When Lynne Dixon-Speller taught at the University of Delaware, she followed a group of 30 young women in New York, where they visited a fashion industry association. She said one of the students asked someone in the group where he got his inspiration from.
“Literally, these women said, ‘We get in a car, drive to Spanish Harlem and look around,'” Dixon-Speller said. “It was exciting, but it was insulting at the same time. Luckily, I didn’t have any students of color with me on this trip. It didn’t hit them the way it hit me personally.
“And I decided at that point,” she continued, “it had to be worked on.”
The trip inspired her to create a new course on ethnic influences on American fashion. And yet, she wanted to think bigger, Dixon-Speller recently said on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show.”
“It doesn’t belong in a class,” she said. “It belongs to the whole program.”
Later, Dixon-Speller found himself in Milwaukee at Mount Mary University, then at the Art Institute of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Magazine reported last year. When the latter school closed in 2017, she thought about how to put her big idea into action.
Thus began the multi-year process to help create the Edessa Fashion School, the state’s first four-year fashion school that opened in January. The school is named after the woman who taught Dixon-Speller to sew – her grandmother Edessa Meek-Dixon, a pioneer who graduated more than a century ago from Tuskegee Institute, the historically black school in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington and now called Tuskegee University.
It didn’t take long for the Edessa fashion school to find its place in the industry.
“We opened in January and we were at New York Fashion Week in September,” Dixon-Speller said. “This is unheard of.”
During the week, which ran from Sept. 7-14, Dixon-Speller said her students participated in New York Fashion Week Black, a peripheral event, and Indie Fash, a national platform for emerging designers who worked with students from Edessa to Milwaukee.
As the school’s dean of academics, Dixon-Speller said she wants students to get down to business. She wants the fashion industry to see her students and know that they went to school focused on fashion from the start. She said starting fashion studies as a freshman should give students more bang for their buck.
“I want it to be a national name, a global name,” she said. “So when employers see the name, they’ll know they got the best.”
Dixon-Speller said the New York Fashion Week experience will leave her students with an outlook they can carry for the rest of their careers. The energy there was different, she said. The rhythm too. It gave a taste of real life — a taste, she says, that many apparel design and marketing students don’t get until they graduate.
She said the fashion industry needs to change and be more inclusive. She said that blacks and browns look at all kinds of industries and ask, “How many of us work in this? How many of us influence this? How many of us are in this?”
More than 25% of New York Fashion Week’s official schedule featured black-owned brands, according to Vanity Fair.
“When you see the leaders representing the segment of the population you come from, you feel more comfortable not having to keep explaining who you are,” Dixon-Speller said. “That you become who you are and let it shine through your work and people appreciate it – and not criticize it as not being marketable.”
How did Wisconsin and the Midwest get on the fashion map with big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Paris dominating the industry?
Dixon-Speller said Wisconsin clearly doesn’t have the influence of those cities, but the state’s influence is growing.
She said she met two or three other designers in New York who were from Wisconsin. A show she attended “embodied Wisconsin and fashion in metalwork, ragged clothes and a very understated color palette.”
While Dixon-Speller said students who want to “really shake the earth” in fashion might need to leave Wisconsin, there are also good, decent jobs in the state and region. To create, design, develop, execute and build a pair of pants and then bring it to market, it takes about 40 people, she said. There are more fashion jobs across the country than people realize.
Although the first graduates from Edessa are years away, Dixon-Speller has overcome hurdles in establishing a school. Fundraising is an important part of the sequel. She and others also strengthen the influence of Edessa. She said they had already been invited back to New York.
Meek-Dixon, the grandmother, pursued higher education when it was rare for blacks and women. Dixon-Speller’s grandfather also graduated from Tuskegee. Traveling from Texas to Alabama around 1916 meant risking their lives, she said.
It took until Dixon-Speller to be around 35 to fully appreciate how inspiring that was. She had assumed that everyone was going to college. But she learned that once the door is open, success is there.