As someone who has attended countless high school fashion shows and performances, when I accepted an invitation to cover Henry W. Grady High School’s annual fashion show on behalf of The Glow Up, I prepared myself for the usual school fundraiser.
But this wasn’t a night of mall fashions draped on neophyte models. Grady’s 2018 “Une Belle Revolution” Fashion Show showcased one of the few—if not only—comprehensive high school fashion programs in the country. Everything from couture-level eveningwear to urban chic was handcrafted from scratch by 17- and 18-year-olds with technical and creative proficiency usually found in people who have spent years in the fashion industry.
“I don’t think there is another program like this in the country,” explained V. Kottavei Williams, who has led Grady’s Fashion Marketing Pathway Program for the past six years. “I’ve looked, but I couldn’t find another four-year fashion curriculum like this.”
Designed with the vertically-aligned concept of a college curriculum, Grady’s Fashion Marketing Pathway—redesigned by Kottavei Williams into “Un Belle Revolution”—or, “A Beautiful Revolution”—spans the entire four years of her students’ high school careers, each year building on the concepts students learned during the previous year.
First-year students learn the core concepts of fashion, including the history, the important designers and background of the industry. “Then, they learn how to create a portfolio, pattern-making and basic sewing,” explained V. Kottavei Williams. “The next year, they learn how to design and create three or four pieces for their junior collection. It’s like a test run. By the time they reach their senior year, they’re ready to create an entire show.”
The program has become a launching ground for careers in the clothing and fashion industry and prepares students for some of the best fashion design and marketing programs in the country. For instance, after being in Grady’s Fashion Marketings Pathway program for four years, this year, senior Graham Williams was accepted into New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and Design to study womenswear apparel design.
“This course has been everything to me,” he gushed backstage. “I would not have known that I wanted to do fashion, I would not have applied to an art school. I never even thought of myself as an artsy person.” This year, Graham also won the show’s excellence award for his line of designs.
Another four-year graduate of the program explained how submerging herself into fashion studies impacted her: “When I started this program, I knew that I always loved fashion, but I was scared to express it or make clothes. Having this class … having Ms. Williams as my teacher taught me that you should just go for it.”
Both students and faculty expressed how Ms. Williams and her department’s curriculum changed the lives and career goals of Grady students. “Oh, this woman is amazing,” one teacher told The Root, unprompted. Former students from across the country return to the annual show as if it were the school’s fashion homecoming.
Senior Lilah White told us she first attended the fashion show as a middle-schooler. “I went to Ms. WIlliams right away and said: ‘Yeah, I’m going to do fashion.’”
Although the students described the course as fulfilling, they each talked about how rigorous and intimidating the Pathway curriculum can be. “It’s more than just drawing and creating; you have to be persistent,” said White. “You have to know about structure. You have to know math and history.”
“There is no high school fashion textbook,” explained Ms. Williams. “So I teach from college materials. I taught college for four years, but high school is a little bit different. You have to give them a little bit of guidance … Not necessarily push fashion design, but push a skill set. I firmly believe if you teach kids above their level, they will most assuredly rise to the occasion.”
Williams has taught art in Ghana with the Peace Corps, as well as working in product design, art instruction, costume design, quilting, and fashion design. She said she her proudest moments every year is watching her students’ imaginations become real-life works of art in the yearly fashion show.
“The former students come back and help. The current students are excited about what they’ve created. The parents and the other students are in awe of it all. And I think to myself: ‘Wow, they must have a really good teacher.’”