On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, a handful of teenage girls trickled through the door of Rock Paper Scissors Art Collective in downtown Oakland. It looked like a typical after-school powwow: The girls chatted, dropping book bags and grabbing homemade sandwiches, waving hello to a teenage boy quietly sewing in the corner. They all exchanged conversations with a slender, brunette woman sitting at a desk in the center of all the activity.
The brunette, Kristi Holohan, is the director of The Street Style/Dream Seam School of Fashion, an after-school program that fosters creativity and entrepreneurship in high school students interested in the fashion business. The course, which runs from October to May, meets at three different locations each week so students can sketch, design, hone sewing skills and be around other artists. Students come to sessions at Rock Paper Scissors, MetWest High School near Lake Merritt or at Tassafraonga Recreation Center in East Oakland where fabric, sewing machines and, of course, sandwiches are provided for them.
Holohan, 31, has been sewing since she was 7 years old and is a design artist working in Oakland. Her co-teacher Kenny Mau, 25, is a stylist at BCBG in San Francisco. Their goal, Holohan says, is to let their students enter “a world of art and fashion and creativity.”
As the two-hour class gets underway, someone puts on their iPod, which seamlessly shifts between Motown classics and indie rock, and the students start in on their projects without any direction. Francisco Ziminay, 15, works on hand-sewing a pair of pants. Brie Pleasants, 18, sketches a dress she plans to enter into a contest sponsored by Jo-Ann Fabrics. Liliana Herrera, 16, leans over Pleasants and suggests an easier way to draw in pleats.
Milan Williams, 17, and Holohan are both hunched over a sewing machine working on the beginnings of a bright blue gingham scarf. Williams, who attends Berkeley High, is a newcomer to the class. She loves fashion, she says, but never had any of the technical skills. “It takes hours to learn how to sew, it takes a lot of focus,” said Williams. “ But, I like that I get to create and be creative and express myself,” she said of the program.
“Kristi is always supportive, with her anything goes,” Williams added.
“I allow them to do whatever they want,” says Holohan about the students’ freedom to pursue creative projects: Some sew, others design hats, and some screen-print and design t-shirts or knit.
Despite the diversity of creative pursuits, Holohan is tuned into what her students like to do and where they excel. “Francisco sews everything by hand,” she said, gesturing towards the corner Ziminay occupied. “Brie here is our P.R. goddess and Naima is an amazing sketch artist.” Naima Wye, a 16-year-old Berkeley High student was engrossed in the stuffed animal she was sewing, looked up and said, “I love fashion and street style,” she said. “I have to draw. I get consumed like a zombie.”
Pleasants, a student at Oakland Senior High School, is grateful for Holohan’s individual attention. “I’ve learned about myself. Kristi always tells me how well-spoken and patient I am,” she said.
The Street Style School has been running for three years but Holohan, with the help of co-teacher Mau, has been working to take it in a different direction, one that is more focused on being a professional artist and understanding the industry, she said. In addition to holding resume writing workshops and mock interviews and providing students with their own business cards, Holohan teaches her students about the negative aspects of the fashion world. She tries to combat the stereotypes of beauty by showing ads that feature real women, like Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” or providing offbeat magazines in addition to more mainstream catalogs and periodicals. Industry specialists such as milliners and t-shirt designers have paid visits to the class. She also invites her students to other art events she hosts to help establish the young artists in the community.
The students have come together to show their work at Oakland Public Library and the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art where they made dresses out of newspaper for an exhibition. The students have executed photo shoots at the Oakland Public Library as well, organizing everything from the models’ hair and makeup to designing the clothes. They’ve also been setting up a table at the monthly First Friday Art Murmur events in Oakland, selling their homemade jewelry, knit items and hats. They pulled in $100 from their first booth back in February, and used the proceeds to fund more design projects.
For several of the students, like Williams who knits both by hand and on an industrial knitting machine, the designs they produce with the Street Style program will be used in portfolios for art schools and for internships. Herrera, a photographer and painter, works for an Oakland based muralist, has had work exhibited at SFMOMA, the Oakland Museum, Hood Games and Graffiti Jam, an impressive list about which Herrera responds with a shrug — “I’m an artist,” she says.
As part of the day’s lesson, Holohan is teaching the students how to write a press release about the Street Style Program. Herrera and Wye are in charge of writing it out, and struggle for a moment with the wording.
“Well, what are you trying to say?” Holohan asked Herrera.
“Just that we’re youth from Oakland,” the student replied, “trying to make a difference and prove that Oakland has hella talent.”