“It stretches way beyond the clothing for me. I’m happy that I get to make clothes but at the end of the day I’m trying to tell stories, I want people to know Malawi and become familiar with where I come from.”Thomas Keys, Founder of No Access New York
No Access New York is a clothing brand manufactured and headquartered in Mzuzu, Malawi. Keys founded the brand in 2017, and in its inception was a convergence between where he was raised (Nyack, NY), and where his family is from.
Two homes, yet two distinctly different cultural palaces, even increasingly as the fashion world is concerned.
Within Mzuzu, Keys’ mother’s influence on the city cannot be overstated. In addition to the clothing brand creating tailoring jobs and clothing opportunities that are incrementally increasing, his mother has built Mzuzu International Academy as well as Kwithu CBO, a feeding center.
Their extra fabric makes bags which they use to send to customers. And no Access has produced 500 uniforms for a local secondary school.
Keys had a vision for a clothing brand within sustainable and practical fashion. But even more than that, one that exemplifies and emphasizes community, empowerment, and creative expression.
“When I was going to school at City College, I started interning at Ghost Gallery in Crown Heights. My boss at the time, Steven Alexandr, had recently opened the gallery and I got to see it grow over time. This was a very significant time for me, because I had just gotten my first samples back from Malawi. I was excited, and working at Ghost gave me an opportunity to be around other creatives, and truly learn. I saw firsthand how hard you have to work to make it and run a successful business, and that definitely helped me in the beginning stages of No Access.”Thomas Keys
A quick trip to Malawi would inspire Keys to create more clothing opportunities
The summer after freshman year of college, Keys went and stayed in Mzuzu.
“I was spending every single day at this tailor shop, from sunup to sundown, just soaking in game and learning, that’s really where it started for me.”
His mom used to be a designer in Malawi, and is still a staple of the community. In Keys words, she inspires him every single day.
That Summer, “she was really just giving me game and preparing me for this opportunity. Once I expressed to her that this was really what I wanted to do, she put me in position to really pursue and strive for this.”
Thomas started meeting the local tailors and picking up the intricacies of the city and its people. It wasn’t his first time there by any means, but in order to create a network and infrastructure to prosper, he needed to understand it all.
In his reconnaissance, as it were, Keys saw a different side of fashion in Malawi than he has in the states and principally New York.
“People in Malawi take pride in what they wear and how they look. Everyday when I’m walking on the street, I see so many different styles and looks that inspire me. Working in the tailor shop gave me a chance to see that firsthand, as people in the community would always stop by at the end of the day to see what we had made, and never hesitate to show love or give advice.”
And as a basketball player his whole life, Thomas would play with local construction workers at the one court in the city. This experience would serve as the inspiration for his first design.
No Access New York’s First Design
“I remember my first release was those work suits with the reflective tape.Thomas Keys
Going to Katoto everyday to play basketball was where a lot of inspiration for my first release came from. At the end of the day, everyone would come play ball, and a group of my homies would come straight from working construction all day and play. When they pulled up they always had on their work uniforms. But the way that they’d carry themselves and what it meant to have that suit on… it was something that opened my eyes up to how clothes should be viewed and how clothes should be worn.”Thomas Keys
Keys feels like his designs now come from personal inspiration and more so trying to make practical things in sustainable fashion.
“Nowadays I feel like a lot of designers who truly put the time in get overlooked, because of the hype and trends that constantly plague the fashion industry. I’ve been lucky enough to be around young designers like myself who love the process, and are dedicated to the craft of making clothes.
I spend a lot of of time sourcing fabrics in Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa. I fell in love with this process, and always make sure each season we come with something different fabric-wise.”Thomas Keys
No Access uses only locally-sourced fabric, and Keys also remarks that everything they do is sustainable. They don’t waste fabric, and when they ship clothes out, they have dustbags made from excess fabric that carry the clothes. Kwithu CBO receives the excess fabric and turns it into rugs, dolls and bags there.
‘Sustainable fashion’ is a buzzword now because it has become trendy and “cool” to operate in that space. But how much is each brand or designer really practicing what they preach?
“I’ve just seen companies really use that term (sustainable fashion) and just run with it and be like ‘yeah this t-shirt was made out of four plastic water bottles.’ And it’s kind of just like ‘bro what the fuck does that even mean?’” ponders Keys.
