+ By Melanie McCarty  

“I fell in love with the idea that you could create a small creative piece, a little piece of art that people could wear,” says Darin Michelle Gilliam.

We’re seated at a large worktable in the center of the studio that she shares with a group of designers in the Annapolis Arts District. Beside us sits a stack of T-shirts in a variety of colors, and a tote bag designed by Gilliam that reads, Dream Big.

img_3847She’s speaking of her new clothing brand, 19FIFTYTHREE, which will debut this fall. The collection features T-shirts printed with Gilliam’s striking abstract illustrations, as well as a series featuring text-based designs with messages such as Warrior and Magic. “My favorite is Support Your Local Girl Gang,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

Trained in fine art and design, Gilliam’s interest in creating wearable art is not surprising. She studied painting at Fairleigh Dickinson University and, after graduating in 2005, began working as a graphic designer, creating everything from websites to large-scale signs to logos. Despite her passion for design—“I love color,” she gushes—the grind of deadlines and the need to shape her work to clients’ tastes left her wanting.

Although streetwear is notoriously difficult to define, it tends to be casual, geared toward the young, and with a heavy emphasis on graphics. The artistry is what first drew Gilliam to streetwear, as she discovered brands like Benny Gold and The Hundreds, which take a stylish, design-forward approach. “There were these illustrators that were coming up and creating these beautiful pieces of work and getting them screen printed. I was like, ‘Man, streetwear culture is a whole scene, and I want a part of it,’” she says.

img_3838-revWith 19FIFTYTHREE, Gilliam will bring her designs to life, focusing on products for women. This sets her apart since many of the top streetwear companies design primarily for men, treating female customers as an afterthought. A self-described tomboy who loves glitter, Gilliam aims to make clothing that she would wear. She wants to design for women of the mid-Atlantic, an audience that has been underrepresented in streetwear. “In New York, they have their brands, and in L.A., they have their brands, and there’s a certain style that goes with them, but I want to design something that represents the girl around here,” she explains.

Disregarding the traditional model of releasing spring and fall lines, she plans to put out her collections when they are ready. The slower pace will allow her to work on her own terms, create a body of work of which she’s proud, and balance her other roles, including freelance designer, wife, and mother to two-year-old Evan.

Gilliam, a native Annapolitan, has always been proud of her home. “There’s something to be said about the place that you’re made,” she says. “That’s why I always say ‘made in Maryland,’”—a tagline that also appears on her website—“because all of my dreams and my aspirations and everything were built here. They were made here, so I can’t leave that behind me.” Her company’s name, which is the year that her mother was born, is a tribute to the person who supported her creative ambitions from an early age. “If we had an interest or a love or a passion,” she says, “she never hesitated to push us towards it.”

For Gilliam, Dream Big is more than a slogan: it’s a way of approaching life. Both of her parents taught her the importance of having the faith and confidence to take a leap. While her mother approached it from a faith-based perspective, her father, a jazz musician, taught her that lesson as an artist. She cites the freedom children have, their willingness to take chances, confident that they will succeed. “If we have the heart of a child, we can leap, but if we don’t, we can’t.”

Check out 19FIFTYTHREE’s launch party September 30 at ArtFarm, 45 West Street, Annapolis. Follow on Twitter at @19fiftythree.