The models assume their positions. The audience takes their seat in the hallway. And ready to conquer the runway — children.
The fashion show, run by Jeffrey Ampratwum in collaboration with the Graham Windham program, a New York City-based nonprofit that services youth and their families, concluded its final summer show on Aug. 18.
Ampratwum, a Bronx native, created a middle school fashion program in the South Bronx three years ago, which strives to teach students the importance of personal image, dressing for an interview, and building confidence through creative expression.
“It’s an incubator, a feeder school for those that want to start in fashion,” he said.
Since the program’s inception, his reach has expanded from the South Bronx to different parts of the borough with the help of organizations like Graham Windham. From makeup tutorials to photo shoots to fashion discussions, Ampratwum said the lessons tap into students’ creativity, allowing them to build confidence as they mature. At that last summer fashion show, which took place in Westchester County, he said it was great to see young children transform into models, photographers and stylists.
“They were really excited and happy and confident mostly when they hit the runway,” he said. “They don’t miss a beat.
“If I was them at that time — I probably wouldn’t know how much this is going to affect me later, but I could sense it. You can see it in their smiles.”
A creative fashion director and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Ampratwum, 38, hopes to expand middle school students’ knowledge of the industry and share his unconventional journey into fashion.
“That’s probably the most rewarding part of all of this for me,” he said. “[The students] also feel like they’re one reach away from that — that’s great so that they know what’s attainable.”
He said, after the shows and lessons, students have begun discussing careers in fashion.
“You’re getting all of these fashion professions that are not pushed on them at the middle school level,” Ampratwum said. “By the time they get [to high school], they can involve themselves in more after-school fashion programs.”
Tiffany Taylor-White, a graduate of Ampratwum’s fashion styling course at FIT, believes the innovative program prepares students for a potential career in the industry. She attended school in the Bronx, but her interest in fashion did not blossom until high school.
“If I think back to when I was younger — I had no influences or no teachers to help me pick out my lane in fashion or help me hone into what I like,” Taylor-White said. “I think it’s very good to have that at that age.”
Born and raised in the Bronx by a single mother of Ghanaian descent, Ampratwum said the opportunities were sparse to explore a career in fashion. A creative, artistic career seemed unimaginable as pressures mounted on him to become a doctor or lawyer.
“There wasn’t even a thought for me to go into fashion,” Ampratwum said.
So he completed a degree in biology and dental studies with eventual plans for dental school. But fashion continued to play a role in his life, as he assisted with fashion projects, fashion shows and pageants while in school.
Ampratwum soon followed his heart and abandoned his initial career. He eventually traveled to Europe at the age of 31. While in Paris, he worked with creative curators and designers and curated a successful line of vintage one-piece dresses, entitled “House of Merlot.”
He was hooked.
Ampratwum returned to the U.S. and immediately pursued a career in fashion, he said. He attended FIT and the New York School of Design. He has since collaborated with professionals like Joseph DeAcetis, a menswear expert at Forbes, and brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior and Hermés.
Ampratwum described his work as an “anomaly, like a fashion unicorn.” He said it includes tasteful, androgynous styles for women and versatile looks, combining casual, traditional and streetwear in menswear.
But Ampratwum also continues to expand his work to children as well. He will collaborate with iBrain, an independent nonprofit educational organization focused on students with brain injuries and brain-based disorders, to create a fashion show on Sept. 8.
The inclusive show will open the runway for children with brain disabilities and disorders at Gotham Hall in midtown Manhattan.
As a mother and an assistant for the upcoming show, Taylor-White said she is excited to help and allow children the chance to express themselves through fashion.
“Anybody can do anything – it doesn’t matter your age, your race, nationality, any disabilities that you have,” she said. “To celebrate these kids and dress these kids up and just give them their flowers and let them know that the world is theirs means a lot to me.
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