ACC Fashion Incubator Director Nina Means makes fashion her ultimate expression.
By Cy White Photos by Joi Conti. Styling, hair and makeup assistance by Rola Hassan. Shot on location at ACC Fashion Incubator.
Nina Means emerges from her office at Austin Community College’s Fashion Incubator, the black frilled lace almost perfectly identical to the onyx curls of her crown. A golden choker adorns her swan-like throat, reminiscent of a wealthy Ndebele bride, or perhaps Wakanda does exist and we stand in the presence of one of King T’Challa’s Dora Milaje warriors. Gold adorns her modest waist and shapely feet. She takes a breath, moves with the mesmerizing grace of a dancer. Pose. Beyoncé’s “Grown Woman” blares through the ambitious speakers of someone’s iPhone, as if Means, much in the way of a celebrated conductor, gives Mrs. Knowles-Carter the signal to commence.
Everyone in the room is speechless. It’s a scene from a black-and-white film, frozen, breaths held in anticipation. Then the camera flashes and everything explodes in living color on a click and a collective exhale.
We are in the presence of (reluctant) royalty.
The former public health professional and advocate never imagined this would be her life when she graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in English.
Being in Nina Means’ presence is to be absolutely disarmed by her beauty. She has an aura about her that makes you take notice from the moment she steps into any room. However, to know Nina Means is to know an earnestness that translates to an honest-to-goodness desire to serve her community. More than that, there’s a humility that’s utterly fascinating. Her journey is an intriguing story in creating a path for yourself when none is available, yet it’s also a look into the process of someone who never puts herself above anyone else. Puts her vision, her version of what she wants for herself first, yes. But at the end of it all is this call to service, a need to ensure that those who are around her are able to win, able to thrive in environments that are as open and welcoming as she is.
Means didn’t necessarily take a typical path to her life in fashion. While it always hung out in the back of her mind as a passion point, she took a more calculated approach to diving into what would become her life’s ambition. Not life’s work; that has always been to help those who need it most (whether that be in public health, fashion or education).
“I grew up in North Carolina,” she begins. “My hometown is very similar to Austin: really small, everyone knows each other, the families know each other. But it’s known for medicine; it’s called the city of medicine, including my family. So whenever it was time to pick a career, that’s what we know. I wasn’t really interested in becoming a doctor, but I did like helping people. I found bilingual patient services as my first landing space in public health, and I realized I could only go so far before I got my master’s in public health. So I went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to continue learning, and I worked in various health agencies in Washington while doing that. I really loved it. I enjoyed it. I slept well at night, knowing I was helping a lot of people.”
It’s a concept she’s built her entire career around, her entire journey as a professional. It’s not simply about finding a career path that will feed you and nourish your creativity (and your bank account). Means has always had a soul for being able to feed and nourish others. It’s an aspect of her personality that pushed her to really give fashion a try.
“I would go shopping as a teenager, and I literally could not find something that I was looking for,” she reveals. “I was like, ‘I need a pair of pants that fit like this and look like this and do this.’ So I’d go looking for the thing I had in my head, and it wasn’t on the rack. I would go home frustrated; I couldn’t find anything. Then I go home and open my sketchbook, and I’d be sketching and think, ‘One day, I’m going to learn how to make those things.’”
It’s fascinating watching her dive back into memories to seek out the source of her purpose. There’s a smile on her face that reaches her eyes. They are now shining, as if the spark of inspiration has gripped her once again, the urge to create something out of absolutely nothing because that’s what was available for her at the time. Beyond her desire to serve is an innate compunction to create, and to create for the sake of filling a gaping hole in the industry.
This is partially what led to her exploration of education as an avenue for her creative proclivities. Wait…let’s go back a bit. Before education even popped up on her radar, this long-limbed college student who just wanted a pair of pants that fit her created an entire career out of solving fashion problems through necessity. (What is it they say about the mother of invention?) But she was in public health, with a master’s degree and an impressive track record in the space, working in clinics, building a cadre of connections. There aren’t many who would let go of a sure thing, a sure and lucrative thing, and head in the complete opposite direction. To be honest, neither would Means.
“I tried to figure out what my plan B was,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, what does my plan B career look like?’ As a calling, I like helping people, and I enjoyed it, but I got to this point in my career where I was doing really well, was positioned for promotion, and I was like, ‘You know what, if I go to the next level here, I’m going to get really comfortable and not going to want to stop. If I make [fashion]my job, and I just try it, I have enough connections to come back to public health.’
“Calculated risk is where it’s at,” she proclaims. Luck didn’t necessarily play a huge factor in this shift. Means knew the risks, evaluated solutions for if those risks backfired, then lunged ahead with the confidence that she had built her destiny on the energy of her purpose and her passion. “I just kind of took that leap of faith that I would actually be able to work in this industry, and fortunately, I didn’t have to look back.”
