Q&A Toney Briggs, Soul Train’s Fashion Designer

Soul Train dancers modeling Toney Briggs' fashions

Soul Train dancers modeling Toney Briggs’ fashions

Do you ever wonder where many of the Soul Train dancers of the eighties and early nineties got some of their unique and elaborate outfits and fashions from? One name: Tamechi Toney Briggs. He gave Soul Train “the look.” He was responsible for designing and making thousands of outfits for many of the dancers on Soul Train and he got the stamp of approval from Don Cornelius himself. It was his love for the program as a child growing up in the small town of Wilson, North Carolina that influenced him to want to be a designer, and he got what he wanted. Briggs once said, “Fashion is [my] passion.” He was also responsible for the fashions of many other celebrities in the entertainment industry. It was he who gave entertainer/rapper Hammer the classic “baggy pants” look.  Undoubtedly, Briggs’ fashions took style, grace and elegance to new levels.

SoulTrain.com: When you were growing up, what inspired you to want to get into fashion design?

(Vesta performs on Soul Train in a Toney Briggs design.)

Toney Briggs:  Soul Train was one of the first things that inspired me to want to get into fashion design. I used to watch it as a child and it really inspired me to see the unique things that the kids would wear and the fashions that they had on the show. I was also inspired by Diana Ross and designers like Bob Mackie that had that edge with the different entertainers they designed for.

Toney Briggs photo

Toney Briggs

SoulTrain.com: What dancers from Soul Train did you admire the most when you were growing up as far as the fashions they wore?

Toney Briggs:  I was a really big fan of Patricia Davis as well as Fawn Quinones, Sharon Hill, Sheri Beyers, Sherry Foster, Jermaine Stewart and Jody Watley.

SoulTrain.com: Did you go to school to learn about designing, or was that a skill you picked up on your own?

Toney Briggs:  I started designing when I was in the fifth grade. I also had a dance group and I would make our costumes. When I joined the 4H Club, the leader saw all that I could do with sewing and designing and told me that I had to remain a member of the 4H Club. On days I didn’t want to go to the meetings, she would knock on my door and drag me to the meetings to share my talents.

SoulTrain.com: Tell me more about the dance group. What was the name of the group?

Toney Briggs: Our group was The Key & Locks. I was the Key and two other people, who were my classmates, were the Locks. We won all the competitions and always won first place. Afterwards, there was a radio station WGTM which was the main radio station in our city and the DJ’s name was Golden Boy. I wrote to him and said I wanted to put together the Golden Boy Dancers. So I auditioned about eight of my friends and we started traveling all over the city doing shows. We were the opening act for Evelyn “Champagne” King when she had just come out with “Shame,” and the groups Sun and Cameo.  I worked with the Golden Boys until I was 17 years old.  We toured with the radio station and around the states and opened and danced for different artists and also performed on local TV dance shows. We danced in night clubs, too, but we had to be supervised by our parents.  We would dance at the clubs and then we had to leave.

SoulTrain.com:  Aside from The Key & Locks, who were some of the other first people you designed outfits for at that time?

Toney Briggs:  What ended up happening was that I had fashion shows in the city I grew up in. My little sister, as well as my friend Francine Fox, were my fit models.  They used to try on everything and I really started to sew a lot. There was a bar that separated my mother’s kitchen from her living room, and I would sew and sew until I got that bar full of garments, and then sell them to the community. People would come in and they would hear I had designer clothes.  I was just a child in elementary school!

SoulTrain.com:  How did your journey with designing clothes for Soul Train dancers begin?

Toney Briggs: I found out I had a cousin on Soul Train named Junior, and I was trying my best to get in touch with him. I would call 411 and ask for Soul Train but I was never given a number. But one day when I called 411 and I asked for Soul Train in Los Angeles, the operator said to me, “You must be looking for Don Cornelius Productions.” So she gave me the number and I called and Cheryl Song answered the phone.

SoulTrain.com:  How fortunate that was for you!

Toney Briggs: Cheryl was working at the office at the time and when she told me who she was, that was my beginning of designing clothes for the Soul Train dancers.

SoulTrain.com:  What happened after that phone call?

