By Women, For All: The LGBTQ Luminaries Behind Femme Fatale DC Forge Ahead
June 5, 2020 @ 10:00am
The core ethos of Femme Fatale DC can be drilled down to one simple word: energy.
“You have to tap into your feminine energy to be in our space, and if you’re willing to do that, everything flows fine,” explains CEO Cee Smith. “But there’s people who walk into this space and feel that energy and don’t want any part. It protects itself. It protects that energy.”
This resilient haven of inclusivity is what has allowed Femme Fatale DC to grow exponentially since its inception four years ago, attracting an eclectic audience by being accepting of everyone. The collective invites women and non-binary entrepreneurs and creatives to rent a portion of its pop-up retail space and sell their works. Smith, along with COO Adriana Mendoza and their team, has hosted more than 700 events and provided a home to the works of up to 134 entrepreneurs at five temporary brick-and-mortar spots, most recently downtown on Massachusetts Avenue.
Smith remains firm in her belief that the platform’s strong base of both women and LGBTQ community members is a reflection of its openness. When you walk through Femme Fatale DC’s doors, she wants you to see your reflection. She and Mendoza take their collective role as female LGBTQ leaders in D.C. seriously, but also don’t ever want to make anyone feel excluded. Though Femme Fatale DC’s ideology has remained consistent, Mendoza mentions that its motto has changed over the years.
“There is an energy created when there is all this feminine energy in one space, so we held strong to that for many years,” she says. “Our motto at that time was, ‘By women, for women,’ but we’ve evolved in understanding that actually, anybody who embraces the feminine doesn’t have to necessarily be just female gender or male gender. If you embrace the feminine, we are open to that and you are invited into the space. Now our motto is, ‘By women, for all.’”
The pair is a natural fit for running the space. Each brings her own skill set, and though their professional backgrounds could not be more different, Smith and Mendoza complement one another and share the mindset necessary to accomplish their mission. As D.C. natives who actually grew up within District lines and now reside in Brookland, they also know the city and its burgeoning creative community intimately.
Mendoza, an artist and jewelry designer with a penchant for connecting all things creative, embraced the first iteration of Femme Fatale DC in 2016. Soon after, she joined forces with Smith, who brought her business savvy to the table after years of working in the entertainment industry, where she established the first queer record label in the country.
While Femme Fatale DC was first gaining momentum, Smith was also forming her own media group to support LGBTQ entrepreneurs and creatives of color. Color Wheel Capital, which has launched nine LGBTQ businesses in the District, runs in tandem with their shared project in addition to several other LGBTQ-focused ventures Smith is at the helm of.
“I saw a necessity that had not been filled: targeting LGBTQ people directly who are interested in building and developing businesses,” she says. “It was pretty much untouched. With my experience, it makes sense. It’s my passion: all things LGBTQ growth and development, to further the cause and our personal lives as well.”
Smith’s impressive commitment carried over to Femme Fatale DC, as she was drawn to the platform’s innovative business model.
“I saw [Femme Fatale DC] as an avenue to show people how they could build their business more [effectively] than just hoping they figure it out once they have the money.”
Mendoza says she’s glad Smith enjoys the business side of their platform, but she feels like she has the best gig because she gets to flex her creative muscle. She spends each day wearing many hats as creative director, managing their core staff of seven and acting as the mastermind behind strategies to encourage the community to interact in their space. She’s also face-to-face with their current group of 70 entrepreneurs while always scouting new ones.
“It’s been rewarding in the sense that we can put our energy in different places and continue to build this foundation,” she says.
Femme Fatale DC’s walls and shelves are filled to the brim with everything from works of fine art to handmade jewelry, accessories and clothing. Each piece has a story Mendoza can share about the artist or entrepreneur and what creating that work meant to them. Everything is intentional, everything has meaning. This extends to the platform’s myriad of events, which run the gamut from goddess clapping sessions to entrepreneur education segments.
