When University of Virginia School of Nursing student Davon Okoro recalls his first foray into fashion, he smells bleach.
As a 16-year-old, he’d cut T-shirts in half and stitch the mismatches together at a vertical seam, experiment making distress marks and holes, and test the effects of applying bleach with a paintbrush or spray bottle to further alter his fabric canvasses.
And while he “messed up a bunch of clothes” in the process (to the amusement of his mom, Joyce Okoro, also a nurse), the fashion laboratory that was his family’s Queens, New York apartment, fed the style that would come to define his Guérison Globale (French for “global healing”) brand.
But it wasn’t until college that Okoro took his fashion forward in earnest. When a friend complimented him on his outfit—the centerpiece of which was a half-and-half T-shirt speckled with bleach spots—something clicked for Okoro.
“Design comes naturally, but being a nurse is what makes me feel most human.”Davon Okoro, founder of Guerison Globale, and a third-year nursing student
“It was the first time somebody ever told me that,” he recalled, “and it broke the shell. The neighborhood I came from, kids weren’t really told that you could become something. People don’t say that kind of stuff. So to have a friend of mine tell me, ‘If you made this, I’d buy it,’ really sat well with me.
“And now that I’m looking back, I realize how far it took me. The moment was really special.”
Nigerian-born and an immigrant to the United States at age 9, Okoro—Davy to his friends—had always been the creative, messier, left-handed twin to his more straight-laced sister Destiny, now a pre-med student at Cornell University. He loved to draw, sing and write, and was fascinated by the clothes he saw on television – especially those worn by Michael Jackson, Jeffrey L. Williams (Young Thug), Symere Woods (Lil Uzi Vert), Jordan Carter (Playboi Carti) and Virgil Abloh, creative director of Kayne West’s clothing line Off-White and artistic director for Louis Vuitton.
When the COVID-19 quarantine hit in early 2020, Okoro convinced his parents to let him remain in Charlottesville—“New York felt more dangerous” at that point, he said—where he holed up in a hotel room with his nursing books, laptop, sketch pads, a direct-to-garment heat press and some T-shirts. Alone for two months, save his interaction with faculty and fellow nursing students online, Okoro took a deep breath, and began.
His first designs that spring—a few dozen shirts and face masks with Black Lives Matter and New York themes—quickly sold out. Back then, Okoro did everything himself: from the concept sketches to the graphic transfers, garment sourcing, marketing (mostly on Instagram), and customer service. His parents lent a hand with packaging, postage and handling, but even so, it was hard to manage each process well while flying solo, as he was. To proceed, he’d need more help, better systems and a broader array of products.
Last fall, he found a manufacturer that created clothes as they were ordered and shipped direct to customers, which eliminated excess inventory. He hired a seamstress, pattern cutter and designer to create Guérison Globale-emblazoned buttons, a new label, finesse size charts, and expand the items offered. His second collection, released in November 2020, included a hoodie, scarves, bandanas, beanie hats, long-sleeved T-shirts and even a crewneck sweater with “love at a distance” stitched in interlacing fuchsia and violet letters across the front.
Fast-forward to spring 2021, and he added cargo and leather pants, bubble and denim jackets, silk shirts, and jeans with designs that nod to his affinity for mobster movies, rap, wrestling, Black culture and nursing. One shirt, with an X-ray skeleton graphic of a crouching human body, a pain scale up the sleeve, and the phrase “pain is the fifth vital sign,” connects his clothes to nursing concepts learned in the classroom and to his work with associate professor Virginia LeBaron, who studies untreated pain from advanced cancer.
Another button-down design celebrates his love of Black culture with stanzas on the shirt’s back:
My skin absorbs the sun’s rays
My hair defies gravity
You can’t tell me I’m not magical
To date, Okoro has five collections under his belt. His first fashion show, in Washington, D.C., took place in August. And as he enters his third year of UVA’s nursing program – considered an undergraduate nursing student’s most challenging – he is proud of his progress as a clinician and designer. After all, he explained, creativity is constantly required in both.
“Yes, nursing and fashion are two separate crafts in my mind,” he said, “but they are intertwined, too. Nursing’s a team sport—you’re working with patient care technicians, doctors, physical therapists—and fashion, too, isn’t something you can do all by yourself.”
Even with the pandemic a relentless part of his academic backdrop, Okoro said it’s nursing that will be, for life, his primary role. He’s even got sketches to improve the blue student nursing scrubs that are standard issue at the Nursing School—which, he said, have far too few pockets.
“Nursing isn’t a backup plan,” Okoro said. “Design comes naturally, but being a nurse is what makes me feel most human.”