“It could have been fun being in a large family if I had sisters right in there with me,” she laughed. “But I was in the middle of all those boys, and they tortured me.”
Her father also failed to recognize Harper as a young lady. At Christmas, he bought her cap guns and Army men.
“I would cry every Christmas and say, ‘But, Daddy, I’m a girl.’ He would say, ‘Be grateful. Kids in Africa don’t have anything,’ and I would be like, ‘Really?’ My mother was like, ‘Baby, we’ll make you some clothes.'”
Sewing is how the former Mississippi girl stopped being one of the boys and, in the process, made a name for herself with the Atlanta fashion business Maria Harper Designs. The 53-year-old has worked with celebrity clients like Tyler Perry, Cee Lo Green, Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia.
Harper and her siblings spent every summer with her Mississippi grandmother before the family moved to the state when she was in middle school. They returned to Illinois, but later moved back to Mississippi when Harper was enrolled in Humphrey County High School. Her father opened the first used car dealership in Belzoni.
When she was 6, she began watching her mother, Earnestine Hayes Gordon, sew.
“By the time I turned 8, I had learned to be quiet and just watch,” she said. “Then she started teaching me.”
“I had to be the mother,” she said. “There were 10 of us at home at that time. I raised my other brothers and my two little sisters.”
Despite the extra responsibility, Harper continued to sew.
“When I got in high school, I was dating this guy named Johnny Jordan, who was voted best dressed,” she said.
When she learned his mother made his clothes, she had to meet her.
“I would find reasons to go by his house just to watch his mom sew,” she said. “Her work was impeccable. I learned you could sew things and make them look like they came out of the store with certain techniques.”
“I would go to Goodwill, buy whatever I wanted to learn to sew, take it apart and put it back together,” she said. “That’s how I mastered it.”
Harper eventually moved back to Illinois, then to Atlanta in 1990. While working as a hotel waitress, she dislocated her shoulder. Told she might never fully recover, depression set in.
“The guy I was dating at the time asked me: ‘What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to?’ I said I would sew.”
In 1993, he bought Harper a sewing machine, and she forced herself to use her hand and arm again. Soon, people began to notice her work.
One day, a representative of the World Wrestling Federation spotted one of Harper’s clients at an airport wearing a white suit she designed, and the WWF came knocking at her door.
“My dad’s favorite wrestler was a guy named Dusty Rhodes,” she said. “They were contacting me in reference to his son, (a wrestler who goes by the name) Golddust.
“I sewed three to five costumes a week for him for five and a half years,” she said. “Nothing could be the same, and everything had to be gold.
“Then, other entertainers started finding me – all because of a freak accident. Doctors told me I would be disabled for life, but I knew that I wouldn’t be. I didn’t feel that was what God had for me. The next thing you know, my stuff was on television, and it just blew me away.”
Since then, Harper has designed costumes for singer Cee Lo Green, including the bird costume he wore to the 2011 Grammy Awards and the gold robe he wore on the 2011 Soul Train Awards Show, both of which are part of the Grammy Hall of Fame. Harper also designs clothing for film actor/director Tyler Perry.
“I designed his fat suit and (styled) dresses for his Madea character,” she said. “I used to tour a lot with Tyler.”
Atlanta resident Jacqueline Cain, Harper’s business manager, is proud of her sister’s accomplishments.
“I have seen her go from making stuff for neighborhood friends when she lost her job to make ends meet. And she is now designing for celebrities all over the world,” Cain said. “It’s very exciting and sometimes overwhelming to see the caliber of people she deals with on a daily basis, yet her humility is always there.”
Harper sews everything from blue jeans to wedding dresses and upholstery fabrics with the help of assistant Thomas Gaddis, who has worked with her the past four years.
Gaddis said Harper recently launched www.mariaharper.com and is set to launch her Pink Glam Silhouette line in the next few months.
“It’s different from the designer line,” he said. “It’s a lower price point. With it, everyone can have a piece of the Maria Harper Collection.”
Harper doesn’t get caught up in trends. She said she’s more interested in creating timeless, classic pieces.
“I try to keep my stuff classy and beautiful with what I call ‘wearable art,’ so when a person passes you by, they are going to do a second take,” she said.
“I’m into second takes.”
–LaReeca Rucker, The Clarion-Ledger