For D.C. youth traumatized by violence and lack of opportunity fueled by widening economic inequality, entrepreneurship could be a path out of hopelessness and despair, as shown during a large-scale fashion show and vendor showcase Friday on the H Street corridor.
Hundreds of budding fashion designers, models, musicians, photographers, and other creatives converged on the Atlas Performing Arts Center during “DC Youth Present Cool New Summer,” a culmination of a 15-week fashion entrepreneurship course sponsored by Elevate All the Time (EAT) and the D.C. Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services (DYRS).
“It’s a blessing to have y’all here. You’re a part of history and this is the beginning,” Malik Jarrett of Northeast, the founder and CEO of EAT, told more than 100 teenage entrepreneurial creatives and their supporters in the Atlas’ Paul Sprenger Theatre during the four-hour fashion show, clothing showcase and networking event. “Whatever we have in this room is enough. We can’t help everyone but if we help one or two people, that’s enough.”
That evening, young people danced in their seats and among one another as trap music blared from large speakers. Young adults, teens, toddlers, and DYRS employees sporting original clothing brands, vogued down a long runway as guests cheered on their friends, yelled their names and laughed gleefully at mannerisms caught on camera phones and DSLRs throughout the spacious auditorium.
Southeast-born songstress Janae Music serenaded the audience with a cover of go-go band CCB’s “Gangsta” before singing some of her original material. Later, during the pop-up shop portion of the program, hip-hop star and D.C. favorite son Wale surprised guests and greeted the young designers. In addition to EAT, clothing brands on display were Calles, Sip Slo Global, RHR, and MNF, all created by participants of the entrepreneurship course.
“We’re fighting through situations in the streets, wins and losses,” Southeast-based fashion designer J. Pepe said in reference to his clothing line Calles, the Spanish word for “streets.”
J. Pepe, a DYRS participant since June 2017, told guests that he didn’t want to glorify the streets, rather express the reality that molded his worldview.
“My brand is gonna grow fast because I have a different persona and am a different breed,” he said. “It’s a positive thing for this community for us to put our mind to something. We need more unity, so we can work and do business together.”
Ramani Simon Wilson, one of the 20 models in the fashion showcase, said she appreciated EAT’s efforts to support youth seeking alternatives to the status quo. In the show, Ramani, 16, wore a new summer lineup of EAT shirts and shorts, most of which were block red, yellow, blue, and orange colors with the widely recognizable EAT logo stitched on the material.
“It was a blessing to model with EAT,” Ramani, also a Ward 4 Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute representative, told The Washington Informer. “I never modeled, and they gave me an opportunity. They are about standing up for the youth who don’t have much. They had humble beginnings and became successful. This was a wonderful experience.”
Saudia Jenkins, show director and life skills dance specialist, led the models along a process that allowed them exude confidence while they represented EAT and the up-and-coming clothing brands. In the process, she said, they became better human beings.
“This brought out the best in our models and taught them to work together,” Jenkins, wearing a blue EAT shirt, told The Informer. “Some of the stronger ones helped those who were a little behind. They cheered on each other one and had fun. We’re losing our kids and we need to see something good come from kids in the same background to put a charge in people to provide them opportunities. ”
Since appearing on the D.C. fashion scene two years ago, the EAT brand has become a dominant part of D.C. culture, continuing the legacy of locally incubated apparel. This recent production, following the release of New Balance sneakers designed with the EAT color scheme, counts among the Northeast-based brand’s efforts to connect with youth.
The second cohort of EAT’s 15-week fashion entrepreneurship course, kicking off in early July, will include youth from DYRS’ achievement centers, scattered throughout the District, continuing a vision manifested last year.
“Malik and I had mutual friends and I wanted to ask how I can bring him on and worked itself out,” said Timothy Durant, DYRS contractor since 2015, and key player in the endeavor. “We offer programs and vocational training and just want to focus on the positive with our youth. This is the next generation of entrepreneurs and it was great just seeing them being taught by this man.”