Her first move was to Italy, where she studied in a two-year program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. That led her to New York City, where her career really began to bloom. “Working in fashion in New York City, I know I can go down the street and work for this company; go up the street, work at that other company; go downstairs, work for another company. That’s where my people are. So I was like, ‘Well, I’ve been working in this industry. I grew up my whole career. I moved to Italy, then came back to New York.’ I said to myself, ‘I’m not done yet, so I’m gonna start my own business.’ I created a job for myself. I started the collection while I was still working in New York, running on my lunch breaks down to the factory, then running back to work, or stopping by on the way out before taking the train home. It was a wonderful way to get started.” Again, eyes light with that spark, that excitement that has propelled Means from one grand adventure to the next.
However, while in the midst of creating something of her own, she made a move to Texas, a decision that wasn’t solely her own. But as with everything in her life, Means knew how to adapt and make the change work for her…for a time. She began her own apparel line, Nina Means, LLC, but that path had its complications, especially considering location.
“Doing the second collection from Texas, I had to hire someone to help me with quality control and stuff like that, so she would run around in New York for me, flying back and forth. It just was not the same. But I’ve finally delivered the products, and she helped me get everything done and shipped it back to Texas.” Though another gamble, Nina Means, LLC, did stir up some attention in her new home. Her work was featured on CBS’s We Are Austin and in Texas Society Magazine. In 2017, Fashion Group International San Antonio honored her with their Rising Star Award for Fashion Design, and in 2019, she was recognized as a Texas Woman to Watch.
Her origin story speaks to a woman who’s always taken every opportunity as a chance to grow, to learn. The ups and downs (as few as there were, again, calculated risk) have all been pages in the handbook of her life. No, not a fairy tale or a story of someone who was forced into helpless situations. Means really does provide a guidebook for those who live with passion. The ultimate goal: no regrets.
“I just don’t like the idea of having regret,” she admits. “I heard someone say this, and I kept it really close. ‘You get to live.’ It’s a YOLO-type statement. I think they were saying, ‘I’m more afraid of not trying than to go to my grave with this idea.’ Just see if it’s anything, and then if it’s not, then I have the thing that I’ve already been doing.”
That has led us to this moment. Means decked out in couture, hair a cascade of curls, a smile adorning her face like jewelry as she lives out another fantasy: modeling. Her journey to becoming the first and sitting director of ACC’s Fashion Incubator follows much in the same path as the rest of her journey. She was offered an opportunity (from a buyer in Texas, as it were) and she went into it with the same thought: “That’s interesting.”
“They gave me a job description and an empty room,” she says. The chuckle that accompanies the memory isn’t rueful, really. She laughs because honestly and truly, what the hell? “There was nothing in either space. The other room wasn’t painted; it had red slat walls. I mean, it was a storage room.” But this Aries lives up to her star sign: confidence, courage, determination, leadership. Passion. In 2018, she took the position, and by the next year was already fully dedicated to building the space. In 2020, she began nurturing a cohort of designers. Over five years (including officially opening during a pandemic), Means has created a space for Texas creatives to be able to elevate, network and find those opportunities that might have otherwise been out of their grasp.
She took it a step further and partnered with the City of Austin Economic Development Department to offer the same nurturing for designers in Egypt. “[The City of Austin] had been cultivating that relationship with Egypt some time prior, so we went on an industry mission with them to Cairo in 2019. It was an amazing experience, multi-industry delegation, the global business expansion team that put it together in economic development. We got a chance to go to various business meetings and really understand what was happening in the market. So when it came time to focus on an industry for the next round, they decided that they wanted to go with fashion. I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll do it.’ We had just launched the first cohort of the designer-in-residence program, and we had to turn it on really quickly. By December, we were working on Egypt.
“We did a 16-week accelerator,” she recalls. “It was an opportunity for us to stretch ourselves a bit more. After working in the industry in New York, coming to cultivate an industry in Austin, you don’t start off at the end; you need to go back to the beginning. We’re designing products for different regions, for different modalities. You know, I can’t sell the same dress in the Arab States that I can in the United States; I can’t sell the same cut. It was really fun to be able to go into that part of our work, with our more advanced brands. They did a learning enterprise, did pop-up shops, runway shows. It was fun. We had a really great time with them.”
Again, building, cultivating, fun, passion. These are words that follow Nina Means like an army at her back. This army of self is what allowed her to create her own path from public health to fashion, to create her own apparel line, then move to Austin and make a name for herself in the space. It’s this self-actualization that saw her take on the role of creating an incubator for burgeoning and established designers to help them make the connections they need to succeed, but to also extend that same care to up-and-coming designers in Egypt. A mind for collaboration and innovation means that the incubator is constantly elevating the fashion space in Texas. In collaboration with Gerber Technology, a LECTRA company, Means has secured an astounding $13 million digital solutions package for the designers to save resources, material and time and begin to chip away at the consequences of fashion waste.
