Knoxville bridal alterations Hem It Up served brides during pandemic

When Kamesha Bowen-Jenkins arrived in Knoxville in 1991 to attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, she had no idea that she would ditch her 9-to-5, meet the love of her life and fall in love with a hobby that would lead to a career.

On a day in February, Bowen-Jenkins is working inside her alterations business Hem It Up putting the final touches on a muted blue bridesmaid gown. Her customer emerges from behind the pale pink curtain wearing the gown and a smile.

The way the customer admires her beauty in front of the mirror, spinning from side to side, is the feeling Bowen-Jenkins said she gets when her work makes it down the aisle.

Kamesha Bowen-JenkinsGosh there’s no better feeling once I finish the dress and watch them try it on. I’ve had tears of joy and I just love that. I just love the reactions. That’s the most rewarding part of this for me.

She’s been sewing and altering bridal and formalwear for more than 20 years.

“My college friend had a sewing machine and I just began playing around with it,” she told Knox News. “I got engaged and had this idea to make all of our wedding attire. And I did it. I made my dress, his outfit, all the bridesmaids’ outfits, we had an Afrocentric wedding.”

Not long after, she made all of the bridesmaid dresses for a friend’s wedding. It was just the beginning for Bowen-Jenkins. 

Hem It Up owner loves seeing brides in their finished dresses

Kamesha Bowen-Jenkins, owner of Hem It Up, talks about she loves most about formal alteration on Thursday, February 17, 2022.

Knoxville News Sentinel

After graduating from UT with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and working for three years in corporate America, Bowen-Jenkins had a revelation that she wanted to do something different with her life.

“I just didn’t like the idea of a 9-to-5,” she said. “I did it, but I didn’t like it. I am a creative person. I like the structure of having to be somewhere at a certain time, but I wanted the flexibility to do what I wanted to do. It’s just more fulfilling.”

With the help of a community bank that assisted aspiring entrepreneurs in starting small businesses, Bowen-Jenkins launched her business in 1998. She spent years working out of a room in her house and doing contract work for a local bridal shop.

Bowen-Jenkins said despite the challenges that come with owning your own business, the journey for her was mostly smooth.

Kamesha Bowen-Jenkins steams a dress for a customer at her business Hem It Up. She opened her brick-and-mortar store on Ray Mears Boulevard at the height of the pandemic. Despite canceled weddings, brides still came to her for those just-right alterations. They got married in backyards or just wanted that special wedding dress photo.
Saul Young/News Sentinel

“Life happens, but there was nothing that stopped me,” she said. “My husband told me I had to just go for it.”

Husband Reggie Jenkins, the founder of UUNIK Academy, a Knoxville nonprofit dedicated to the education and transformation of Black boys, was her biggest cheerleader. He’s known to many in the city as a serious, no-nonsense businessman. He knew his favorite girl was ready.

In April 2020, during the peak of a global pandemic, Bowen-Jenkins took Hem It Up Bridal Shop from a home-based business to a brick and mortar shop on Ray Mears Boulevard in West Hills.

She’s one of only two Black-owned bridal alteration shops in the city.

“I thought it was perfect timing,” Reggie said. “It was around April of 2020, and at that time we had no idea the pandemic was going to last two years. I knew people would still get married and I believed in her. She has the experience. By the end of summer, she was still doing a lot of business. We thought for the first year we would cover the rent and we would be OK, but she did even more than that. You just know when it’s time.”

With nothing but time on their hands during the pandemic shutdowns, Bowen-Jenkins spent a month preparing for the shop’s May 2020 opening. Her first client walked in the door of the shop on May 18. 

“We had some clients that were having to postpone due to the pandemic and then there was wedding rescheduling, but, surprisingly enough, my brides were still creative,” Bowen-Jenkins said.

Despite the shutdowns, Bowen-Jenkins discovered “the dress” still mattered for her brides.

Kamesha Bowen-JenkinsWherever they could get married they did. They got married on tops of mountains, in their backyards. I even had one get married in the desert. They still wanted to wear their dresses, even if it was just to take photos.

Bowen-Jenkins loves a dress challenge. One of the most memorable in her career was working on a wedding dress that had been in her client’s family for four generations.

“Each time the dress was passed down they changed it up and when it got to me I was able to really be creative with it,” Bowen-Jenkins said. “I made the dress almost unrecognizable. It had sleeves on it at one point. I made it strapless with a corset in the back, moved some lace around. She loved it. It was absolutely beautiful.”

Kamesha Bowen-Jenkins, owner and seamstress of Hem It Up, wants to offer community sewing classes to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.Kamesha Bowen-Jenkins, owner and seamstress of Hem It Up, wants to offer community sewing classes to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.
Saul Young/News Sentinel

With Black-owned businesses scarce in Knoxville, Bowen-Jenkins said it’s a good feeling knowing she’s able to offer a service for her community. But her clientele reaches across the spectrum. 

“I service all clientele, but I think it’s important to have any Black business, especially in an industry where there aren’t many of us,” she said. “I think it’s needed. We get excited when we see more of us operating businesses here in our city because there’s not many of us. We are hard to find.”

Despite being in the minority, her talent speaks for itself. She’s confident, and being Black is just her identity.

“With me being a Black business owner, thankfully I have been welcomed and nobody has made me feel I am not capable or able to rise to the occasion,” Bowen-Jenkins said. “I’m good at what I do and my clients have been able to experience that.”

It’s the smiles that make it all worth it for her.

The future looks bright for Hem It Up. Bowen-Jenkins wants to offer community classes on sewing, hoping to inspire a new generation of Black business owners.

“We need more of us,” Bowen-Jenkins said. “We need to teach these skills, especially to our young people.”

Angela Dennis covers issues at the intersection of race and equity through both contemporary and historical lenses.
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2:51 am UTC Oct. 31, 2022

2:51 am UTC Oct. 31, 2022