Dad Michael Gardner has gone viral for the unique, handmade outfits he creates for his nine-year-old daughter Ava.
"It started by seeing my sister sew," Gardner told TODAY's Craig Melvin during a segment of "Dads Got This." "She would take sweatshirts and hoodies and replace the sleeves with African Ankara fabric. I was like, 'I think I want to do this,' and then just decided to go for it."
When Ava was 3 years old, Gardner started sewing dresses, skirts and tops for her. Eventually, they started photographing his creations, and Ava was excited to show off her modeling skills.
"One day (I) took her out and said 'I'm going to take pictures of you,' and she just started doing poses and had her little walk," Gardner said. "And I was like 'OK, this can actually be something.'"
The pair started "Daddy Dressed Me by Michael Gardner," a fashion content brand and social media campaign starring Ava. The pair collaborate on the outfits Gardner designs. Recently, they've taken their brand to TikTok, where they show off their dancing skills in creative father-daughter music videos.
Garnder told Craig that his own childhood made him determined to be an active part of Ava's life.
"I would never want her to experience the pain that I had growing up without a father, not having that support that every kid deserves," he said.
While Gardner's father was absent, Gardner did know him. However, when they did interact, Gardner said his father refused to speak to him.
"He wouldn't acknowledge me as his son," Gardner said. "There were times when I was in front of him, saying, you know, 'Hi,' (and) he wouldn't speak."
Gardner said that he carried that trauma and feeling of unworthiness throughout his life, but sees his relationship with Ava as a way to instill her with a sense of strength and confidence that he didn't have.
"She loves everything I create simply because, you know, it's her dad making her clothes," Gardner said. "But there's a difference when she puts something on and she connects with it in a certain way."
He has created more than 200 outfits for his daughter over the past six years. His fiancee, Thama, recently surprised him with a poster featuring every single look.
"She said she felt like I needed to see all that I had done, and I just burst into tears," Gardner said. "Sometimes you get into the habit and the rhythm of just doing it, and you don't necessarily take enough time to kind of sit and celebrate and actually fully acknowledge what it is that you're doing."
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