Storytelling by Tori Elliott

When Danielle James, a former model and fashion consultant, walks into our interview at Neuehouse in New York City, she has a faux fur coat draped over the shoulders of a flattering black and purple jumpsuit, and has brought with her a pair of glittering heels. Only the shoes belong to her.
James had rented the jacket and the jumpsuit through her company, Model Citizen, which allows women to rent out clothing from their own closets to each other for a fee.
“Women only use about 20% of the clothes in their closet,” says James. “ We all have nice dresses that we bought and wore once. This allows women to recoup some of the cost of that unused clothing, rather than throwing it away.”
When James moved to New York City ten years ago, she never foresaw a career in fashion. After she graduated Duke University with a Bachelor’s in Public Policy and Psychology, James was planning on moving to Kenya to conduct research on HIV. But two weeks before she was scheduled to leave, the grant supporting her research fell through.
While at home in Florida, trying to work out her next step, James was approached by a modeling scout while at the beach with her friends. She told James that she should consider becoming a plus-sized model in New York. With nothing to lose, James gave the agency a call and week later was on a plane to New York. By her third week in the city, she was signed to an agency.

James grew up watching her immigrant parents start and manage a successful Caribbean restaurant in her hometown of Naples, Florida. “My father was very smart,” she says. “He set up his restaurant down the street from the best elementary school, so I could use that address to go there, even though we couldn’t afford to live in that part of town.”  James remembers watching the police park their cars and monitor her family’s restaurant, the only black-owned business on the block, almost every day for five years. “They couldn’t understand how it was so popular,” she says. “They thought my dad must be dealing drugs out of the back.” 

Very few people at the time would have described her father as an entrepreneur, “but that’s what he was,” says James. If nothing else, this entrepreneurial drive seems to be James’ hallmark: she is always moving, always setting her sights on the next mountain to scale.

From modeling, James moved into work as buyer for Macy’s, eventually breaking away to become a freelance fashion and retail strategy consultant. She put together plans for big names like Chanel as well as working with the government of Trinidad and Tobago to create a plan for its textile manufacturing sector. 

Then, in 2014, she launched Model Citizen. “I had the idea while I was working in fashion,” she said. “Women spend 13% of our annual income on clothes and yet we only wear 20% of what’s in our closet.” She could see the market gap--people who had bought items for one-time events, women who needed professional outfits but couldn’t break the bank to buy new clothes for a job interview. “So many people don’t realize that fashion is a business, it’s a billion dollar industry, but they don’t take it seriously because it’s mostly geared towards women,” she says.

As a solo founder and a woman of color, James says that the journey to make Model Citizen successful has required her to flex her creative muscles to make things work. “I may not get funding or access to certain things, because I am a woman or because I am black,” she says. “But I was born a black woman and I will die a black woman, and the extra challenges have only made me more creative and have challenged me to grow.”

And grow, Model Citizen has. The company  is launching its first line of rentable clothing next year, and James has taken pains to ensure that she uses her platform to highlight unknown designers from communities of color. 

But now, three years in, James has been shifting her focus, thinking more about the idea of legacy, and what that means for the kind of life and communities she wants to build. “I think a lot about what I’m giving back to the world, what I’m leaving in the world,” she says. “I make a point of volunteering in my community in Harlem, of patronizing local businesses, of supporting other people, and of being very intentional about people I surround myself with.” 

She says this has also applied to how she thinks about Model Citizen. “Things always take longer than you want them to,” she says. “But in the end, it’s most important that the foundation is right.”


You can learn more about Danielle James here and Model Citizen here. 

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