Tea Time

Tea Time

Striped bedsheets from home and a printed fabric from Goodwill were all Terone “Tea” Montgomery needed to create the look. He meets me at the door to his West River Arts studio wearing a light pair of pants with vertical green stripes and a contrasting print insert along the outside of the legs. A lightweight top using the same fabric is rolled at the sleeves, and a hood drapes over the shoulders. He looks sharp, but comfortable. It’s one of the designs Montgomery, a Westville native, sells in his fledgling business, Threads by Tea.

“I never really enjoyed shopping, but whenever I did need to shop, I couldn’t find anything in my size,” says Montgomery, who is tall and slim. So, he put his creativity to work sewing his own clothing. “I dress for how I feel, not for anyone else,” he says. The exception is his full-time job as a manager at the Jos. A. Bank men’s shop in Milford, where he wears a suit. He used to enjoy dressing for work, he says. He knew he looked good, and people treated him with greater respect. But now he’d rather wear his own designs, which garner compliments and questions on the street.

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Montgomery learned sewing the hard way, mostly through trial and error. The trousers and hoodie he’s wearing bear the marks of his process. The lined hood, he says, is attached farther back along the neckline than he’d make it today because “some things take some wearing to thoroughly learn what works and what doesn’t.” The signature stripe of contrasting fabric down the outer seam of each leg is the result of a mistake. “The first pair of pants I made, they weren’t cut right,” Montgomery says. “I was trying to figure out how I can fix it without destroying the fabric or wasting the fabric.” He decided to open the seams and add more, a “mistake that I made into a blessing”—one he’s repeated again and again.

Montgomery’s new studio, taller than it is wide, is crowded with his sewing table and a side table, a TV, a couch and two full racks of one-of-a-kind outfits for men, women and kids, much of it unisex. They boast bright patterns, stripes and flares of ingenuity. A light knit tank top rolling up at its raw edges isn’t sewn at all but rather knotted over one shoulder and hanging loose on a mannequin. Montgomery shows how it could also be folded up higher and tied around the waist. An unfinished pantsuit of black fabric textured with tiny, gold-threaded slits sports a quilted lapel. A collection of bespoke baseball caps pieced with silk linings to protect the wearer’s hair are piled to one side of a starter sewing machine, which Montgomery hopes to replace soon with an industrial model that will speed up production. His creations range in price from $50 “tea shirts” and $60 caps to $1,500 leather backpacks. Simple commissions start at $300, “street tuxedos” at $400 and dresses and gowns at $500.

Though he’s always had an eye for fashion, Montgomery never intended to become a clothing designer. He went to college for marketing and earned a graduate degree in entertainment business management. He’s also a musician, both classical and hip hop. Sewing, however, may be in his genes; both his grandmothers were seamstresses. From his entrepreneurial parents, who have owned a few different businesses, he learned what it takes to start and run your own operation. Now he’s teaching his 11-year-old son, Haiven, to be his cutter. “What I want him to do, just like my father taught me, is be able to do things for himself, be able to make money for himself,” Montgomery says.

He has dreams for himself, too: a trunk show tour to several major U.S. cities, a separate manufacturing business making uniforms, maybe even producing his own fabric. He’d like to take on more work for theatrical productions. Already, Threads by Tea has grown beyond what he can manage himself. He’s just hired two master tailors to help him on a contract basis.

Montgomery talks as much like an artist as a businessman, which is no mistake. His website calls his clothing “bespoke, wearable art.” Not unlike his nickname, Tea, Montgomery says he infuses clothing with color and flavor and makes it into something better.

Threads by Tea
West River Arts – 909 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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