Kalilah Wright’s cell phone rings in her Clipper Mill studio, and on the other end is a customer who didn’t receive a T-shirt order she had placed with Wright’s company, Mess in a Bottle. As Wright listens to the customer’s story about how her package got stolen, she apologizes and immediately makes plans to send her another shirt free of charge. The customer spends the next five minutes thanking Wright for not only for being so attentive, but for creating such an empowering product.
Wright, who was born in Jamaica, moved to Maryland to attend graduate school at Morgan State before taking a job with Under Armour as an architect for their retail stores. But after Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, she decided she wanted to do something that had more of a social impact. “That happened in my neighborhood,” says Wright. “The city was in an uproar, and this was also happening all over the country and the world. It just made me want to figure out a way to create messages for people to wear and connect to.”
Wright started Mess in a Bottle in 2016 and, a month later, she quit her job at Under Armour to venture out on her own. She now has her own studio space where a staff of eight people do all the order fulfillment, packaging, and screen printing. T-shirts are emblazoned with empowering messages such as “Be great today” and “100% Black- Owned.” All of Mess in a Bottle’s T-shirt designs are packaged and delivered in a reusable bottle—hence the name.
A year to the day from when Wright quit her job, she was on Harry Connick Jr.’s talk show, where she had the opportunity to pitch her business to Shark Tank star Mark Cuban, who gave her advice on growing her brand. After that, the brand exploded via social media, with local bloggers and celebrity clientele—including Emmy-winner Lena Waithe, Uber chief brand manager Bozoma Saint John, and writer Awesomely Luvvie—all sporting Wright’s designs.
The e-commerce company, which also sells jackets, bags, and mugs, is constantly adding new messages to its products, whether that be something Wright comes across in her travels or something based on current events. “Not too long ago in Starbucks, there was a situation where two African-American males were asked to be escorted off the premises because they didn’t buy anything, and so I created a coffee mug that says, ‘I like my coffee black, and without prejudice,’” says Wright. “Anything that really affects me, I make a shirt for.”