If you ask Donta Belvin where he got his hat – he’ll gladly tell you the story behind it and build a new connection with you through the process.
Durham native Belvin uses inspiration from everyday things and the surrounding Durham community to create one-of-a-kind five-panel hats. What started as a shirt printing business idea with his cousin while in New York, led to a solo journey for Belvin creating his own line of hats, branded as Paradiso Designs.
Through trial and error and YouTube videos, the self-taught artist began with upcycling, or finding a creative way to repurpose, used hats – finding them either in thrift stores or ones on the street – and taking them apart to redesign them.
His design process – seemingly simple at first glance – is more intricate than simply mimicking the assembly. After taking the hats apart, he would “take out bits and pieces from what they (the original designer) had there and contrast it with what I want it to be,” Belvin explained.
“I find inspiration from everything, everyday life” Belvin says as he smiles, arms opening up to the heart of downtown Durham. “Durham is great because everyone is so together,” he says, standing in front of The Parlour, one of his go-to spots for ice cream, as a friend notices Belvin from across the street, skates past him and shakes his hand.
Belvin smiles apologetically for the distraction and waves to an employee in The Parlour. “In this one spot, you have Runaway, The Parlour, Blackspace, a skate park and Ngozi Design Collective,” said Belvin, arms wide, motioning that the list could go on. “The culture and the people here, you really get to know the people.”
Within a year of developing this new skill, Belvin has created over 300 hats in his basement studio – with roughly 75 on hand. He sells them to friends and community members, as well as online and in boutiques downtown. One of his most recent collaborations is a collaboration with Ngozi Design Collective in which he created four hats out of colorful, intricate African patterned textile, and is currently working on designing six more to be sold in the creative space.
For his personal projects, Belvin tries to gather new material every day. From fabric stores to thrift stores and donations from community members, he tries to find exciting new forms for these materials to take.
One of the weirdest materials Belvin said a person wanted him to transform into a hat: a plaid blazer. The outcome is one of his favorites, a “sturdy and cozy hat,” said Belvin, that he believes is successful because it builds off the current fashion trend of using flannels as accessories, such as tying it around the waist, and takes it a step further in a different form.
But while Belvin has a history of collaborations with other creatives in the Durham fashion community, and future collaborations under way, Belvin has hopes for a more unique career path in the industry.
“I don’t want a clothing line,” Belvin said. “I want to sell individual items to individual people so that everyone has something unique. “
Belvin dreams of creating a movement in Durham based on bartering, where people can trade items with other local business owners and artists in Durham.
“If I see someone and say, ‘Hey, nice jacket,’ and they say, ‘Oh thanks, it’s Tommy Hilfiger,'” explained Belvin, “This possible new connection I could have with them goes straight out of the window – it goes to a corporation.” By having a community with a free flow of local merchandise, Belvin explains that not only is there support among local artists and inspiration, but also the creation of a connection to someone with a story behind how that piece was made or where they got it from.
Part of Belvin’s motivation for making this barter-style community was seeing it in action and his amazement at the result. He found inspiration in the Free Things in Life Art and Music festival on Sat., Oct 22, in Durham that channeled a Woodstock vibe of freedom and supporting local arts – from the local musicians and sound technicians working the event for free, to the numerous local vendors and food trucks.
“I found out about the event on social media, with 12 vendors, 20 acts and 1,000 people all on a 47-acre field there for free. You don’t ever really think stuff like that could happen,” said Belvin.
Aside from working with Ngozi, Belvin is also currently preparing for showcasing his work in Durham’s annual Black Market on Friday, Nov. 25. On the busiest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, Black Market is a space hosted by Black August in the Park dedicated for local black-owned businesses to network within the community.
From 11a.m. to 6p.m. at Lakewood Shopping Center, Black Market will host a diverse group of vendors from North Carolina and the surrounding area, as well as local food from black-owned restaurants and “upbeat and soulful music,” according to their website.
“After Free Things, I was inspired to ponder my dreams and reach out, because you never know what can happen,” said Belvin.