How Liberty City native Keya Martin helped Cardi B walk in style

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Liberty City native Keya Martin had a modest 500 Instagram followers and less than three years of experience in the fashion industry when she released her luxury footwear line in 2018. But against the odds, British Vogue immediately reached out after seeing her shoes in a post.

Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and other fashion publications soon followed. In December of 2020, rapper Cardi B wore a pair of Martin’s Keeyahri heels in a photo spread in Billboard magazine.

“Cardi B was the first celebrity to wear it,” Martin said. “It’s an honor, and it makes me proud.”

Martin’s designs, which sell for between $800 and $1,500, have since been seen on other celebrities, including Fantasia Barrino and Latto.

The Keeyahri Instagram profile now has nearly 40,000 followers, and Martin has since built a relationship with Nordstrom, which launched her shoes in three stores in Virginia, Texas and California. She plans on eventually expanding her product offerings globally and has already begun working with Harris Wharf London, a U.K. fashion retailer.

Martin, 39, traces her style inspiration back to her childhood in Liberty City. Her late grandmother LaVerne Ingraham was one of her inspirations to pursue fashion.

“She would always dress up in a lot of silks and cashmeres,” Martin said recently at her Miramar office. “I was just looking at old pictures, and she really had style. She definitely inspired me.”

Keya Martin, Keeyahri founder and designer, poses in her workspace on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, in Miramar. Martin runs the business on her own.
Keya Martin, Keeyahri founder and designer, poses in her workspace on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, in Miramar. Martin runs the business on her own.

Martin, a 2003 graduate of Miami Northwestern Senior High School, was also inspired by seeing how hard her classmates worked to stand out with their attire. She logged her own clothing choices on a weekly basis so that she wouldn’t repeat outfits.

“Going to Miami Northwestern is really different,” she said. “You have to keep up with fashion. Everyone is decked out in that high school. That’s when I really started to step into that zone of fashion and caring about what I wear.”

As a high schooler, Martin enjoyed drawing and was active in several extracurricular activities, including the Future Business Leaders of America. Not knowing how she could earn a living from studying fashion, she pursued a business degree from Clark Atlanta, a historically Black university in Georgia.

After graduating from college in 2007, Martin found a job working in aeronautics for Lockheed Martin and stayed in Atlanta. The work was challenging, but she was homesick and wanted to pursue something different. She moved back to South Florida and started working for Diageo, the umbrella brand for spirits companies like Hennessy and Smirnoff. The work took her to international locales like Paris and London for weeks, but she was not fulfilled.

Attending church service one Sunday in 2017 at Miami Gardens’ Antioch Missionary Baptist Church was the catalyst to Martin’s creative awakening.

“I was like praying and was stressed, so I wanted to find out what I absolutely love,” she remembered. Fashion immediately came to mind.

Martin knew she didn’t want to build what she considered the typical fashion brand and began sketching ideas for a footwear line. She soon took a leap of faith and booked another trip overseas to attend a trade show in February 2018.

“I went to Italy without knowing a soul,” she said. “I went to a trade show and just walked from booth to booth with my sketch pad and was introducing myself with my business cards. I made these connections in Italy and ever since then, I feel like everything just took off.”

With her newfound connections, Martin began producing samples of her shoes and wore them to networking events. There was a stark contrast between working in corporate America and being an entrepreneur. She quickly had to learn how accounting, shipping and logistics related to her work. She could not find mentorship in Miami and traveled to New York to better understand her new endeavor.

Martin’s goal was to develop unique shoes that were statement pieces, crafted with Italian leather and distinct chiseled heels. She wanted to design shoes that would give wearers a boost of confidence.

Like many Black entrepreneurs, accessing capital to sustain her business has not been easy for Martin. While she has received grants, bootstrapping her business has been a rigorous process.

“I utilized my pension, my 401K and my savings,” she said. “And I have a 7-year-old son. It’s tough when you don’t have funding. It would be so much easier and stress-free if you have that funding.”

At times, building a sustainable business has had a sharp learning curve. When working with wholesalers, she learned that business owners usually pay upfront for orders to be shipped to a retailer and can expect to get paid on the back end. A $200,000 order meant that she had to front $200,000 so her shoes could be sold.

“Last year was a lot,” she said. “Fast forward to today, it’s all lessons. Now I know about margins and marketing.”

In preparation for her trip to New York Fashion Week this year, Martin beamed when discussing her planned meetings with mentors and potential clients.

With perseverance, Martin’s found her way into a competitive fashion industry — and all without a staff. She wants to make sure other Black entrepreneurs can join her there and sets aside time on a weekly basis to answer questions from aspiring entrepreneurs via Instagram.

“I feel like God put this on my heart to do,” she said. “I’m not gatekeeping. I made so many mistakes, and I would prefer to give somebody a step ahead.”