Denise Phillips: ‘The civil rights movement is personal’

By: Tim Rogers/ Kontoor Brands Feb 03, 2023 Feature Story Tags: Employees, Workplace, Black history month

Denise Phillips threaded her first needle when she was a young girl, shortly after getting her first Barbie doll.

“Mom let me have Barbie, but she wouldn't buy me Barbie doll clothes,” Phillips said. “So she showed me how to make them myself.”

The arrangement worked out well for both Phillips and her doll. The Greensboro native developed a deft hand for sewing and a fashionista’s eye for making quality, original clothing — skills that would serve her well for a career as a prototype sewer at Kontoor. Barbie, meanwhile, made the most of being dressed for success by becoming a pilot and zoologist, the frontwoman of an ‘80s glam band and a Malibu socialite.

The innocent years of Phillips’ youth were set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement happening right outside her door. During her a toddler years, Phillip’s parents, neighbors and family friends were participating in lunch counter sit-ins. At the age of six, her school was desegregated. As part of a diverse, multi-racial family, the civil rights movement was personal.

“When I go downtown to the old Woolworths, I see the names of people I knew that grew up with my family with my parents; some of them were like parents to me, too,” Phillips says. “It's a lot. It's personal. Yes, it is.”

Phillips says those formative years taught her to appreciate and embrace diversity in her community and at work.

“Kontoor is very, very diverse,” says Phillips, who is about to celebrate her 17th year working for the company. “We've got coworkers from everywhere. I've learned a lot about different cultures and different foods. We do a lot of eating up here, so we learn a lot. We're pretty close family up here. We fuss. We laugh. I look forward to that every day.”

Phillips says Black History Month is a time to reflect on the parallel journeys of her birth family and work family, and to refocus on the work that remains to be done to deliver on the promises of the civil rights movement.

“I think a lot about my own family history and what my family has come from. And I look back on the history of Greensboro,” she says. “We've come a long way. It's a long way to go. But I think we're in the right direction. We just got to push on, fight on.”