“What I love is that our designers, with the kind of technology and resources that we have, are able to cut off hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she says, energy causing her to sit up straighter and her tone to become more animated. “Sampling can cost anywhere between $250 up to $1,000, depending on what you’re making, and that’s just for one. Then you multiply that by the times you need to see those styles to make sure that you actually got the fit that works with the customer, that the customer likes it, and then need enough colors available for each of those and enough sizes available for each of those. It adds up so fast. So the idea that [designers]can do all of that digitally and know that digital image, that twin is going to actually mirror real life to 97% accuracy, that is a huge deal. There were countless rounds of samples when I worked for these large companies, and you see exactly where the waste is going. It’s not even happening in production, although that’s part of it; it’s all in development that never saw the light of day, so you got tons of stuff that’s wasting away.”
Means’ concern is not unfounded. According to a 2023 study conducted by Earth.org, every year the fast fashion industry accumulates about 92 million tons of waste, resulting in the fashion industry producing 20% of the world’s global waste water and an inevitable 50% spike in global emissions by 2030.
“We have an imperative, a moral imperative to do it better,” she insists. “Then to also give small businesses an opportunity to get skin in the game. There’s no business model that allows a small business to act like that; you have to be precise. The only way that you can test that product again and again is to work digitally, and then only make what the customer wants to buy from you. All of those things help to work toward sustainable practices. It’s a spectrum. Everyone’s not gonna be perfect, but what I love is that people can start to build products closer to where it’s going to be delivered. Now with this global network, we’re talking about nearshoring, how to get the product closer to where the customer is going to actually purchase it. I believe in it.”
Belief, another word that seems synonymous with Nina Means. She believes in the work she’s doing with ACC’s Fashion Incubator. She believes in the work her designers are doing, evidenced by her insistence on wearing their designs for her first cover photoshoot. She believes in intentional representation, ensuring that all walks of life and ways of thought are not just considered, but respected.
Dreams for incubator.
The city has been a really incredible partner. We’ve talked about all kinds of possible next steps. I want to see Austin, and Texas, really connected in this space of true fashion powerhouses, in terms of the products that people are looking for out of this space. Whenever Louis Vuitton moves in that space between here and Dallas, they’ve got an actual space. Whenever we can get beauty products that are made for luxury labels, they’re being made here. We’re seeing value in this area. I want all of that to become much more anchored and well known. I think we’re kind of in this impostor syndrome space right now, where most don’t know us for fashion. But actually, Texans are very fashionable. They like luxury, and they like really nice things, and they have money to spend, and Texas has the second largest GDP in the world! All of these things that say, “Yes, build industry here. Yes, why not fashion up?” We’re smack dab in the middle of the country; we’ve got access to these various spaces; mobility is getting easier and easier. I would love to see Texas really take its spot in fashion. Honestly, Dallas and Houston are doing an amazing job. San Antonio is doing a fantastic job. Austin is rising and has been doing a fantastic job as well. I think there’s more room to grow. I think we’ll attract more and we’ll grow more.
Overcoat – The Garden Room,
Lilac Satin Blazer – The Garden Room, Advisory Board
Lilac Satin Jumpsuit – The Garden Room, Advisory Board
“I’ve worked in companies where I was one of five, but it’s an entire six-floor building,” she reveals. “I’ve had that experience where there’s not a lot of people who look like me doing it. But I also have to acknowledge the privilege that I had to be able to even try. I think the best thing we can do, especially in the community college space, where we’re trying to serve everyone, is really peel back the layers for people who want to see what’s inside. That’s been my whole mission in this role, to say, ‘It ain’t that scary. You could do this.’ You know, fashion isn’t only about design. There are people who love spreadsheets, people who do cybersecurity, who do ecommerce. It’s like that all down the line, so we’ve been trying to make it a place where it’s really for everybody.
“You know, there’s words that get thrown around in terms of corporate speak,” she continues, “but I think we’re offering more, in the future of work as well, and mental wellness. I think psychological safety fits into that. If we’re saying we want to create space for various ways of thought, we also need to make it psychologically safe to show up with those various types of thought and understand that it may not always sound like what I’m used to hearing, which is kind of the point, right? There are also rules of engagement in these other spaces. Yes, be authentic and be professional. Yes, bring the difference of thought and actually do it. Don’t do it, then go do what you’re gonna do anyway. Let’s benefit from being in the same room together, because there’s give and take. I think that we all do better being in that room together, actually listening and actually doing something about it.”
The photoshoot reaches its conclusion. The final look, Nina Means going back to simplicity with a letterman jacket and a pair of jeans. Strands of cloth fly in the air as if springing from her fingers. All too quickly, Joi Conti, the photographer, yells, “That’s a wrap!” Applause all-round, the final notes of “Who Run the World (Girls)” fade out, and Means is all smiles, all ebullient energy. So what’s next for her?
“World peace?” she says with a giggle. “My life has been about wanting to see impact, you know? I want to feel and see that in some way my life matters and can really improve what I see around me. I feel like I’m a builder. I’m a strategic builder, and that’s something that I feel really strongly about myself. I think I’m happy when I’m in that space, so I think I’ll just keep building.”