Toney Briggs: Cheryl gave me the dates for the next taping and I asked if I could get on. She said she couldn’t promise me that I would get in and she was not even supposed to be giving me that information, but she gave me the dates. I had also finally located my cousin Junior, who had just finished dancing on the show two seasons before. So when I flew out to Los Angeles I met Cheryl and her dance partner Myron Montgomery, and we connected. After I connected with everybody else and went back to North Carolina, I started sewing like crazy. I would work in cucumber fields, tobacco fields, whatever I could do to make money to buy fabric and send the dancers outfits to wear on Soul Train. This was the beginning of me doing clothes for the dancers. I wasn’t even charging them. I would just send the clothes to the dancers so I could see my garments on TV. I used to commute back and forth but I eventually moved to Los Angeles.

SoulTrain.com:  What do you remember about your first day at Soul Train?

Toney Briggs:  When I first got to Soul Train, it was really difficult.  When I first got to the studio, they did not let me in. I had to show my bus ticket to show that I rode for three days all the way to Los Angeles and I begged them but they would not let me in. I begged and knocked on the door and the dance coordinator, Chuck Johnson, told me to wait after lunch. It was me and about ten other dancers.  After lunch, he came out and looked around and selected certain dancers, but not me.  That Sunday my uncle came down and showed them my bus ticket and Chuck Johnson let me in and he said I could sit on the side and watch but I couldn’t dance on the floor. I was bawling! I didn’t understand it. I was a good dancer and won dance contests. Jeffrey Daniels saw me and came over and asked what was wrong and if I was okay.  I said no, and that I had come 3,000 miles to dance on the show and that man over there said I couldn’t dance. Jeffrey said, “Which man?” I pointed to the man, Chuck Johnson, and Jeffrey told me not to even trip. He told me the same thing happened to him and Jody when they first came on the show. But he told me when Chuck was on the other side of the floor to get up and dance on the opposite side of the floor. That’s what I did.

SoulTrain.com: Who was the first dancer you made an outfit for at Soul Train?

Toney Briggs:  The first dancers were Cheryl Song and Myron Montgomery.  I told them I could make this and make that and asked if I made them some outfits would they wear them on the show. Myron said of course.  The first thing I sent was some baggy pants of a white and cream-ish color I made out of my mom’s curtains. Those pants were what would eventually be known as the Hammer pants. Cheryl and Myron were known for the coordinated outfits that I made. Myron told some of the dancers about me and people were coming up to me asking if I would design outfits for them. It then snowballed into doing outfits for other dancers such as Crystal McCarey, Sheila Lewis, Juliette Hagerman, Nieci Payne, Reginald Thornton, Michelle Stevenson, and it went on and on.

SoulTrain.com: I recall that several of the dancers modeled your fashions in Right On! Magazine. How did that come about?

Toney Briggs:  Right On! Magazine reached out to me through the actor Stoney Jackson. He told the magazine’s editor, Cynthia Horner, about me and she and I bonded. She put me and the Soul Train dancers in the magazine. At the time, I formed a modeling troupe of about twenty Soul Train dancers. Renaldo Ray was the host of the show and he took us around Los Angeles and the dancers modeled my clothes. That’s how the publicity about me really got started. It became a priority to me to make sure that the dancers were looking fabulous.

SoulTrain.com: All of your outfits are very tasteful and top of the line, but did you ever have any problems with any of the production team at Soul Train with regard to the dancers wearing your outfits?

Soul Train Dancer Sheila Lewis wearing Toney Briggs design

Soul Train Dancer Sheila Lewis wearing Toney Briggs design

Toney Briggs:  I remember one time I did this dress for Sheila and Pam Brown, the show’s head coordinator, did not want her to wear that dress. I don’t know if she thought it was too revealing or too sexy. It was one of those tight fitted dresses that showed your shape and it had a plunging neckline. But she told Sheila that she could not dance on the show with that dress on and told Sheila to have a seat. So while Sheila was sitting down, Don looked across and saw her and said, “Sheila, start the Soul Train line!” And she got up and wore that dress out! That told me that Don really admired what I was doing. In fact, one time before that, one of the dancers, Crystal  McCarey, told me that Don told her he loved the outfits I was designing for the dancers. He was impressed. He never ever tried to stop what I was doing.

SoulTrain.com: Did you ever have any missed opportunities of designing for any celebrities?

Toney Briggs:  I remember getting a call that there was this girl looking for some lace outfits and she saw some lace outfits that I made and she wanted to meet with me since they thought she was going to be a huge star. The meeting was the same day of a Soul Train taping and I said no, I couldn’t do it and I turned it down. The girl was Madonna. Things like that happened a couple of times but I would never let anything come between me designing for the Soul Train dancers.

