EsaDiva Maven: Creativity to the Tee

EsaDiva Maven holds a paint brush and palette while wearing a long black T-shirt that says 'E's Tees and More.

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought.” – Albert Einstein

If you’ve been to any Pride events in the past few years, you have probably met the charming and affable E from E’s Tees. The woman behind the booth and the thousand-watt smile is actually EsaDiva Maven, the designer of many of the products you’ll see at her merchandise table. 

EsaDiva is an original who’s spent a majority of her life creating unique and fun products and clothing. We met at the SisterSpace festival where her Pride gear and outgoing personality drew people to her table and again at OurFest in October where I had the pleasure of meeting her mother. A product of a legacy of strong women, I figured E would be a fun way to kick off Women’s History Month.

First off, what’s the story behind your name?
It’s an amalgamation of E is a diva … E’s A Diva … EsaDiva. From a very young age, that’s how people would describe me so I made it my chosen name! 

Where were you created?
Philadelphia, PA. Born and raised in what they’re now calling Brewerytown. I’ve lived there from before the neighborhood started changing. And the way it’s looking, that’s where I’m staying! 

Tell me something about the family.
I have one sister. She’s a nurse. And my mother and father. My mother was, and still is, a seamstress. I think you met her at the Pride festival. I come from a line of really super creative, artsy and fashionable women. I think that’s what instilled in me the desire to do what I do now. My grandmother worked in retail as a window dresser. So I grew up around people who would encourage me to color, to paint, to draw and express myself. Once I was old enough to get on the sewing machine, my mom had me making dresses for my Barbie dolls. 

Ooh, I’d like to hear more about Grandma!
Nana worked for a place no longer around called the York Shop. It was right under the Frankford El. She did some retail but she was mostly the window designer. My grandfather also did the windows and that’s how they met. I remember going there after school. I’d try on the clothes and she’d let me help her in the windows. She was into fashion, and she’s the one who got my mom into modeling. That’s how my mother got started sewing. She made her own clothing so that she’d have something to wear. My Nana was also a singer and toured with an opera company. She was just a phenomenal woman all around. And she’s still alive. She’s 94 now and still pretty sharp. She’s out and about and cooking on her own. We’re so blessed that she’s still around. She and my mother have always been a vital part of my life and have always encouraged me to follow my dreams. 

How would they have described you as a kid?
Oh, wow! Uh, free spirited, rebellious. I was always championing some type of cause, even as a kid. Creative with a wild imagination, um, talkative, and opinionated. [Laughing] Those are all qualities that I still have to this day. 

What’s the most trouble you’ve ever got into? Good trouble.
Honestly, I was a pretty good kid. But there was one day when we got out of school early. It was back in the day when the group Dru Hill was really hot and they were doing a CD signing at FYE, which used to be at 15th and Chestnut. [Laughing] Now I’m giving away my age! Anyway, I didn’t tell my parents that we got out early and a group of my friends and I went down there to try to see them. We got the opportunity to meet them and it was this whole huge event. It was so cool! Little did I know, the news was covering it.

Busted is right! When the news came on, my mom saw it, and people were calling my mom, “Hey, we just saw E on the news!” I got grounded. It was a big thing. But overall, we lived a very sheltered life. My mom was very protective of us. A lot of my time was spent inside doing creative things and reading. I read a LOT of books back then. I still do but I just don’t have as much time now as I’d like. It was all about our education, and going to church, so we weren’t out in the streets getting into trouble like a lot of my peers were doing. 

And what did you do after high school?
I think in part because of being so sheltered, I was in a hurry to get out in the real world and start being a grownup, and in realizing that to do that, I’d need money. I started working. I was 16 and was working two jobs at the Franklin Mills Mall. When I graduated high school, I looked at a few colleges, U-Arts and Tyler, but I chose to stay in the workforce. All my knowledge has been self taught and/or came from my own imagination. 

EsaDiva Maven wears a denim jacket featuring unicorns and rainbows.

Nice, how did you get started with E’s Tees?
From the time I was young, I’ve been making clothes. I used to create designs with fabric paint. I was painting things on my denim overalls and shirts, you name it. My friends started buying T-shirts and asking me to draw or write things for them too. Back then, the shirts and art supplies were like a treat for me. It was more a labor of love than anything else. Then I started making gift baskets to give away to friends. I’d make baskets for different holidays or special occasions. Soon, people started asking me to make custom baskets for them and it became my first business. It was called “A Tisket, a Basket” and I started getting a reputation for doing really unique and personalized baskets. I was still making custom clothing for myself and people started asking me if I could do certain designs for them, so after a while, I started to branch out. 

In the back of my mind, I always wanted to do T-shirts. I had statements I wanted to make and the T-shirts were a great way to express big ideas. I took a screen printing class with a woman named Hope who taught me and was so impressed by my desire to learn that when the classes ended, she invited me to her studio and continued lessons. At the time, there weren’t many women screen printers. It was a very male-dominated field. She believed in me and my ideas and helped me build confidence in myself. She gave me the foundation to go after what I had dreamed of for many years. And that was the beginning of E’s Tees & More.

