Lynne Dixon-Speller was a University of Delaware professor. She took a group of students with her. 30 young women traveled to New York City to visit a fashion association. She explained that one of the students asked a member of the group where they got their inspiration.
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“Literally, these women said, ‘We get in a car, drive to Spanish Harlem and look around,'” Dixon-Speller said. “It was thrilling, but it was also insulting. I was blessed to have no students from color along on that trip. It didn’t hit them the way it hit me personally.
“And I decided at that point,”She continued, “This needed to be worked on.”
This trip inspired her to create a new course on ethnic influences in American fashion. And yet, she wanted to think bigger, Dixon-Speller said recently on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show.”
“That doesn’t belong in one course,”She said. “It belongs in the entire curriculum.”
Later, Dixon-Speller landed in Milwaukee at Mount Mary University, then the Art Institute of Wisconsin. Milwaukee Magazine reported last year. She was left to brainstorm how she could put her big idea into practice after the school closed down in 2017.
The long and tedious process of creating the awaited landmark began. Edessa School of Fashion, the state’s first four-year fashion school that opened in January. The school is named after the woman who taught Dixon-Speller how to sew — her grandmother Edessa Meek-Dixon, a trailblazer who more than a century ago graduated from the 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 School of Fashion to find its way in the industry.
“We opened in January, and we were at New York Fashion Week in September,” Dixon-Speller said. “That is unheard of.”
Dixon-Speller reported that her students participated during the week, which ran Sept. 7-14. Indie Fash was a national platform for emerging designers who collaborated with Edessa students from Milwaukee.
Dixon-Speller is the school’s dean of academics. She wants students to be able to get things done. She wants the fashion industry see her students and to know that they were a school that was focused on fashion from the beginning. She believes that freshmen should be able to pursue fashion studies.
“I want it to be a national name, a global name,”She said. “So that when employers see the name, they know they’ve gotten the best.”
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Dixon-Speller said that her students will take away a lot from the New York Fashion Week experience. She described the energy at New York Fashion Week as different. It was also a fast pace. It gave a taste of real life — a taste she said a lot of apparel design and marketing students don’t get until after graduation.
She stated that the fashion industry must be more inclusive and change. She stated that Black and Brown people are looking at all types of industries and asking questions: “How many of us are working there? How many of us are influencing this? How many of us are part of this?”
More than 25 percent of New York Fashion Week’s official schedule featured Black-owned brands, according to Vanity Fair.
“When you see the leadership representing the segment of the population that you come from, you feel more comfortable that you don’t have to continue to explain who you are,” Dixon-Speller said. “That you get to be who you are and let it shine through your work and people will appreciate it — and not critique it as not marketable.”
How can Wisconsin and the Midwest be on the fashion map when big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Paris dominate the industry?
Dixon-Speller said while Wisconsin clearly doesn’t have the influence of those cities, the state’s sway is growing.
She said that she met two or three other designers from Wisconsin in New York. She attended one show. “embodied Wisconsin and fashion in metallurgy, ripped garments and a very muted color palette.”
Dixon-Speller claimed that students who want the best of both worlds will be able to do so. “really shake the Earth”Although fashion professionals might have to move out of Wisconsin, there are many good jobs in the state. It takes approximately 40 people to design, create, develop, execute, construct, and bring to market a pair or pants. There are many jobs in fashion across the country, but not many people realize it.
Although Edessa’s first graduates are years away, Dixon-Speller has cleared hurdles in creating a school. Fundraising is a big piece of what’s next. She and others are building Edessa’s influence, too. She said they’ve already been invited back to New York.
Meek-Dixon, Meek-Dixon’s grandmother, pursued higher education in a time when it was rare for Black women and Black people. Dixon-Speller’s grandfather graduated from Tuskegee, as well. She said that they had to risk their lives to travel from Texas to Alabama in 1916.
Dixon-Speller was 35 years old when she first realized how inspiring this was. She assumed that everyone went to college. She learned that once the door is open, success is yours.