SoulTrain.com:  Who was the first entertainer you had a chance to work with?

Toney Briggs:  It was Natalie Cole. One of the Soul Train dancers took me to Vegas with her to meet Natalie and I made a dress for her. After that, I ended up meeting Vesta. Me and some other dancers were her opening act.  After the show, I asked her manager if I could be Vesta’s designer and dancer on tour. He spoke to her and in four days I went out on the road with her, making outfits for her, doing her hair and doing her choreography.  I even brought in the Soul Train dancers on some of her performances, such as the Lou Rawls’ Parade of Stars and in a performance with Vesta on Soul Train. Vesta and I were the best of friends until the day she passed away.

SoulTrain.com:  What other celebrities did you design for?

Toney Briggs:  I made some Hammer pants for Jack the Rapper, who was the biggest radio personality in the country at the time. He was revolutionary in getting rap music and R&B played on the radio back in the eighties. He would throw these big events where artists like Phyllis Hyman and Bobby Brown would perform.  Shanice Wilson was another celebrity I designed for.  I was performing with Vesta at the Jack the Rapper concert and I saw Shanice backstage. I told her mother who I was and asked if I could design outfits for Shanice and she said sure. Shanice and I have been friends ever since. She is like my little sister. I also did outfits for Roy Ayers and his singer, Bonita Brisker.

MC Hammer wearing a Toney Briggs designed wardrobe

MC Hammer wearing a Toney Briggs designed wardrobe

SoulTrain.com:  How did you connect with Hammer?

Toney Briggs:  A singer named Nancy Fletcher and I were roommates. She sang with Dr. Dre, 2Pac and others.  I used to make clothes for her, even the baggy pants. There were four guys from Soul Train called the Soul Brothers and they used to perform with the rapper Def Jef. So Nancy told them about me and they came over and I made them the baggy pants and they would wear them when performing with Def Jef. They saw Hammer at this club and he was wondering where they got their baggy pants from, and they told him a friend of theirs from Soul Train, Toney Briggs, made them. So they were looking for me at Soul Train but I was not there. So when Hammer got to Soul Train, he saw Sheila Lewis on the riser and was wondering who made the outfit she was wearing. She gave him my information but he lost it. So what ended up happening was Hammer’s vice president was at the home of Candy, one of the Mary Jane Girls, whose clothes I was making at the time. They happened to be watching Soul Train and he made a compliment about Sheila’s outfit and that he had her information but lost it. So Candy said, “That’s Sheila the Diva. Our designer, Toney Briggs, makes her outfits.” So Candy called me and told me that Hammer’s people were at her house and they were looking for me and they were trying to find an image for this new rapper M.C. Hammer and that they wanted to meet with me the next day so that is how that all came about.

SoulTrain.com:  You finally got through to him!

Toney Briggs:  Yes, finally! They told me that Hammer’s record was selling but they didn’t have an image for him after meeting with so many designers. So they met with me and asked if I could come up with an image of M.C. Hammer. So I told them, “Trust me, I know exactly what he needs. Come back in two days and I will have an outfit for him.” So I made this baggy, blue lamé jacket with the big baggy pants, and they took it to him and it was history from there. This was before “U Can’t Touch This.”  I made eighty or ninety percent of the outfits he wore after that hit came out.

SoulTrain.com: Did anyone work with you in designing your outfits?

Toney Briggs: Sheila Lewis helped me. She was like my assistant. She would come over and have the second sewing machine. I sewed the first outfit and I passed it to her and she would sew the second outfit and we’d keep it moving. She let me use my creativity to the fullest.

SoulTrain.com:  After Hammer, what other celebrities did you design for?

Toney Briggs: I worked with Club Nouveau and did some really wonderful outfits for them. I also did outfits for James Brown, who was like a father figure to me, as well as his background singers called Bitter Sweet. He and I would sit down and design the clothes together. He adored me and told me one night at dinner that I was a genius and I almost lost it when he told me that. Eazy-E also called me a genius but when the Godfather of Soul called me that, it blew me away. He would call me after his concerts and talk about how the shows went. He adored my work and lifted my spirits and I’m thankful for the encouraging words he gave me to further my career as an entertainer. I also heard through another Soul Train dancer that Whitney Houston admired my work.

SoulTrain.com:  Did you ever design outfits for Michael Jackson or Janet Jackson?

