Urban Threads mixes fashion and youth outreach in Chicago

Urban Threads
Urban Threads cover photo

By Alexandra Whittaker

Fledgling fashion designers dream of showing their work at high profile fashion weeks, whether in Chicago or Milan. It can take years for this to happen, but a group of Chicago high school students accomplished this last fall.

The students showed at Chicago Fashion Week in the (PRO)jectUs Street Bias Fashion Show sponsored by Kenneth Cole in October. They arrived via an after school program at Urban Threads, a Chicago not-for-profit that teaches design and textile production to youth from under-served communities. The program is part of the larger After School Matters, a non-profit organization that helps teens find paid apprenticeships in arts, communications and sports programs in Chicago. As an After School Matters affiliate, Urban Threads offers programming in textile arts and fashion design.

Since April 2013, Urban Threads has drawn more than 150 students to its studio at the Bridgeport Art Center and more than 350 students through off-site programs. Started last summer, the high school program attracted enough attention to prompt an invitation to Chicago Fashion Week.

Victoria Bell, 14, is one of the young people who participated. A returning Urban Threads student, she has attended every session since the program began. Students meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays after school to work on textile and fashion patterning.

“We’ve been taught the basics, like hand sewing. We’ve made pillows. Our teacher Bryana [Bibbs] taught us how to weave,” said Bell, who wore a faux leather bomber jacket with white sleeves that she made in class. “I just like making things. I like the challenge.”

Last year’s Fashion Week was especially challenging for the class since they were working on only one week’s notice. Nonetheless, they managed to pull off a lively show, with almost the entire class of 17 students walking the runway in the dyed T-shirts and slashed jeans they styled themselves.

Michelle Santoro, artistic director and co-founder of Urban Threads, called Chicago Fashion Week a cool experience for the students. She and co-founder Ilona Mestril created Urban Threads as a joint venture six years ago, combining their love of fashion and textile arts with a desire to help the community.

“We’re amazing complements,” said Santoro of herself and Mestril. “This work teaches persistence and grit, and you don’t have many ways of teaching this that are fun like [textile design]. You think it’s easy, but it’s not. And when [the students] are done, they’re like ‘Wow!’”

Santoro said the improvement in her students goes beyond just mastering fashion skills.

“We recently made baskets,” said Santoro, “and we had a boy in class who said ‘Sewing is for girls,’ and didn’t participate at first. He got inspired because one of the other boys did it, and then he decided to join in. He came in not wanting to be there and left successful.”

Bibbs, an Urban Threads textile instructor who graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014, said that she sees the success in her students often, but it isn’t always easy.

“I’m learning to be more patient. High school students dabbling in this is different than college,” said Bibbs. “I’m learning more about myself.”

When she taught at Urban Threads for the first time last fall, Bibbs knew it would be a good fit.

“I taught [the students] basic weaving on a cardboard cutout loom,” said Bibbs. “I can see that it is really peaceful for them, and that is an awesome thing.”

Photo at top: Bins from the Urban Threads classroom at the Bridgeport Art Center. (Alexandra Whittaker/MEDILL)