear it once, and throw it away. That's not quite right. I wasn't even using sustainable [pieces] then, but I was seeing what was responsible, what was socially conscious. I thought, 'How do I put my gifts and my talents towards something that's promoting a positive impact?'"

Galerie.LA features a values-focused badge system to help shoppers identify which products are vegan, eco-friendly, local, recycled, and handmade. The goal is to make "sustainable fashion easy and accessible. As more people are buying sustainable fashion, their prices drop as well. And [eventually] we'll get out of the mindset of consume, consume, consume," says Mckillian.

Before the coronavirus, the store regularly hosted events that focused on "fostering the message of sustainability [and] community. We host panels on sustainability, vegan fashion, workshops, and lots of other programming. We have fit sessions and try on the clothes with the designer to give them feedback and see things up close. We've hosted events with L.A. Design Fest," she says.

The L.A. store owner also points out that she's still learning. "I'm on the same conscious journey that other women are going through. If I have a few good pieces [and some] vintage, I don't buy a ton of clothes," she says.

Mckillian continues: "It's about starting the conversation. If you never say anything, a lot of people just don't know. We also can't judge people where they are. We have to give them information and guidance to get them to do better."

We recently sat down with Mckillian to learn more about her inspiring story, from being a pre-med student to touring the world as a wardrobe stylist with Next In Fashion designer Marco Morante to opening her first boutique in Downtown. Read on below, and shop Galerie.LA online while you wait for the IRL space to open next month.

We've been planning this chat for what seems like months, and so much has changed: The pandemic, the protests, all of it. How is everything affecting you, personally and professionally?

It's very raw and I'm trying to navigate business along with it. As a Black person, of course there's so much trauma there. The bigger picture is all these things needed to happen for justice… [unfortunately] it took violence and protests. Every single person [regardless of their race] needs to know their history; it's not [always] something that gets taught to you. Now's the time to do that. The bigger picture is that it should translate into a vote. We are collectively coming together to fight for human rights.

There's a lot more work to do, but I think that's what transformation is. You can't go from one form of energy without some sort of catalyst.

[It reminds me of] why we're doing sustainable fashion β€” for the bigger picture, for the people who are behind the garments, as well as the overall environmental impact. And to see where we are today β€” we're talking about police brutality, and we're also talking about human rights. It's [a similar conversation in] the fashion industry. We're addressing these race relations and oppression. And it's not just in America. Women and kids are enslaved around the world [making clothing]. In the big picture, we must transform this way of thinking.

And how has the pandemic affected you?

Everything, with business and life, has been a lot. I think more about connecting to people, I feel like I'm more connected and more on purpose about getting the word out about Galerie.LA. [Even during the pandemic] we had virtual Q&As with designers; we had one for Mother's Day with [our Row DTLA neighbor] Nova Arts Salon. We're having these conversations about sustainability in our everyday lives through panels and podcasts.

You've had quite the career journey from being a pre-med student to where you are now. Can you share how you ended up in fashion?

I've always loved fashion and clothes. I grew up that way and indulged in it way, way too much! And ever since I was little I wanted to become a doctor. I went to UCLA for pre-med and was on track for medical school after. UCLA was brutal. You just never have a break, so I convinced my parents to let me take a one-year break before medical school.

I took that year off and I worked at Plant Funk [on Melrose Avenue] and went to El Camino College for fashion classes.

Okay, so you didn't really take any so-called "time off" before medical school!

I was still working! I always like to learn. My fashion and merchandising professor came to me and said she had one more spot to go to Europe [with a class she taught at another university]. She let me tag along. It was my first time out of the country. We went to Milan, Florence, Lake Como, London, and Paris. We got to meet atelier owners who were doing haute couture; we met with buyers at [now-shuttered influential boutique] Colette.

When I came back I couldn't find a job; it was 2008 [during the recession]. I was thinking about going back into psychobiology. I was trying to get a job as a researcher, and it was just coming up dry all across the board.

You've also traveled the world as a wardrobe stylist. How'd that come about?

I had a family friend, a stylist, who I assisted on a video shoot. I didn't even know what I was doing; she just had me running around. I emailed her [afterwards and told her], "I'm available if you ever need help." She brought me onto a lot of commercial jobs and I found that I really liked it, I loved being on set. She introduced me to other stylists and basically told me, "This is what you do to become an assistant." Very early on I was doing my own jobs.

