Meet Jacqueline City, a 24-year-old South Philly fashion designer.
• On her style: “At school it made me different. Other kids were all wearing Hollister and Abercrombie and I was wearing Juicy Couture track suits and a shirt I drew on.”
• Extra! Extra!: “In the Italian Market when I was a kid, I’d get up on a chair and sing the national anthem to people going by. I was just extra. I’ve always been extra.”
The rejection letter from Philly Fashion Week arrived first, dashing designer Jacqueline City’s hopes of debuting her collection in her hometown.
So when an invitation to premiere her line at New York Fashion Week arrived shortly thereafter, City — like any good Philadelphian — thought it was a scam.
But it was far from it.
With just a year under her belt as a designer, no industry connections, and no formal training, City, 24, of South Philly, was invited to debut her Jacqueline City Apparel line in a runway show at New York Fashion Week in February 2020.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything without ‘putting in my hours,’ as they say in the industry, or tons of money backing me,” City said. “But we have to take those chances and push those buttons.”
The exposure led to features about City in the British versions of Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour magazines, and it garnered her an invitation to Paris Fashion Week this fall.
As passionate as she is about her designs, City is equally as passionate about talking about her struggle with POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome). It’s a type of dysautonomia that causes City’s autonomic nervous system — which controls everything that should automatically regulate in her body like heart rate, digestion, temperature, blood flow, and breathing — to be all “out of whack.”
“It’s so important to proudly talk about my disability because the more we talk about it the less people will think it’s for attention or a gimmick,” she said. “Historically, women — and especially women of color — were told ‘It’s just in your head.’ Diagnosis itself is such a privilege and that’s why I want to fight for other women to get their answers.”
In the fall of 2014 during her senior year at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown, City was attending a concert in South Philly when a stranger hit her in the head with his elbow, causing her to pass out. She was taken to two different hospitals and diagnosed with a concussion and then, post-concussion syndrome.
She was able to graduate in 2015 but during her freshman year at Drexel University where she was pursuing a music industry degree, City began experiencing other troubling symptoms. She’d pass out four or five times a day and often felt dizzy, cold, and tired.
“All the concussion symptoms improved, but my health as a whole quickly declined,” she said. “I was getting lost trying to go from building to building at Drexel and I was passing out on the sidewalk into the street.”
Unable to get out of bed for six months, City had to drop out of school. Though one nurse practitioner told her she was just having panic attacks, City was eventually diagnosed with dysautonomia, which she said was triggered by the trauma from the brain damage she suffered as a result of the concussion.
“To learn that I was bedridden because of one hit to the head at a concert was really hard for me,” she said. “I lost 50 pounds. I was in and out of the ER. I didn’t know it could be all-encompassing.”
Her therapy started with small steps, like looking at Where’s Waldo books to help her converge the images from her eyes and going to the grocery store with a physical therapist to relearn how to buy food.
“I knew I couldn’t hold a 9-5 job because if I did 30 minutes on the computer, I had to take an hour nap after or rest or meditate,” she said. “I wanted to focus on doing one thing.”
That one thing was a T-shirt line which City began to work at on her good days. She created a few designs on her computer and they were a hit on Instagram, where she also shared her personal story.
As her collection grew beyond T-shirts, and City’s health improved with the help of dietary changes and medication, her family and friends suggested she try selling her clothes at craft festivals.
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But she aimed higher and found herself walking the runway as a designer at New York Fashion Week.
“I really thought there would be critics in the audience who thought I was a fake and fraud and would write up how terrible my designs were,” City said. “When that didn’t happen, I was like maybe there are people who like my stories and my designs.”
“It’s about the hard exterior of Philly and our reputation for being the tough guy and the underdog but also under that we’re the City of Brotherly Love,” she said. “If you’re from here, you know it’s a community and we all look out for each other here.”
City strives to make all of her designs inclusive. On her website, which features women’s, men’s, and unisex clothing, as well as sizes up to 5X, nothing sells for more than $75.
“I want to completely dismantle $500 T-shirts,” she said. “I want to see a regular Joe Shmoe with his cigarette on a Philly street with a born-and-raised hat he got on my website.”
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• Check out the full We the People archive here.