CNCounty News

Georgia county program exposes students to fashion careers

Amari Franklin pauses for a photo. Injured in a shooting, she has forged ahead with plans for a fashion design career with help from a Fulton County program.

Key Takeaways

Amari Franklin has been making clothes for as long as she can remember. She started with hand sewing and graduated to a sewing machine when her Grandma Carolyn gifted her a pink Singer for Christmas. She was taking fashion design classes at Clark Atlanta University (CAU) with dreams of creating her own brand, when she was shot in a road-rage incident that left her paralyzed. 

Navigating new limitations, Franklin had to redefine the role fashion played in her life. Things she didn’t used to think twice about, like the placement of pockets or unbuttoning denim to use the restroom, were now added difficulties she had to face day-to-day. 

She had to look at clothing through a new lens, one of functionality. But that shouldn’t mean she had to sacrifice her love of fashion, she decided. She would make clothing for people who clothes weren’t traditionally designed for — people like her. 

“‘Regular’ clothes don’t really fit us that well, and it’s difficult for us to do certain things,” Franklin said, referring to people with disabilities. “So, I was like, ‘OK, I know what my purpose is now.’ And I like dressing really nice, so I figured why not make something functional, and fashionable too, to bring out someone’s personality and make them feel beautiful again?”

Franklin’s goal is to one day have her designs shown on the runway, all worn by models with disabilities. Fulton County, Ga.’s Fashion, Art, Culture and Education (FACE) program helped Franklin get a step closer to her dream. She and another Clark Atlanta University student were chosen to go to Paris Fashion Week through the county program. While there, they met with designers, attended shows and took workshops on sustainability in fashion and trend forecasting. 

A highlight of the 10-day trip was getting an inside look into how the designers put together their pieces on a model to fulfill a vision, Franklin said. 

“My favorite designer was Adreain Guillory — he has a brand called Ajovang,” Franklin said. “His work is beautiful. It’s so whimsical and reminds me of the Renaissance or Cinderella. Also, Joseph McRae — his work is phenomenal, and he makes all of his stuff from upholstery fabric. It’s big, it’s out there. And I love him because he doesn’t wear anything but his own designs.” 

The trip to Paris was part of the programming the county has created through its FACE initiative. In 2022, during its first year, the county Arts and Culture Department hosted 40 days of programming, with a $40,000 budget. 

Local leaders in business and fashion, along with the rapper T.I., a Fulton County native, formed a “Teen Talks” panel with Fulton County and Atlanta public schools, which was attended by more than 300 students interested in pursuing a career in fashion. 

Other programming through FACE include film festivals for students to submit their work to and “Fashion Brunch and Beats,” an event where CAU and Savannah College of Arts and Design (SCAD) students were given the opportunity to showcase their designs. “Fashion Brunch and Beats” was made possible through a partnership with a local restaurant.

David Manuel, the director of the Fulton County Arts and Culture Department, said fashion and the arts are underutilized economic development resources for counties. 

When Manuel first stepped into the county director role, after more than 20 years at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center, he met with all of the county commissioners to create a vision for the arts and culture department. Commissioner Natalie Hall urged him not to overlook fashion, and FACE was born.

“When you think of government, the last thing you think about are the arts and culture,” Manuel said. “You think ‘Let’s fix these potholes,’ ‘Let’s make sure sanitation is taken care of,’ but what we’re doing is we’re raising the antenna that you need to start thinking about arts, because the film and fashion industries are bringing a lot of money in.

“… The fashion community is huge in Fulton County, and it’s not just L.A. and New York and Paris. When we get done, they’re going to add Fulton County to that category.”

Manuel attributes the success of the FACE initiative to leveraging existing county partnerships and creating new ones with designers and brands in the community. Fulton County schools and libraries and a few cities got involved, and Atlanta Fashion Week, retail stores, restaurants and local designers and business influencers followed, he said. 

“People want to be part of something that is new and creative,” he said. “And someone knows someone else, and it became pretty much a snowball effect.”

Through a partnership between the county Arts and Culture department and Atlanta Sustainable Fashion Week, fashion students from CAU and SCAD had the opportunity to participate in a sustainability initiative, where they were challenged to create clothing from litter on the beach.

“We’re cleaning up the neighborhood, but we’re also using these items to create,” Manuel said. “There was one skirt that was made from used neckties — it was beautifully done — and there was another dress that was made out of plastic bags that had just been left on the beach. People were picking up broken shells and creating jewelry.

“… Taking something that people discard and creating something to me is almost like the essence of what this whole program is all about.”

This year, the department is consolidating events to a two-week window concentrated around Atlanta Art Week, which includes Atlanta Fashion Week and Atlanta Sustainable Fashion Week, and will feature various exhibits and events, including the annual FACES of Fashion Event, which honors Fulton County fashion icons and serves as a fundraiser and networking event for students participating in the initiative. 

“We were able to create a platform for new and independent artists who might not have the platform to showcase their work,” Manuel said. “And we want to continue to be a platform for them to really find a career in fashion, art and culture.”

Less than a year after attending shows and working with designers during Paris Fashion Week, Franklin graduated from Clark Atlanta University last month with a degree in fashion design and merchandising. 

The FACE program not only gave her a once-in-a-lifetime experience and contacts in the fashion world, but also a support system, she said. Manuel and Franklin keep in touch and the county director said he expects to see her designs in retail stores “in the next year or so.”

“From the FACE program, I got a family,” Franklin said. “I’m trying not to cry … They’re actually trying to help the younger community reach their dreams, and for them to be able to open that door for us is a beautiful thing.” 

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