Inside a small classroom at the University of Colorado Boulder, the memory of punk fashion icon Vivian Westwood lives on within 14-year-old Aura Charnick.
“At the beginning of 2021, I started doing more research on punk fashion and like a bunch of punk subcultures and I really identified with it,” Charnick said. “So I started dressing like that more and I figured this was a perfect opportunity to sort of make something inspired by that.”
Charnick was a participant in Slay The Runway, a workshop for LGBTQ teens run by Firehouse Art Center. Through the workshop, teens learned the basics of sewing, color and shape.
At the end of the two-week program, they used those skills to put on a fashion show featuring clothing they designed.
Charnick, of course, wanted to emulate their punk idols, so they went to a thrift store and found a black pleather skirt, a classic centerpiece worn by garage rock bands around the world.
To enhance the look, Charnick ripped up pieces of patterned shirts and sewed them onto the skirt.
It was still missing something — but Charnick had an idea to maximize its potential.
“I have these screw-in spikes I got online and I'm just poking a small hole with the sewing scissors, putting the screw in on one side and screwing in the spike on the other side,” they said.
'Fashion is inherently queer'
Charnick is one of over a dozen teenagers taking part in the program. For some teenagers, like Grace Gruber, who is incorporating a stuffed dragon into her design, nothing specific really guided their vision.
“I just like dragons,” Gruber explained.
But for some, like Zi Salling, their personality and lifestyle showed through their work.
“I am working on a Barbie princess-looking fairy thing,” they said.
Salling said the look shows the more delicate side of their personality.
“A lot of the time, I'm in a more gothic, deep grunge look,” Salling said. “And then there's other times, like today and with this dress, where I'm more princess fairy. So I feel like it's just showing that I can express myself in just different ways, but I can still be the same person throughout.”
The focus on fashion for this workshop was intentional. LeeLee James, one of the program instructors, said it's because queer kids have always found comfort in fashion.
“Fashion is inherently queer,” James said. “It's inherently bolder. It's inherently different from what you would see every day, and I would even argue that we wouldn't have a fashion industry without queer people.”
In the aftermath of the Club Q shooting, and with other states targeting queer youth through anti-LGBTQ legislation, Slay The Runway organizer Steven Frost says curating these types of spaces is a worthwhile mission.
“There's so many weird ways in which people try to control us all, and we want just this to be a place where everyone has freedom, where everybody's allowed to express who they are,” Frost said.
'Y’all ready for some fashion?'
At the end of the workshop, James welcomed friends and family to the Boulder Public Library as the teenagers donned their outfits. The students had spent the last days of the workshop working with DJs and makeup artists to prepare for the fashion show.
Charnick, the punk-worshiping 14-year-old, strutted out to the song “Plump” by Hole.
“I just tried my best to be confident, 'cause the sort of punk spirit is ‘I don't care what anyone thinks of me’ and so I try to embody that,” Charnick said.
For some of the more reserved teens, like Dez Calnaido, walking the runway was an opportunity to shed their skin and embody their true selves.
“My second [outfit], I was in drag,” Calnaido said. “And I think for me, when I'm in drag, I have much more confidence because it's a drag persona.”
The runway lights turning off at the end of the show marks the end of the workshop. But, the teens are allowed to take their outfits home. For them, the world is now a runway.
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