When did you come out and when did you start doing queer-oriented products?
Actually, my first T-shirt was one that said, “Gays pray too.” It is and was one of my most popular designs. It was a statement that I wanted to make having grown up in the Catholic religion and hearing so many stories of people being ostracized because of their sexuality. I felt it was something that needed to be stated, that regardless of who we chose to love, we could still be spiritual people and that you can pray to whoever you believe in and it’s OK. It was super successful and still is today. In terms of coming out, my parents actually brought it to me before I had an opportunity to bring it to them. [Laughing] They called me out on it!

How did that go down?
They sat me down and they said that they knew that I was interested in women and that it was OK and that no matter who I chose to be with in life, they were totally accepting of it. They wanted me to feel comfortable enough to be able to talk to them about it. 

Had you had your first relationship by then and was that the giveaway or were the T-shirts the giveaway?
The T-shirts came long after. No, it was probably the girlfriend. My first relationship was in high school and it was with a very masculine presenting woman who was a lot older than me. After that relationship ended, I started seeing someone and we moved in together and I guess I was still in denial when it came to admitting it to my parents. You know how we did that, “she’s my roommate” thing? But they knew better and from the start, they’ve been so loving and accepting. My whole family is like that, including my sister and grandmother. To this day, my mom comes with me to ALL the Pride events, rain or shine, and it’s not just because she has a lesbian daughter. She just loves everyone. 

What kinds of merch do you carry on your website?
Where shall we start? Obviously T-shirts, plenty of those with big bold statements. There are custom items, which is what I really pride myself on. I do custom painted denim, custom shoes, custom jewelry, hats, pretty much anything. My goal is to create something you cannot find anywhere else. I’m a unique person and I want to help people stand out. And I love themes. I love coming up with themes or creating something for a special occasion. There’s a lot on the website, but obviously if someone has something in mind that they want me to create, they can call me for a commissioned piece. That’s where my heart and passion lie. 

Yeah, there’s a lot on the site, I see everything from bedazzled rainbow sunglasses to water bottles, shot glasses and of course T-shirts. I even see a stash bear! And P.S. I love the “Minding my Black Owned Business” Tee!
That’s a fun one!

And I take it you’re an Eagles fan?
I am. I love my Eagles merchandise. We’re a big sports town and I wanted to create some fun and unusual items, like my Eagles Kiss T-shirt, the “Thick Thighs and Eagles Vibes” shirt and the boppers. I’ve always loved boppers and headpieces. I like doing fascinators and I was looking to see if there were any football-related head boppers and I couldn’t find any Suzi, so I made some! Eagles head boppers and people went crazy for them. And you can’t find them anywhere else in the world! I’m really proud of them and with the season opener coming up soon, I might do some Phillies boppers. I love to make fun and creative things for our sports teams and fans. And of course, I love creating things for our LGBTQ+ community. There aren’t a wide variety of Pride sports items out there to express your love for the team. 

Put my order in! We need more rainbow Pride stuff for the next Gay Day at the Phillies.
Wow, I haven’t been to that in years. I should try to go this year. Another thing I did was to start a group called Qultured Queers. It’s a group of people in the LGBTQ community who want to do things as part of the community that focus on the arts, not just going out to the bars. We want to be in a safe space with each other and make trips to the Art Museum, and the theater, movies, etc. A group trip to the Phillies game might be fun too. Maybe I’ll make up something special for us to wear! 

How can we find the group?
We’re on instagram as @QulturedQueers, one word. It’s a little something I’m doing for pleasure. It’s not something I’m making money from. I just felt like everybody’s trying to get you to a bar or a club or a party and it would be nice to have some alternatives. There’s not too much for culture-oriented folks, especially in the POC community. It’s hard because I’m trying to run my business, helping to take care of an aging grandparent and do this as well, but hopefully I’ll be able to allocate more time to it this summer. 

Count me in for that too. OK, let’s do some off-the-cuff questions. What book or books would we find on your nightstand?
Hmmm, OK I’m looking at it right now. “Harry Potter” — I’m re-reading it. “The Great Gatsby,” which is one of my favorites of all time. I have every single book that Michele Obama wrote. “The Four Agreements” — I love inspirational books. I love sci-fi. I love fiction… yeah, I need more time for reading. I have a huge library and I keep buying books thinking I’m going to make more time to read but it’s hard. I like physical books. I’m not into Kindle, or downloading books and all that stuff. I like the feel of a book in my hand. 

Two favorite smells?
The smell of the ocean — that languid, salty smell. And the scent of Estee Lauder perfume, which sounds weird but it reminds me of my grandmother. That’s all she wears and whenever I smell it, it’s like, “awww that smells like Nana,” which is always a warm feeling. 

When did you last cry and why?
Oh boy… about a week ago. Wintertime had been very slow for the business and I became really overwhelmed and very anxious about the future. It’s par for the course being a business owner because you have a lot of ups, but then you have very deep lows. I literally sat and cried and prayed and said, “Lord, is this really what you want me to do? Is this my purpose? Should I still pursue this?” I had a good cry about it and… I’m telling you, the lord works in mysterious ways because a half hour later, I got a huge order on the website. It turned around just like that. [Laughing] I was like, “OK God, I guess I’ll keep going!” But it’s hard because I am just one person. I don’t have assistants, so literally everything that has to be done, from social media to ordering ink, responding to emails, creating new ideas and products, it’s all on me and some days, it can be rough. But the reward is that I’m doing something that I love. And when the client receives the custom item, and they get joy from something I made, it makes it all worthwhile. And now I’m being featured in the PGN! When I see it in print, that’ll probably be the next time I cry! 

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