Enter the Elements of Grooming barbershop in North Philadelphia, and you'll find the usual salon chairs, clippers and wash-and-rinse sinks.
You'll also find a bright pink yarn vending machine, which allows you to select and purchase skeins to crochet your own clothing and accessories.
The bundles of bright yarn dispensed from the machine are from the personal line of “crochet influencer” Emani Outterbridge, the vending machine mastermind who was born and raised in the neighborhood and who once worked as a shampoo girl at the shop. Her invention allows you to buy your own personal yarn to take home and crotchet personal pieces, just like Outterbridge herself.
“No one believed in me,” Outterbridge said. “I didn’t know it would be as big as it is, and I didn't know I was going to change the game how I changed it.”
What started as something that was picked up as an act of discipline quickly became “what changed my life,” said Outterbridge, who is known for colorful, customized pieces. She uses the old-fashioned crafting technique to create in-demand items such as bathing suits, headbands and sweaters for her customers.
Weaving a negative into a positive
When Outterbridge was 12, she was sent to a juvenile detention facility for girls. She was facing truancy violations at her middle school, which led to her being removed from her family and put in detention as punishment. There, girls had two options for how they could spend their time: watching the news or crocheting.
Outterbridge grabbed a needle and yarn and started learning how to crochet from an older "placement sister" who was also at the facility and who wore her own custom crocheted hats.
"I could’ve turned out any other way -- I could have been in the streets, I could have been dangerous, I could have been whatever," Outterbridge said. "But God put me there for a reason: to acquire something that I wouldn't have acquired while I was home.”
“And it changed my life. Crocheting changed my life," she added.
Outterbridge stayed in the center for four months, but once she was released, she didn’t crochet again until she was 15 when attended a special admissions high school that had an entrepreneurship class. There, students needed to create their own business and find a way to maintain its success. Outterbridge decided to crochet custom headbands that she sold to her classmates for $5 a piece. The name of her business was “HAIR-LARIOUS,” Outterbridge said.
“Anybody that wanted to place an order that day, they would get it the next day," she said. "But it started growing so big, like their aunts would order, their moms would order, their little cousins would order, so then I started making like hats, then fanny packs, and then I started making outfits.”
Her products quickly gained traction not only through the school but also eventually to residents throughout the city. She eventually created her current brand, Emani Milan.
Now, with more than 38,000 Instagram followers and having made custom pieces for celebrities, including Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, Outterbridge -- who is also expecting two more crotchet vending machines to arrive in other locations -- says she thankful for the trials and hurdles in her life, because without them, she wouldn't be the crotchet influencer she is today.
It’s never a lost it’s always a lesson
In May of this year, in the midst of the pandemic and as her online boutique was booming with requests of 100-plus orders a month, Outterbridge suffered a broken leg. At that time, she thought being in a cast for six weeks would set her and the production back, but the downtime got her mind bubbling with ideas. With her own personal yarn line already out, Outterbridge dreamed up a yarn vending machine to distribute her line and engage with her customers.
“I released my yarn line on my birthday," she said. "Two weeks later, my foot was broken. So, I'm in bed, depressed, just sitting down and thinking, like, how can I still get [customers] to purchase my yarn while being down and still [bring] a new experience to Emani Milan?"
Outterbridge asked her followers to either purchase yarn or donate to fund her idea for the vending machine. She received an outpouring of donations supporting her idea, and the funds she raised are slated for the three vending machines she plans to have scattered throughout the city.
"Me being in the house for two months, three months straight could have messed me up mentally, but I didn't let it,” she said. “God just needed me to sit down and think of something new.”
With the success of her brand, her yarn line and now her vending machine, Outterbridge plans to build her company into a fashion empire while also helping other Black fashion entrepreneurs.
Since she attended Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a historically Black college and university (HBCU) and enjoyed the atmosphere of the Black culture, Outterbridge's dream is to move to Atlanta where she believes the city embodies that same energy. She hopes to run her own company while teaching others how to crochet. For her, crocheting was a reminder of a time in her life when things weren't so positive, but she evolved that experience into a victory.
“Take those Ls and turn them into Ws, period, because everyone loses, but it’s about how you win from that loss," she said. "I wouldn’t know what I would be or what I would be doing if I didn’t know how to crochet.”