The professional wrestling ring and beauty pageant stage would seem to have little in common. But for Yolanda Jernigan '03, fashion is the main event for each show.
“I design a range of things, from track jackets to coats to complete outfits – knee pads, kick pads, tops and bottoms,” she said. “I collaborate with the gear makers to make sure that the design is true to what the client and I have envisioned or expect. It’s pretty much like fashion design.”
Watching the Miss America pageant on TV was the thing to do when Jernigan was growing up.
“The gowns mesmerized me,” she said. “I wanted to do that, be a part of that.”
When Jernigan came to Moore College of Art & Design to study fashion design, she made the long hours in the studio go by faster by watching professional wrestling, a passion she’s had since she was 5 years old. She likes the production, presentation, story and athleticism of pro wrestling, as well as the costumes.
“It got me through college, that and Pepsi,” she laughed.
THE WRESTLING CONNECTION
After graduation, Jernigan worked for AST Sportswear in New York as a menswear designer for the “Johnny Blaze” line and for the urban hip-hop magazine The Source. One day, she saw a World Wrestling Entertainment display at the office and discovered the company made apparel for the WWE. She began sharing her WWE magazines and fan stories with AST’s designer.
“He was designing, and I lived that life,” she said. “I got in line for tickets, I went to my share of pay-per-views and house shows.”
Near the end of 2007, her eyes were opened to the world of independent wrestling when she discovered a podcast called Smart Wrestling Fan that is devoted to the sport.
“Around this same time, the WWE was making shirts that a lot of fans didn’t like and were complaining they were overpriced,” she said. “From there, it clicked for me to put my two loves together.”
Jernigan began designing wrestling t-shirts for devotees like herself under her company name GIMICK$ Wrestling Tees.
“My slogan at the time was, ‘F*** a sign, wear a shirt,’” she said. Sometimes the WWE would take fans’ signs away at events, including hers, if the signs were deemed to be inappropriate as they were going in a more family friendly direction. "I figured you can’t take a shirt away.”
She debuted her shirts in March 2009 at The Arena in South Philadelphia at the Chikara’s King of Trios wrestling event. Favorites incorporate wrestling lingo, such as ‘I <3 Heels.’
“’Heel’ means bad guy, ‘babyface’ or ‘face’ means good guy,” she said.
THE WWE CONNECTION
In addition to having her own company, Jernigan works as the manager of merchandise for Chikara, an independent wrestling company based in Northeast Philadelphia. It was there that she met Claudio Castagnoli, whose WWE name is Cesaro.
“I messaged him on Myspace and told him I liked him as a wrestler, but I appreciated his style,” she said. Cesaro sewed his own tights, mixing patterns and fabrics. “I asked if I could design a new shirt for him to sell, and he said yes.”
The red t-shirt featured Castagnoli’s catch phrase, ‘Very European,’ in a mountain motif, and included the Swiss flag, Cesaro’s home country.
“He loved it so much, he made it part of his brand, with hoodies, men’s shirts, tank tops,” she said. “That’s one of my biggest accomplishments.” Cesaro debuted on the WWE’s main roster in 2012, and Jernigan continues to design his gear. One of her favorite possessions is a signed, red-and-white track jacket that Cesaro sewed himself.
Jernigan’s favorite wrestler of all time is Shawn Michaels, who wrestled in the 1990s under the name “The Heartbreak Kid.”
“He was so extra-detailed and elaborate with his wrestling gear, from entrance to performance,” said Jernigan, who describes herself as very detail-oriented.
Most of Jernigan’s work now is creating brands for both men and women wrestlers.
“I want to help them get to the WWE, to get to a higher tier of wrestling so they can live off wrestling,” she said. “What’s your name, what’s your character, what do you say? One of my skill sets is that I can see what you can’t see about yourself.”
Jernigan says she inherited some of her artistic ability from her grandmother, Yvonne Roye, who helped cut fabric for Jernigan and her classmates at Moore, and shares Jernigan’s enthusiasm for wrestling and drag shows. Jernigan wants her grandmother to share in her success.
“Mommom could have been a fashion designer,” she said. “She always wanted to do something – ballet, painting, drawing – but it was rare for black people at that time to look at doing anything but service. She’s been here for a decent amount of this journey, and before she leaves this earth, we will have a creative business together.”