Human resource manager, I/O psychologist, and Dallas native Adria Toliver has learned what custom clothiers have long known: A bespoke life is often the result of stitching together fabric for which we had other plans. In times past, dressmakers would preserve the cabbage, or leftover scraps, to create brilliant pieces. Adria has used this alchemy — commonly referred to as Black girl magic — to achieve professional success, travel the world, and stitch together a life she describes as happy, healthy, and whole.
Adria’s straightforward approach to life has served her well, yet she has also learned to appreciate the detours. Initially she had dreams of becoming a criminal defense attorney but, during her senior year of high school, she decided on a new path. She enrolled at the all-women’s Agnes Scott College to the surprise of her family and friends, emboldened by the idea of “women being powerful enough to do anything they want to do.” It was there she fell in love with psychology.
Though Adria has long been deeply intrigued with the human mind, she knew early on that she did not want to be in the clinic or the academy. She thought, “I like a certain type of thing, and I knew that going that route wouldn’t get me there.” Her desire to matriculate in applied psychology led her back to central Texas, where she would complete her Master’s and Doctorate Programs at University of Texas at Arlington. Open to many possibilities, she knitted together the seams of her need for great pay and personal fulfilment into a promising career in corporate human resources.
Rapidly, Adria’s professional responsibilities increased at work, along with her visibility in the industry overall. When HR professionals ask for advice, she typically recommends organizations “get it right from the beginning.” She says, “Everything starts with selection.” Bringing in new talent to a corporate structure with its unique culture and expectations may not go as planned, but when done well, the organization and the new hire can work together to form a beautiful garment. Adria excelled in her first roles as an executive coach then as a management consultant, but she now sees that work as more of a basting stitch, which is a temporary threading to be removed when the final seam is placed.
Intentionality, used to discuss one’s approach to her own future, is less about being accurate in predicting things to come than being deliberate in how you respond to them. After prevailing over a serious battle with depression, Adria knew her continued growth and healing meant that she had to prioritize herself. Months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of us into isolation, Adria made two big life decisions. First, she decided to end a marriage in which she no longer found happiness. Then, she decided to leave the country for a rotation in Dubai, UAE that started as the world came to a halt. Adria’s search for joy was found in solitude. In her seclusion she learned to be more present. As plans halted, she became more leisurely.
She also learned to stay connected. Her father was concerned about his daughter, a Black woman moving to a Muslim country on the other side of the world, so she started sharing daily Instagram stories. Her videos became a window through which her friends and family could witness the reflections and routines that kept her centered, inspiring them to feel they could do it as well.
While she loves international travel and takes self-care seriously — weekly planning sessions, morning workouts, diffusing bergamot, and taking vitamin D — sewing has become her main hobby. “It’s so cool to be able to make a plan, cut it out, sketch on fabric, cut it out, then to be able to finally wear it.” Adria showed up to this interview in a navy blue patterned jacket with a golden yellow liner that she made from leftover materials. Her sewing friends made something similar, but they all implemented in ways that made their jacket uniquely theirs. In many ways, this reflects her take on life. The liner came from scrap material that she knew would add a pop of color — and her personality.
A custom-made garment gives confidence to the wearer while displaying that pride to those who behold. This is a lot like life in that many of us stray from the idealized lifestyles in our high school epigraphs; Sometimes we use the leftover material in our basket. There are times when we must turn to our plans and others where we must use what’s outside of ourselves in order to fashion the life we want.
Joshua E. McCoy is a writer and photographer based in East Point, GA. His work examines structures and status quo aiming to find the seams and bare the threads.