Vashtie Kola, a child of Trinidadian immigrants and East Village “it girl,” has an evolving career that’s included a clothing line, music videos, Air Jordans, and a whole lot of nicknames. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
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She's been called "downtown's sweetheart,” and that's only one of Vashtie Kola's nicknames.
Among the others?
"King Vashtie, Vashtizzel, Vashtee-Z, Vash Money,” says Kola.
From her East Village apartment, she oversees a burgeoning career with many tentacles.
She directs music videos, plans parties, occasionally with rap star Q-Tip as co-host and DJ. She started her clothing line Violette after young women responded to her blogs about fashion.
"It was a complete shock to me, just to see people wearing the same old clothes my friends make fun of me for wearing, seeing girls buying these clothes to match that look," says Kola.
She is credited with being the first woman to design an Air Jordan sneaker, and she's preparing to direct her first feature film.
Kola attributes her drive to growing up as the child of immigrants from Trinidad.
"It was always a struggle for me trying to understand who they were, why we didn't understand each other. They said ‘you’re a lazy American child, you need to be working, doing X, Y, Z.’ So, early on I had this work ethic of working really hard," says Kola.
She says her ability to transition from music videos to party planning to fashion comes from feeling comfortable in different settings.
"Whether it's the hood or the suburbs, everything from rap music to hardcore music," says Kola. "I think people who know what’s going on in pop culture or today, they see me as someone who has an understanding of those worlds."
She says a good party should invite all types of people no matter who they are, but her growing clout has attracted more than a few bold-face names.
"The Q-Tip party was crazy. It would be a bunch of hood kids from Brooklyn, then Mick Jagger in the DJ booth, then European tourists there just to see Q-Tip. Always a crazy scene, and that's what I love. I wasn't the kid in high school who would sit at the table with girls that were like me,” says Kola.
She’s now an experienced music video director with a hands-on style.
"A lot of directors will sit in a chair and direct,” says Kola. “I'm next to my cameraman and cinematographer and figuring out the shots as they're going."
It was a little rockier when she showed up for her first music video not long after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2005.
"Everyone on set is probably 20 years older than me,” says Kola. “They're looking at me like ‘who are you?’ I think at one point a PA came up to me and said ‘talent should go over there, you should be over here,’ and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, do I tell them I'm the director now? It freaked me out."
She has a flashy website and is an active blogger, but her growing status as a downtown tastemaker got a boost this spring from a rather traditional medium — none other than The New York Times.
So she called her mom.
"When the New York Times article came out, I called my mom and I put her on speaker and I filmed the whole day,” says Kola. "I don’t know if they understand what it is that I do. I mean, a lot of people don’t in general. A lot of people don’t understand. ‘You go to parties, you direct, I don’t get it,’ so I don’t find it surprising that they don’t understand, as well."
Vashtie Kola grew up in downtown Albany in a predominantly black neighborhood, and she eventually attended an all-girls Catholic school which was predominantly white.
Early on, she learned how to negotiate different worlds.
"My old school was black and hood, and they said ‘you're too white’ and this school said ‘you're too black,’" says Kola.
She found some refuge in Albany's Washington Park.
"There was always a mix of weird kids all in this one space from different walks of life, and it was heaven to me meeting all these kids and having, like, a home," says Kola.
She says she was bullied as a kid and describes her home as troubled.
"It was very tumultuous and not a place for a child," says Kola.
Her older brother would tell her stories about New York.
"Hanging out with club kids and going to Limelight, these crazy stories, and I was like ‘wow,’ like a little kid. ‘Oh my God,’" says Kola.
So after high school, she came to New York and never looked back.
"I felt like the weirdest kid in Albany, then I moved to New York and I felt like the most normal person here, you know, you can be so awkward and weird in your own city and then you come here and you are totally normal," says Kola.
Although her career is still young, Kola has already come to some crossroads.
She worked for Island Def Jam Records as director of creative services and had what she calls a “comfortable paycheck” along with insurance and a company car.
There was one problem, however.
"A lot of the ideas that I did have couldn’t go through,” says Kola. “People wanted me to be creative but then they weren’t willing to take the risk of being different and avant-garde or whatever, so I found it kind of stifling.”
She left after a year, leaping into the unknown.
There was some initial trepidation, but her faith in herself was justified.
She has her clothing line Violette, she's directing videos, she's doing her party planning, both for regular folks and the celebrity crowd, too, but there is still a respect for her family roots and a decision her parents made long ago.
"My parents are from a very poor area of Trinidad. There's no indoor plumbing. It's a complete culture shock. I literally came back and I never take a hot shower for granted. I totally, totally appreciate my parents making their way out of there and giving my brother, sister and me a better life,” says Kola.
During the rare quiet times, she likes to draw, but mostly, Kola is a young woman on the go, preparing to direct her first feature film in a city where her friends are family, a city where she doesn't have to explain herself, a city that's home.
"The girl at the café, she’s a waitress by day but at night she’s writing her novel, you know, everyone has their side gigs, and they’re doing all these different jobs at once. I think it's the true life of a New Yorker,” says Kola. “You’re constantly hustling."