Oakland fashion impresario teaches modeling, pride
on September 6, 2011
The graffitied plywood that had boarded up the building for years was gone, pried off and repurposed as interior decor. Downstairs, lengths of white markerboard on the floor formed an improvised runway. Large cardboard prints of high-end fashion models leaned against otherwise bare white walls.
The First Friday art crowd packed the room, backing all the way up the stairs. This wasn’t a conventional event for one of Oakland’s downtown art walks. It was a youth fashion show, featuring local kids trained by Mario Benton, a San Francisco native who moved to East Oakland 16 years ago. “From childhood I wanted to be a fashion producer and have models,” Benton said. “That’s my first love.”
Parents and friends from the community crowded into plastic chairs. Sultry R&B and thudding house music filled the room. One by one, girls sauntered down the runway in retro outfits with modern accessories like feather earrings and bright plastic hair beads, many of their ensembles styled by local retailer Black Swan Vintage. Some of the girls seemed natural, others slightly awkward and inhibited; all of them evoked hearty cheers. Everyone burst into huge smiles during the scenes with the youngest models, some only five years old.
Partway through the show, the audience suddenly erupted into applause as Mayor Jean Quan made a surprise entrance. “I just wanted to see the kids work!” she said.
“Okay, well let’s see them work!” replied Jasmine Benton, Mario’s sister, production assistant and announcer for the occasion.
“People told me it was too early to have a show,” said Mario Benton—he’d only just finished cleaning and preparing the space, which had previously been abandoned for years. “I’m really spontaneous, so when I say it—it’s on!” he said. “That’s what I do as a creative person, I create and stay in my art.”
Benton has spent a decade teaching modeling in after school programs. His new Oakland enterprise is located in the basement of Uptown Studio, a large, recently refurbished complex that also houses Badd Boyz Hair Salon, billed as a multi-ethnic, full service salon, and provides space for vendors during First Friday.
Benton’s long journey to this point is reflected in his face. Flecks of grey pepper his neatly manicured goatee and the corners of his eyes extend into long smile lines. Some of his students, he said, have graduated to work for Nickelodeon, signed with agencies, and acted in large-budget films. “I had four girls at one time, they all made it to America’s Next Top Model,” he said.
But his passion has always been what he called “personal development”—watching local kids, some of them from tough neighborhoods and foster care, blossom into confident young models. “I teach them how to be really classy,” he said.
Jasmine said, “It’s really more about self esteem than about looking good on the outside. It’s about feeling good on the inside too: ‘I’m here, this is what I’m about, this is what I stand for.’”
One student Kionni Hodges, 19, said, “I always wanted to be a model.” Hodges grew up in Oakland but moved around throughout her childhood. After reaching legal adulthood, she said, she returned to her hometown and was introduced to Mario Benton, who was an old friend of her uncle. Walking the runway in front of people is scary, Hodges said—and she likes it. “My heart is, like, beating in my chest and I’m light headed, but it’s a good feeling,” she said. “Like riding a roller coaster when you know you’re afraid of it.”
Having never previously charged for his classes, Benton scrambled to finance his studio. He organized fundraisers, including the Bay Area’s version of the global industry event Fashion Week and a black tie gala at the Kaiser Roof Garden, he said. But he still came up short. “I’ve been struggling and struggling to finally find a home for me and the young people,” said Benton. “I ended up getting this building just through the grace of God.”
That grace came in the form of a partnership with his childhood friend Tony Wright, a dapper man who favors a pinstripe suit and fedora, and runs a limousine company called Top of the Line. Wright said he dreamed of reopening his old Badd Boyz salon, which he ran out of the same building until 1998. His connections made Uptown Studio possible. “I was the only one who knew how to get in contact with the landlord,” he said.
Mayor Quan said she hopes Uptown Studio represents a new trend for retail in Oakland. “Particularly in Asia, they have places that look like department stores, but they’re actually inhabited by a lot of little individual designers,” said Quan. “I’ve actually been talking to some of the investors and developers about having a place like that.”
Jasmine said she hopes to see the space used for other community events, like poetry and African dance performances. For now, Mario Benton’s schedule seems solidly booked. Several of his students were scheduled for a runway show at Oakland Pride festival last Sunday; on Friday, Sept. 9 Uptown Studio will host another modeling and photography event for Fashion’s Night Out, an annual occasion for after-hours shopping. “Hopefully, eventually we’ll outgrow this facility,” said Benton.
Following his opening last Friday, Benton made a teary speech. “There’s a lot of negative things people talk about in Oakland,” he said. “But there’s some positive things that are happening for our young people.”
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