As music blared, LGBTQ teens stalked the catwalk to show off their creative and inspired fashion designs during Saturday evening’s Slay the Runway performance.
Hosted in University of Colorado-Boulder’s ATLAS Institute B2 Center for Media, Arts and Performance, Slay the Runway’s fashion show was a culmination of a collaborative two-month workshop organized by Longmont’s Firehouse Art Center and Boulder Public Library’s Building 61 makerspace.
The workshop was led by Firehouse Executive Director Elaine Waterman and CU-Boulder Media Studies instructor Steven Frost, combining creative design skills, technical skills like sewing, construction and 3D printing while providing LGBTQ teens a safe space for self-expression with the support of mentors and peers.
Frost, pronouns they and them, connected with Waterman in 2018, following their experience with an LGBTQ youth camp in Maine. Waterman reached out to Frost, they said, to collaborate on a project at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. That project never got off the ground, but the two stayed connected and kept working on a way to bring positive creativity to LGBTQ youth in the area. Originally planned for the summer of 2020, the project hit some COVID-related snags but Waterman and Frost kept at it.
Frost is a textile artist, utilizing weaving and a variety of materials to explore history and culture through art. Combined with Waterman’s experience as a fashion designer in New York, the duo combined their knowledge and passions to bring together an intersectional opportunity for LGBTQ youth. Frost, who grew up in the 90s and didn’t come out until the 00s, found the whole experience inspiring.
“It wasn’t a surprise, but I am always impressed by how confident and remarkable these youth are,” Frost said.
The emcee for the evening was Colorado’s Twirling Tech Goddess, LeeLee James, showing off some bold looks of her own throughout the night. James assisted in the workshop throughout the 8-week project. James went into it intending to teach the teens skills like using and making patterns, as well as sewing, she said, but the workshop became so much more.
During the workshop, James experienced a death in the family that took her out of the program for a week, she said. Coming back, James was amazed to see how the teens had grown and continued to apply the skills she was teaching, in addition to the emotional support they gave her during her grief.
“The week I lost my family member was the week I realized how much more this was to me,” James said. “Because I was super bummed, going in with (the teens’) light and enthusiasm and excitement totally lifted my spirit. We were totally our own little family during those eight weeks.”
James also credited the teens for helping her capture her youthful spirit, bringing to light how she had gotten caught up in her routine between school and work. The students inspired her to be “a little more punk, a little more fearless,” through their self-actualized creativity, she said.
A dozen LGBTQ teens from Boulder and Longmont designed their own outfits, some even creating multiple looks to model on the catwalk. The project was funded through an Arts in Society grant from the state of Colorado, while partner organizations like ARC Thrift Store provided vouchers for the teens to find clothing pieces to reuse and repurpose. One participant, Grace Gruber, went so far as to 3D print, design and program a pair of moving wings to go with her supernatural look.
Going into the workshop, designer and model Cassidy All had all the creativity and none of the sewing skills, she said. After the performance, All said she was inspired to move forward with all the newfound technical abilities — including signing up at Longmont’s Tinkermill Makerspace to utilize the equipment there. Beyond that, All enjoyed the “surreal experience” of walking the runway, emboldening her to improvise on stage.
The technical skills and creative empowerment were part and parcel with the bonds All formed with the other teens, she said. The experience also helped her feel more self-assured and willing to embrace her own creativity, she said.
“Growing up trans, I always felt distanced from my own creativity, feeling like I couldn’t express myself in all the ways I wanted to,” All said. “Since beginning my transition, along with this program, I feel like it’s empowered me to express myself creatively more than I have in the past.”
The final part of the Slay the Runway workshop are a series of classes through partner nonprofits like Out Boulder County, PFLAG and A Queer Endeavor. The classes and workshops are aimed at helping parents and caregivers build safe, supportive home environments for LGBTQ youth. The caregiver workshops are currently slated for summer 2022.