14 year-old Memphis entrepreneur launches line of fashion masks for pandemic protection

Imani Polk was early in the launch of her clothing design business, IamJourney Designs, when the coronavirus pandemic hit Memphis. She quickly pivoted with a new line, Masked by Imani. Since April she's sold hundreds of mask and shipped as far as Washington, D.C.

“One thing led to another, and suddenly I was sitting at my desk for hours at a time," she said. 

In the midst of starting her business, Polk celebrated her fourteenth birthday. 

She's a recent graduate of Ridgeway Middle School and will advance to Ridgeway High in the fall. Her fashion training includes two summers at the local So Fab Clothing Camp and learning one-on-one with local design professionals.

She also follows her fashion icons like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Jhene Aiko and studies current trends that she can mesh with her own unique style. In addition to masks, she's created original designs for a skirt, sweater, hat, and t-shirts.

"The older I got, the more it started to become something I could turn into a career," said Polk.

Polk's masks are priced at $10 for pre-made masks without a filter and $15 with a filter. Custom masks and bulk orders are priced per customer. Customers can browse available designs and place orders on the IamJourney Designs Facebook page or website.

Looking towards the future, Polk has some ambitious goals. She said that by the time she hits 20, she wants her own brick-and-mortar store, manufacturing facility, and a healthy online business. She wants a presence in other cities.

"I would hope to grow and be better at my craft. I think in five years, I would want at least five or six fashion lines," she said with confidence.

"It’s definitely a drive in me, to keep going and see where it leads. I think the biggest end goal for me is to be happy with what I put out."

Imani Polk launched Masked by Imani, a line of fashionable face mask, just before her fourteenth birthday. Polk is a Memphis native and will be a freshman at Ridgeway High School in the fall. (Submitted)

What Makes POLK's Masks Different?

Hand-sewn cloth masks have become a booming cottage industry since February when COVID-19 began surging through the country. People were looking for ways to keep busy, help with relief efforts, and supplement loss of income. The surge to the sewing machine was so strong that it stripped store shelves bare of fabric, elastic, and other basic supplies.

What sets Polk apart from the thousands of other new mask makers? She has a wider range of fabric patterns than most and the fabrics and construction are sturdier. 

She's a perfectionist and spent a month honing her cuts and stitches before she started selling the masks, which gave her time to develop a wider range of products.

Masked by Imani carries masks with filters and without, masks for adults and children, and reversible masks. Polk will also custom-make any mask if the customer provides their own fabric. She can also accommodate bulk buying. Her largest to-date was a corporate order for 150 masks.

She estimates she's sold around 350 total masks to-date. 

"When I first started, I definitely wasn’t expecting to be where I am with it. It was just something to do because I wasn’t going to be doing school work. I needed something else to keep my brain moving. It started out with one and it just grew."

Imani Polk, 14, in her home office where she designs and manufactures a line of fashion mask, Masked by Imani. The masks are made from high-quality, durable fabrics and available with or without filters. Polk estimates she's sold over 350. (Submitted)

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Polk designs and sews each mask herself, but her mom, Latoya Polk, does help. Latoya built the IamJourney Designs Facebook page and spearheaded the website launch. She's also helping with promotions, logo design, and packaging. 

Polk credits her mother with keeping her focused. A typical teenager, one of Polk's primary priorities for her time off school was sleeping. Mom said no to that.

“I was quietly mad about it, but of course, seeing where I am now, it was definitely worth it," she said. 

The younger Polk undoubtedly inherited her entrepreneurial spirit from her mom. Latoya Polk is a powerhouse on the Memphis comedy scene. She's been featured on Comedy Central on Kevin Hart’s “Hart of the City" and founded the Memphis Urban Laughs Comedy Festival. Soon she'll become the first woman in Memphis to own a dedicated comedy club. The Comedy Junt is slated to open July 4th weekend. 

For Polk, her mom may be a business assistant and mentor, but she also provides the fringe benefits only a parent can offer. 

“Momma cooks and I sew," she said. 
 

THREE QUESTIONS with Imani Polk

What do you love about fashion?
It holds no categories. No matter who you are, you get to have your own style that’s yours and yours personally. … I also love that it’s a great way to express yourself.”

What gives you so much confidence to know you'll hit your goals?
If I work hard, I know I can. I think that’s most important here. Realizing that when you work hard, it does pay off. Not immediately, but when it does, it can be an amazing feeling.

What advice do you have for other people, kids or adults, who are considering following their dreams to entrepreneurship like you have? 
Whatever it is that you’re doing, make sure that you’re happy with it. There are a lot of people out here who started off with something that made them really happy and they work so hard that in the end it’s less enjoyable. I don’t ever want fashion design to be less enjoyable.

Push yourselves until you’re satisfied. Never stop working because hard work really does pay off. And remain humble in whatever it is that you decide to do.

It’s ok to take breaks. It’s ok to fail. Failure is common, but it’s important you learn and grow from it instead of letting it be your downfall.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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