May 28th, 2010

Fashion Institute of New Orleans

Tahirah Hairston
Serenthia Joseph, 17, works on a headband that will be featured in a June 17 fashion show produced by the Fashion Institute of New Orleans. Joseph said she began to learn how to sew the day before. (Thaisi H. Da Silva/NYT Institute)

Serenthia Joseph, 17, works on a headband that will be featured in a June 17 fashion show produced by the Fashion Institute of New Orleans. Joseph said she began to learn how to sew the day before. (Thaisi H. Da Silva/NYT Institute)

The whirring sounds of the sewing machines permeated the small room as students at the Fashion Institute of New Orleans prepared for their big day — the third annual fashion show in three weeks.

For 18-year-old Susan Henry, her interest in sewing began at age 9, when she started making clothes for her Barbies. She saved $200 to buy her first sewing machine at 13.

“I started sewing T-shirts that were too big,” said Henry, a recent graduate of John McDonogh Senior High School. “I would just start buying clothes that were too big, so I could just take them in.”

As she prepares for the fashion show at Generations Hall on June 17, she said she has grown.

“I’m not the best, but I learned how to use patterns. I can understand the basics,” she said.

The Fashion Institute of New Orleans, created in 2007, offers a rare opportunity for high school students in the Louisiana Recovery School District to get hands-on experience in the fashion and retail industry. Eighty students are currently enrolled in the free, yearlong program. The top 10 students in the Institute receive a trip to New York, where they participate in a mentor program with fashion industry professionals.

The Institute was created with a $200,000 grant that the Louisiana Retail Association initially gave to the District 2 Community Enhancement Corporation to start a customer service skills program. Blane Williams, director of the Institute, said that after Hurricane Katrina many businesses weren’t returning so the corporation decided to transfer the funds to start the Institute.

The students are chosen by their high school guidance counselors based on a number of factors, including grades and conduct, but the participants all have one thing in common — an interest in fashion.

Three days out of the month students participate in workshops, go on field trips, take sewing classes or complete projects that include skincare and make-up; fashion design and apparel construction; graphic design; photography; and modeling.

“We have so many different programs,” said Williams, whose love of fashion led to her job as director. “We had a shoe design workshop with a facilitator from Coach. The students were taught how to sketch shoes.”

Williams said many former students have gone on to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York or the various Arts Institutes throughout the country. Some former students return for another year in the program.

“It’s a one-year program, but somehow students always find their way back,” she said.

Henry, a spunky second-year student at the Institute, has learned that hard work pays off. She will begin cosmetology school soon, with hopes of attending Dillard University.

“Most of the times I may sketch something and I have a good idea of exactly what I want it to look like,” she said. “But after I keep working on it, it ends up looking different and better than what I first sketched.”

Inspired by designers like Tina Knowles and trendsetters like Rihanna, she said,she created a long, body-hugging olive green dress with flowers attached that she recently wore to her senior prom. It’s her favorite creation.

In her two years in the program, Henry has not only developed her skills but also inspired other students like 18-year-old Brionne Brack.

“I see all the stuff she makes, and I would think she was amazing,” Brack said. “It looks like something you can buy at the store, but she just made it.”

A recent field trip to Louisiana State University’s Textile & Costume Museum piqued her interest in the renowned fashion designer Christian Dior, the subject of an exhibition there.

“I like the fact that he didn’t want to be a fashion designer at first,” Brack said. “He just saw somebody else doing it, and he thought he could do it too.”

A rising senior at John McDonogh High School, Brack said she hopes to return to the Institute next year and later attend college and major in fashion design.

“I just want to make clothes for other people,” she said.

The June 17 fashion show allows each student to showcase work completed through the year. The students will show several different combined collections, ranging from an ‘80s theme to Goth punk.

“The most memorable moments are the fashion shows,” Henry said. “That’s where you see everything that students have made, and mostly everyone comes back to be a part of the show.”

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