Stories of Success After Service
How Enlisting Transformed A Young Man And Led Him To Streetwear Success
It’s hard to see that the world hasn’t always been kind to Devlin Braswell.
His name, after all, is rapidly ascending through the streetwear fashion world. Yet, the designer and former Coast Guardsmen, also known as Dee-Nyce, harbors a past rippled by the kinds of tragedy from which some don’t come back.
In his 41 years, he’s lost a beloved daughter, seen addiction ravage his immediate family and witnessed gun violence in his own neighborhood. But he’s also found solace in creating poetry, shoes and clothing.
Following an accomplished 11-year career in the Service, Braswell took a chance on becoming a fashion trendsetter. Now, fans of the sneakers and backpacks he sells online—and at his store in Oakland—will wait to buy whatever he dreams up next.
His path to success began on a single day in Brooklyn in 2003, when he found himself between a shooter and his target while running an errand.
Braswell, then 25, ran for his life.
It was the third time he had fled gunfire as a bystander. He thought about family members who were addicted to crack and knew the hard reality of the streets would soon come for him, too. That day, he called the local Coast Guard recruiter and told him he was ready.
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He wasn’t sure what his mother would think about his decision. He knew she was proud of him as her only child to graduate from high school. She had high hopes for his success. But would enlistment dash her dreams, he wondered?
“The only other time I saw her as proud of me as when I graduated was when I told her I was going to join the Coast Guard,” he said.
He reported to basic training in Cape May, New Jersey in August 2003 and eventually became an operations specialist—personnel who analyze radar, manage ship traffic and support search and rescue. He worked diligently for more than a decade through emergencies like Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast. During Hurricane Sandy, he sacrificed sleep to field phone calls from 273 storm victims needing assistance.
Also during this time, he endured the greatest challenge of his life. In 2006, doctors diagnosed his 11-month-old daughter with a congenital disease that proved fatal before the year’s end.
Friends serving with him offered support, and one encouraged him to start writing poetry when he was feeling bad. He took that advice to heart and performed at an Oakland club. He also remembered his college days in Queens, when he got into customizing name-brand sneakers with colors and patterns.
I realized creating is where I find my freedom, whether it’s fashion or music.
I create to save my life.
With the pursuit of art and design percolating in his mind, Braswell saw his time with the Coast Guard nearing its end. Still, like many others, he’d gotten used to life in the Service, and the idea of going it alone was daunting.
“Transitioning back into civilian life was the most frightening experience,” said Braswell, who reached the rank of Operations Specialist 1st Class. “You could fail. And then what? You’re leaving a Service that makes living easy for you.”
He signed up for the Coast Guard Transition Assistance Program, which helps Coast Guardsmen reenter the civilian world by helping them write resumes and find jobs. The woman running Braswell’s program realized something about him that he couldn’t yet see.
“The lady in that class told me I didn’t need a resume because I was already doing what I was supposed to by pursuing art and design,” he said. “She had more belief in me than I did.”
Braswell separated from the Service in July 2014 and enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco with his GI Bill money. He began customizing sneakers again and, with a new understanding of colorant science he picked up in class, developed a sole dye that he said was superior to what was in the market.
“I turned $55 into $54,000 selling that dye,” he said. “But I didn’t want to customize anymore. I wanted to manufacture my own shoes.”
Over the years, he had developed a following on Instagram by regularly posting his work and building an audience of potential customers. With the dye money, he designed and produced his first pair using the name Fly Boys Couture Club, or FBCC, and timed the sneakers’ launch to coincide with the opening of his downtown Oakland storefront, Carpe Diem Fashion House.
Customers embraced the new $400 shoe. He said he made 150 pairs and all sold out. The night before the shop’s grand opening in 2017, several customers waited outside.
“We had two people from New York, someone from Detroit and another from Missouri fly out here,” he said. Overwhelmed by the showing, he camped with them on the sidewalk.
FBCC made more than $250,000 in sales in its first year. That number has grown to more than $500,000 in revenues so far. The business today employs store clerks, though the vast majority of sales happen online.
With business growing, Braswell has been able to reflect on his journey. He credits his ability to successfully build a business to the time he spent in the Coast Guard. His training, which emphasized discipline, sacrifice and preparation, proved critical when weathering the stormy seas that are common when an entrepreneur is just starting out, he said.
“I’ve been getting trained up for this life since I went into the Service,” he said.
Meanwhile, the perspective Braswell gained because he served his country influences how he defines business success.
“Success is defined by what you can do for people who can’t do anything for you,” he said. “It’s not about the money at all.”
Guided by that view, he began teaching local kids about fashion design and how to sew, skills that he hopes may help them get jobs someday. Braswell’s own children—four of them aged 19 months to 14 years—also see firsthand what it takes to run a fashion company. Sometimes they appear on his Instagram modeling his latest creations.
Despite the grief he’s endured, Braswell said he wouldn’t change his life. He attributes his fortitude to the Coast Guard and, for that reason, advises parents of children considering military service to be open to it.
“I would tell parents that your child will learn how to be an adult and deal with obstacles in the Military,” he said. “One of the most heroic things you can do is serve your country.”