Dressed for Success

Two Columbia engineers behind fashion app Upcomers on creating a marketplace to showcase Black-owned brands and five new designers everyone should know

Feb 18 2022 | By Kyle Barr
Yelissa Lopez and Stephen Mgbemeje

Yelissa Lopez BS’24 and Stephen Mgbemeje BS’24 know what they think looks good on their fellow New Yorkers. Hoodies, track pants, chains, Timberland boots—the kind of streetwear that simultaneously conveys personal style and community identity.

And that’s an ethos they find not just sartorially inspiring. For the two undergraduates at Columbia Engineering, designing technology means more than producing a product. It can also be an opportunity to use those skills to express a point of view and benefit a community—in their case, marginalized groups who have had a hard time breaking into tough markets like the fashion industry.

So in August of last year, the pair turned their engineering skills and shared love of fashion into Upcomers, an online marketplace showcasing apparel from small, mostly local companies. To curate their site, they look for looks with the potential to go viral or brands they just feel particularly deserve recognition. Most of those featured are Black-owned and also work to counter bad trends they’ve seen in the garment industry, such as unethical labor practices in overseas factories and the use of unsustainable materials.

Both founders spent formative years in New York City. Lopez, an applied physics major, grew up in the Bronx. Mgbemeje, a computer science major, came to the city from Nigeria at just 7 years old. That background, they say, gave them insight into what it means for minority-owned businesses to succeed. Lopez said that personal stake in their work is what drives Upcomers.

“Before we started, we both knew a lot of people who started their own fashion company, but they don't have the resources to get the kind of exposure they need,” Lopez said. “Why we do this comes from our own personal interest in these subjects and our desire to find solutions to problems that we're facing in the world.”

In just seven months, their project has ballooned into an expansive array of small fashion brands. They now represent 40 companies, mostly from NYC but from a few other cities as well. They have just under 20 ambassadors, mostly college students, who scout and promote existing brands to their campuses and beyond.

If you have that intrinsic motivation to solve an actual problem, especially if it's something like a social issue that impacts your own community, it'll keep you pushing on to put your best foot forward.

Stephen Mgbemeje
Class of 2024

But even with swift expansion of the site, their designers remain more than just partners to Upcomers’ founders. They’re friends and compatriots, and not by accident. Mgbemeje said they worked hard to create a close network among ambassadors and creators who often have to do all the up-front work themselves

“We are not just a company, we are trying to build a tight knit community,” he said.

Already, the experience has deeply informed their career outlook. Lopez, who sees how technology can be used to “address problems like the wealth gap between the Black community and wider society,” ultimately wants to go into quantum technology. There she hopes to develop small-scaled affordable computers that can bridge the digital divide between high and low income schools.

Mgbemeje wants to go into software engineering and blockchain technology. His entrepreneurial experience, he said, has not only improved his interpersonal and decision making skills, but cemented his belief in the purpose of technology.

“If you're just doing it for the money, there's going to be a time where you lose motivation, or you lose interest in whatever you're trying to build,” Mgbemeje said. “So if you had that intrinsic motivation to solve an actual problem, especially if it's something like a social issue that impacts your own community, it'll keep you pushing on to put your best foot forward.”

Now here, in no set order, are five Upcomers Lopez and Mgbemeje think everyone should know.


Avant NYC

Lopez: “This brand wants to be the next high-end fashion attire, like Nike. Their mission statement is to strive to inspire and motivate one community at a time, eventually making a global impact, and I feel like that's definitely reflected from their brand logo and their overall design.”



Mgbemeje: “They try to portray the feeling of competence and standing out. Most of the brands we work with are small, Black-owned businesses. Their designs highlight the Black culture that creates and sets the trends.” Lopez: “And a lot of her pieces are hand painted.”


The Very Clean

Lopez: “The people who started The Very Clean are from New York City, and they come from immigrant parents—Dominican, like myself. Their brand mainly focuses on New York City streetwear fashion. They started with a college refund check, and now they’ve since grossed over $350,000 in sales over the last six years.”



Lopez: “So their whole thing is about sustainable and ethical sourcing for all their jewelry and other accessories. I feel that with many of these small, local brands, … they’re trying to move towards a better alternative, especially with the rise of fast fashion. Practices like unethical factories and unsustainable sourcing should be obliterated by the time we enter the next generation.”



Mgbemeje: “The owner of this brand is a college student just like us. The reason she started is because she wants to create an inclusive community for global citizens—a universal lifestyle brand for the ultimate risk taker. You can see that in her clothing. She takes risks in her own designs, very elegant and very out of the norm.”

Brands or members of the Columbia community who want to get involved can find an application at Upcomers.

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