Keys’ first pop up shop in New York, and subsequent ones, showed him that all different age groups and “types” of people wanted to rock his designs. Malawi showed him the way clo thes should be seen and worn, and the pop ups in New York City showed him even more that fashion should be available to everyone.
“I’m trying to make clothes for everyone, that’s really my main goal.”Thomas Keys
Keys understands there is more to his designs and business enterprise than clothing opportunities in Malawi and money. People gravitate towards No Access because of the mission and where their support goes. He may charge a certain price, but that money is helping him build a production center, pay tailors, and all the additional altruistic efforts No Access leads.
“To have people feel that they’re a part of the community, that’s what I want. I take pride in where I come from and what I’m doing out here.
To me this is way bigger than the clothes I make. It’s about how can I help my community in Mzuzu, and provide jobs for people in Malawi. I wake up everyday motivated to invest my time and money back in the city that has always been like home to me since a kid. This is truly my passion, and I know my purpose stretches beyond just making clothes.”Thomas Keys
Reinvesting money back into Mzuzu is the mission, and it is currently being acted upon.
The clothing opportunities for tailors in Malawi are not great, because some weeks there could be a lot of business and money coming in, but other weeks there is no business to pay tailors.
Keys came in, and with a respectful hand, offered local tailors full-time jobs with salaries, ensuring these people make more money and have more stable situations than they had before.
No Access is rooted in community, but also empowerment within fashion. Keys wants to not only make clothes, but also produce for other people and organizations. He wants to create comfortable clothing, but also push the boundary between classy and casual. No Access’ upcoming collections reflect this sentiment and vision.
“The way I look at fashion nowadays, overall it’s in a bad place. Being in New York really exposed me to that,” solemnly states Keys.
“You have these companies, they’re not trying to push change, they’re just trying to make money. There’s no excuse for being silent on certain issues. A lot of these major companies, they take straight from the Black youth, rip them off, sell them false dreams, and then chew them up and spit them out, and it just keeps happening.”Thomas Keys
Still, New York still plays a really big role for Keys. He grew amidst the stale smell of smoke in New York City and the beautiful sight, yet pungent aroma of the Hudson River. There is inspiration in the streets even amidst the uber-political and corporate nature of fashion currently in the city.
Keys grew up in Nyack and was one of the only African kids in his town. And his mom instilled in him to always carry a pride in where he came from.
Mzuzu eventually made sense as a place to operate in, with clothing opportunities galore in Malawi with his connections. And it also served as a safe haven for Keys to let his inspiration flow.
The No Access Initiative
Moving forward into 2021, Keys has his eyes set on big picture projects. To start what will become known as the No Access Initiative, he’s focused on a piece of Mzuzu that feels innately personal to him.
The basketball court he plays with the local construction workers on has a lot of room to grow. “I’ve probably ripped like five pairs of kicks on some bullshit.”
He wants to eventually repaint the court, put in bleachers, get new hoops, and build off of that. With the money he sees from collections, he wants No Access to dedicate two to three collections to the No Access Initiative each year.
Thinking of the good fortune many of us have had to grow up near stable basketball courts, community centers, art centers, studios, you name it, Keys wants to really give back.
“The thing that matters the most to me throughout all of this is the people out here… do they respect what I’m doing? Do they rock with it? That means more to me than any opinion in the world. And I’ve been embraced.”Thomas Keys
My friend beamed with the vision of setting up a channel for kids to be inspired and learn. To also create clothing and other opportunities in Malawi for the youth.
“The end goal with the No Access Initiative would be to build a vocational school somewhere down the line. I want to create an environment where the kids feel empowered, and have the proper resources to learn. It’s a dream that constantly runs through my head everyday.”Thomas Keys
“[People out here] look so much flier, comfortable and happier than people in the states. I really wake up everyday and I’m inspired — that’s why I moved to Malawi.”Thomas Keys
Keys recounts how there is endless inspiration just from walking outside. Everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves without the overbearing drama of worrying about how that garment fits in with societal standards.
Keys wakes up at 5 am and works until 7 pm. From 10 to 12 at night he works in the shop, fine-tuning designs, cleaning, and thinking about the future. With his mother as a blueprint of hard work, innovation and advocacy, Keys has created a network tailored to giving back. He has created clothing opportunities in Malawi that have an immense impact on the community as a whole.
“If you’re a good person, good things will happen to you. And out here, they know that… word gets around. I only want to keep growing and expanding.
I truly believe that no dream is too big. Now I’m finally realizing that.”Thomas Keys