Leonard Stewart Jr. ’20: From historic neighborhood to futuristic fashion
Leonard Stewart Jr. ’20 grew up in a St. Louis neighborhood known for a landmark 1948 Supreme Court Case, Shelley v. Kraemer, that struck down racially restrictive housing covenants. The Shelleys, a Black family, moved into the neighborhood, and Louis Kraemer tried to use the courts to block the family from staying.
“I had a lot more resources open to me, tailored to students who don’t have resources, because of this neighborhood,” Stewart says. “I got into a program in high school, College Bound, and Cornell College was the top school for them.”
College Bound assists economically disadvantaged high school students achieve college degrees and successful careers. The program’s influence brought Stewart to Cornell, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in business management, completed an internship with Susan Sherman, co-founder of the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, and held a fashion show next to Kimmel Theatre, a nod to the building where he got his start crafting pieces in Costume Construction during his first year with Resident Costume Designer and Costume Shop Supervisor Jenny Nutting Kelchen.
Stewart appreciates the people at Cornell who supported him—from Director of Intercultural Life Hemie Collier during Each One Teach One orientation for students of color to the Artist in Residence Alvon Reed in his hip hop dance course.
“President Brand and [Special Assistant to the President] John Harp were always kindhearted and understanding, even through the hard-headedness of a young college student, and they were very supportive of me and the community as a whole,” he says. “They don’t get enough credit.”
Another Cornell connection was incredibly helpful: Stewart was introduced to Kurt Kloss ’83 and Tracy Fares Kloss ’84 on campus. The St. Louis couple are the parents of supermodel Karlie Kloss, and have opened doors for his career.
Is it a surprise that Stewart’s roots in his St. Louis neighborhood have led him to create a clothing label, SSTEW3, that he says is high-fashion streetwear? There seems to be a connecting thread. For Stewart, his clothing is also a response to his concern for the environment—in particular, the fashion industry’s contribution to pollution. Stewart wants his line to reuse textiles, or use textiles that can be recycled or will biodegrade with minimal impact on the environment when the garment’s use has ended. He sees SSTEW3 as a futuristic, mindful approach to designing clothing.
“Hip hop culture is a big influence when it comes to beating the odds, and it has always been the platform where the American dream has happened 10 times over—in fashion, music, and even education,” he says.
You can see this influence in his streetwear. His designs have caught the attention of Rent the Runway, Neiman Marcus, the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum, and the stylists of Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott.
“Cornell prepared me for my career when it comes to learning core concepts. You have to pick up things fast in 18 days,” Stewart says in reference to Cornell’s 18-day block calendar, where you take one course per block for an immersive and experiential education.
Keep your eyes on this young alumnus because his career is like the block plan, moving quickly and with creative innovation as a propellant.