Toney Briggs: I didn’t get to do any outfits for Janet but I did make some outfits for Michael’s “Come Together” video, which I was so excited about. One of my models was in the video. She wore a purple and black checkerboard top that I designed and was the girl who danced with Michael during the video.

SoulTrain.com: Who are you working with currently?

Kellita Smith wearing a Toney Briggs design

Kellita Smith wearing a Toney Briggs design

Toney Briggs: I’m working with this actress named Ariane who is on the show Total Divas that airs on the E! Channel.  She has been wearing my fashions a lot and she is floored by some of my designs. I also had the opportunity to work with Sherri Shepherd, who wore my clothes on The View, Ellen, Jay Leno and on the red carpet. She really inspired me to go full flare with my designs as well as Kellita Smith, who played the wife on the Bernie Mac show.  I did a lot of her outfits for the red carpet at many events.

SoulTrain.com: Who else would you like to design for?

Toney Briggs: There are so many talented women I would love to design, for like Kerry Washington.

SoulTrain.com: What about designing for the First Lady, Michelle Obama?

Toney Briggs:  I would love to! A lot of the outfits she wears remind me of the things I make. I can’t wait to  design for her and the President. I’ll have to send him some Hammer pants so he can lounge around the White House.

SoulTrain.com: Would you like to design for Beyoncé?

Toney Briggs: Beyoncé was in a group called The Dolls before Destiny’s Child. The lady that was in charge of their group called me to do their clothes and I agreed to do them. I was almost their official designer because they admired my work. Unfortunately, she passed away before we had a chance to connect. At the same time, I lost my father so I went back to North Carolina for a while. The next thing I knew, the group was called Destiny’s Child and they had the song “No, No, No.”

SoulTrain.com: Getting back to Soul Train, since Don admired the work you were doing, did you ever design anything for him?

Toney Briggs:  We actually talked about doing something for him but it never happened. I was at one of the Soul Train Christmas parties and he complimented a suit I was wearing. I thanked him and told him that coming from him that was a compliment since he dressed sharp all the time. I then told him one day I would have to do something for him and he said we will have to talk about that but it just never happened.

SoulTrain.com:  What do you want to say in memory of Don Cornelius?

Toney Briggs: I was thankful to be a part of his platform that was so groundbreaking.

SoulTrain.com:  Without a doubt, Soul Train really helped you to break through.

Toney Briggs:  Absolutely! Soul Train to me was my fashion design school. People asked me what design school I went to and I tell them the University of Soul Train. I learned about colors, fabrics and what works for certain body shapes. Many of the dancers just practically lived at my house. It was like the party place to go after Soul Train. We would cook and stay up all night. There were so many outfits I designed for dancers—like, in the thousands—that they wore on Soul Train.  I remember I begged Juliette Hagermann and Michelle Stevenson to dress them like twins on the show after they did it on a fashion show.  I am really thankful that the dancers wore my fashions.  All of the dancers are a big contribution to everything Soul Train had to offer.

SoulTrain.com: What else are you working on currently?

Toney Briggs: I am working on new music. My new album, Freeloaders, is due out in the spring. My song, “Poak Chops,” reached over two million viewers on YouTube. A fashion show featuring some of the designs worn on Soul Train is also in the works, and a documentary about my contributions to the fashion industry by way of Soul Train is in development.  I also want to take my clothes to another arena where I can share them with the world because I know a lot of people love my work but may not know who I am.

SoulTrain.com: What advice would you give to people who want to go into fashion design?

Toney Briggs: I would say be true to who you are, what you believe in and your vision. This is what carried me through.

SoulTrain.com: What word of wisdom do you want to share with the SoulTrain.com readers?

Toney Briggs: If you set yourself to be a part of something, be loyal to it. That’s what I did for the Soul Train dancers. I was a loyal designer to them. I knew they weren’t getting paid. I made it worthwhile for the chicken and the soda. I made sure they felt special. Loyalty takes you a long way.

Follow Tamechi Toney Briggs on Twitter @Tamechi.

-Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer. He is featured in the Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train which is available on Amazon and in bookstores.

3 Comments

  1. Evelyn Oliver McMillian says:

    Very good article, i was very impressed with this story

  2. Stephen McMillian says:

    Thank you!!

  3. Mary M says:

    I enjoyed this article showing how Soul Train inspired your creativity and lead to your being a fashion designer. I liked your point too about being loyal and true to who you are.

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