Mendoza elaborated on the aforementioned goddess clapping event, one of her favorites: a women-only party embracing feminine energy, including hardcore dancing to go-go music with short breaks for meditations and consumption of vegan hors d’oeuvres and natural juices. The grand finale? A sound bath from a longtime Femme Fatale DC collaborator.
Both women speak tenderly of a recent installation, a breathtaking chandelier made of strips of denim, that acts as the focal point of their current space. In a matter of days, the Femme Fatale DC team activated their community to donate pieces of denim and help cut them up, and over several Saturdays, they joined to help with each step of building the massive centerpiece.
“The chandelier is a culmination of what we stand for after all these years,” Mendoza explains. “When one of us says, ‘I can’t do this,’ there’s another woman saying, ‘Yes, you can.’ And that’s what this was, because I’m in here stressing about this and I’m like, ‘We have to activate this, but I don’t know how.’ But it happened. When we have interactions that bring the community together, that is what fulfills me and makes everything worth it.”
Their current space resonates with them on multiple levels, after stints on H Street and in NOMA, Tenleytown and Columbia Heights. They normally only occupy a building for three to six months before searching for a new neighborhood to build a sense of community in, but Covid-19 put a wrench in their plans. They’ve only been located downtown since November, with just a few short months to accomplish their goals.
“I can’t let this space go,” Mendoza says adamantly. “We have too much to do. Too much love has been put into this, and we need to fully utilize that.”
They’ve put in a proposal to extend their lease through the end of December, a significant extension from the original end date of May 31. Though they closed their location in March as a result of the pandemic, they’ve remained connected behind the scenes with their entrepreneurs to create what Mendoza calls a therapy session, coming together to support each other through this harrowing time for our city.
“The more we learn from entrepreneurs and how they’re pivoting, it’s almost like we’re this library,” she says. “We have people coming to us and we store all this information we gather from so many different women, that we can then help make those connections. We begin to become those liaisons of, ‘We have this resource over here for you. Let us connect you.’”
Smith agrees, describing their platform as a voice for women entrepreneurs in D.C.
“We can’t stop. As leaders in the entrepreneur [space], there’s people looking for guidance: ‘What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to feel?’ It’s important to us to keep that [line of communication] open so we can help the best we can and know the right resources for the community we serve.”
Both women have found a silver lining in quarantine. They’ve been able to launch their online shop, which has been up and running since late May. Smith says they’re also hoping to start hosting small, niche events with 10 to 15 people later this summer once current restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, they are supportive of virtual events, but don’t necessarily view hosting them as the right avenue for Femme Fatale DC.
“We have created a brand by bringing people together in this space, and we went through so much to make that happen in brick-and-mortar that it kind of would go against what our brand is to try to do too much virtually,” Smith explains.
Mendoza finishes her thought, saying the pandemic has challenged them to really understand who they are as a platform. She has a few not-yet-ready to announce collaborations in the works featuring different women in the D.C. community that will potentially live online, but still confirms their shared intention to remain an avenue for tactile experiences rather than virtual ones.
She says online shopping and “engaging with us and providing feedback on what people want and need through our Instagram or email” are the best ways to support Femme Fatale DC as the District returns to some sense of normalcy this summer.
Smith adds that they’re always looking for brick-and-mortar spaces that need to be activated and are interested in finding a permanent space. She encourages locals to reach out with any leads for available locations.
In the meantime, the ever business-minded CEO says she’s enjoying having time to relax, and also to restructure business plans and build new ones that she previously didn’t have time to focus on. Mendoza, on the other hand, says she’s practicing what it’s like to be a kid: playing with different art forms and being curious.
“When is the next time, honestly, that we will ever be able to do this and explore those sides of us? I’ve been allowing myself to be secluded and enjoy this time to have mental space to myself. As leaders of the community, we don’t get that. There’s so much energy that we have to put out and receive, so this is a time to take that space and recharge. We need it.”
Learn more about Femme Fatale DC at www.femmefataledc.com and follow them on Instagram @femmefataledc. Check out Smith’s LGBTQ-focused entrepreneurial ecosystem Color Wheel Capital at www.colorwheelcapital.com and on Instagram @colorwheelcapital.
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