Changing the conversation through t-shirts, Donte Cotton creates Debonair Material brand

Talking about violence, bringing people together
Posted at 12:43 PM, Aug 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-25 23:20:38-04

City noise, like sirens and honks pour into a small unfinished art studio above a Remington Auto Body shop.

Floor to ceiling windows line the left wall, brightening the white cinder block room, with wooden panels on one side. Two men talk and fuss around the room finding the tools they need to create their masterpieces.

Here, their art is on t-shirts.

Donte Cotton spends most of his time at his home office, working with appliques, but for ABC2, he came to the studio.

He describes his passion as "hours in hot spaces, and just time getting your hands dirty and testing different products." 

It's not a pretty business and it doesn't pay the bills yet, but it gives Cotton so much more.

"You know just living in Baltimore, there's all types of crime and things that kind of weigh on you mentally," Cotton said he felt the weight of the city after graduating from Morgan State University.

"I've had a few friends that have died over the past couple years... One of my friend's he, he got shot and another friend recently got into a car accident and I lost one of my cousins to another shooting," Cotton said they were all victims of timing.

Designing and creating t-shirts as well as other products from hats to shoes and everything in between, became his escape.

His first t-shirt design in college was created with his now partner Terry Plater. Plater works with screen printing, essentially paint on material, using patterns that allow the paint through in certain areas, creating a design.

That first shirt they designed in 2014 reflected the violence around people buying Air Jordan shoes. Cotton realized the messages on his shirts could translate to the street.

"I was kinda like we need to fight over something greater than just material things, so coming up a few years later this design came back up when we had the uprising here, so it was a good time to release that shirt so we kinda did some re-releases of it," Cotton said, hoping to inspire people from all walks of life to think, talk and even make change.

"So kinda bringing that street and higher end together I think there's a space where we can exist together and those messages can be shared between one another," Cotton said.

He fuels his passion in his free time, hoping it will catch fire.

Cotton's business, Debonair Material, came to fruition in 2012. He realized his passion for entrepreneurism in high school and fostered it through college. He received a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Art with an emphasis in Graphic Design at Morgan State.

Cotton just returned from the Pensole Kicks Kamp in Portland, Oregon, where he was chosen to fly out and share design ideas for shoes. He worked with top designers and learned invaluable information about design and the fashion industry.