[Then I met] Marco [Morante] here in L.A; he's a costume designer for so many celebrities [and appeared on Netflix's Next In Fashion]. A few weeks later he texts me, "Do you want to go on tour me?"

It happened to be going on tour with Lil Wayne. I would be dressing his back-up dancers, one was Nicki Minaj. That was how that all came into place. I guess I was just so open to life's opportunities. I was on tour for about three-and-a-half years with both Lil Wayne and the Black Eyed Peas. One would stop and the other would continue going. Eventually, I quit β€” there's always "another tour."

I was just so unhappy and burned out, I just wanted to be at home and be grounded. I'd be in L.A., I'd live out of a suitcase, I'd never get settled in. That was in 2013. I was still styling, mostly within the music industry: New up-and-coming artists like Chanel West Coast, G-Eazy, Porcelain Black, Natasha Bedingfield. I got to work with Lionel Richie for his Australian tour.

I noticed that other stylists who were older than me were still schlepping clothes. I didn't see a future in that. It's really hard to continue to work like that as a stylist in L.A.

How did Galerie.LA get off the ground?

I launched Galerie.LA as a sustainable fashion blog, first as a way to highlight brands that were "doing it right." We launched shortly after as an e-comm store and we were just curating a select amount of brands that were sustainable.

Then I realized that I don't necessarily love just sitting in front of the computer. I wanted more opportunities for pop-ups so I could get in front of people [physically]. Online, everything is changing; you essentially have to pay to get your customer. As a small business owner, I didn't have thousands of dollars to throw at advertising.

I emailed Platform initially [to open a pop-up shop], and the Runyon Group referred me to Row DTLA, and I fell in love with Row so I said yes. Originally it was temporary. 

How did you know when Galerie.LA was ready to take that next step?

Opening a brick-and-mortar such a big process! Before and while launching Galerie.LA, I was transitioning from being a stylist. I knew I couldn't do both. I worked at Clare V. and Topshop. I was a sales associate and then I ended up doing retail development. I opened four stores [with Clare V.], so I had a really good idea about opening stores and how they would run. 

I felt confident in the merchandise, so it was just showing up [and figuring out] how am I going to get it all done, and just be online as well. I've done it very lean. We've grown so organically, so I've had the time to develop personal relationships with the brands we carry. A lot of them are based in L.A. who are creating locally-made product but also expanding into new categories.

How have you seen the fashion industry change in terms of becoming more ethical and sustainable?

In L.A., my friends are so diverse. All of our brands are a representation of everything. But it can be very misleading; we forget the everyday things that you don't see [like the] garment workers in South L.A. That's [also] in China, that's in India. There's a documentary, Made in L.A., which showcases the factory workers and their stories. It's a visual representation of factories and what they look like.

American Apparel really did bring a lot of awareness to what was happening in L.A. to garment workers. They wanted to give them a place to work and give them fair wages. They were one of the first companies [that made consumers think], "Oh happen in L.A. We do have garment workers that are making our clothes. I want to shop there."

Coincidentally, your store is right next to American Apparel's old factory.

Yes, I walk past their "Made in Downtown" sign every day. I just try to keep those things in mind. Within this realm of sustainability, as it becomes more of a trend, a buzzword, you do see a lot of greenwashing. We need to keep true to fashion with integrity.

Lastly, what are some brands you're particularly excited about right now?

We have so many L.A. brands! There's Back Beat Co. [previously Back Beat Rags]. It's founded by a woman of color, they make everything in L.A., and I'm so excited to see where they're going and their expansion. [The founder] Isadora Alvarez, has truly inspired me during this time with the initiatives she's been doing. Hers was one of the first brands in L.A. to start making masks; [she offers] creative grants for people in the community. It's just good to see women like that.

Another brand that I love is Cled, they make jewelry from recycled wine bottles and other materials. Tin Haus is another jewelry brand, also owned by a woman of color, that makes all great ethically-sourced jewelry from recycled materials like gold and silver. She also incorporates that into art and home pieces.

Main photo: @dechel_mckillian

Galerie.LA at Row DTLA, 767 South Alameda Ave., L.A., 90021

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