From Barbies to Reality
June 8, 2020
She was radiant.
A large smile beamed from her face, the make-up gleaming off her ebony skin as she strutted under the lights of the runway in El Camino College’s 2019 spring semester fashion show. Cheryl Brewer, 61, Inglewood resident and fashion design major at EC, was no stranger to the runway. She breathed and lived for the runway.
And El Camino’s annual runway wasn’t her first foray in walking the walk. She had some experience modeling at a Barbie convention in the ‘90s before attending EC.
But this time was different.
Tonight she wasn’t wearing someone else’s design for the walk. Cheryl was wearing clothes she brought from home. Nice clothes, but not to show off on the runway.
Instead, she was leading a group of other women wearing designer garments.
Fashion and making clothes was always a part of Cheryl’s repertoire of hobbies growing up. It’s why she chose to start majoring in fashion design at El Camino College.
If it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, she would be preparing outfits to display in EC’s now-canceled annual spring fashion show. She never imagined how much she would come to love and crave something like a fashion show.
Cheryl grew up in a South Central Los Angeles neighborhood on San Pedro street, where instead of “playing outside until the street-lights came on” she would play with toys that were a constant source of inspiration and practice for her passion.
“I sat countless hours hand-sewing clothes for my Barbie dolls,” Cheryl says. “I was so passionate about it, I was using a sewing machine needle to hand-sew clothes.”
Having no idea it was a sewing machine needle, she would start sewing with a friend on the steps of their home, making clothes for dolls. By the time she was eight-years-old, she taught herself how to crochet.
With the skills she knew, Cheryl made sure to incorporate as much needlecraft as she could, especially at school.
When she began school at Horace Mann Middle School in Los Angeles, she took as many of the sewing classes as possible. Later at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, she joined a club called The Future Homemakers of America.
There her teacher, Ms. Saucy, made Cheryl and other students in her class practice sewing techniques until they were of a satisfactory standard.
This passion and dedication, however, would be stifled after she graduated high school in 1976 and attended California Polytechnical State University in San Luis Obispo for a semester doing general education classes.
Feeling homesick she decided it would be best to return home.
To be closer to home, she enrolled in Southwest Community College, majoring in child development, where she held a couple of jobs at local schools as a teacher’s assistant while enrolled in college.
However, it became too much for her. She liked being active, so she concluded that her ideal job, at the time, would be one in the outdoors.
After graduation in 1984, she jumped on a new opening as a mail courier at the US Post Office, hoping this would allow her to be active. But, she became more intrigued about the uniform.
In her eyes, the uniform had a certain style to it that she appreciated. Over time as the uniforms changed, she made an effort to keep a sense of style as she made adjustments to the uniform to fit her wishes while maintaining an official post office look.
“I would take my uniform, change the uniform, design it, keep all the patches and everything on it but my uniforms were totally different and professional-looking from everyone else’s,” Cheryl says. “A lot of people at work would say ‘Cheryl, you are in the wrong profession, you need to be designing and sewing.’”
Fashion and design would find its way back to Cheryl’s life.
In the 90s, Cheryl was a member of a Barbie Doll Collector Club that would occasionally hold conventions and fashion shows. During one of these conventions, Cheryl designed and modeled a garment she styled in honor of the first black Barbie doll, released in 1980.
“They had other black Barbie dolls, but this one was particular,” Cheryl says. “They used the name Barbie on the box and that was a big deal to black people, to actually have a doll named Barbie that looked like us.”
It wasn’t until 2001, when Cheryl enrolled at El Camino College, that she would fully rekindle her joy for needlework and fashion, particularly on the runway.
In 2003, while walking through campus after one of her classes, she saw an ad for EC’s annual spring fashion show. This ad, in particular, was asking for model participants of any age and size.
“That’s me,” Cheryl thought.
Despite her initial fears of being rejected, she showed up to the first rehearsal for the fashion show thanks to some encouragement from friends and family. Cheryl knew this was what she wanted to do.
She participated that year as a model and was hooked.
After that, she would walk on the EC runway every year she could, as she worked around her post office job and raising her family in Inglewood, which consisted of a 15-year old son, 9-year-old daughter, and her husband.
She had found her home away from home.
In the back of her mind, she worried there wouldn’t be anything for her to model in upcoming shows.
At the time, there would usually be one or two things for her to wear, most of the other garments were made for younger, thinner women. So, Cheryl started submitting a few individual pieces of her own, for her to strut in during her annual walk.
“I decided it was time for me to start making my own designs,” Cheryl says. “And then I wouldn’t have to worry about there not being anything for me to model.”
From that moment on, Cheryl, just as she’d done in middle school, started taking as many fashion and design classes as she could at EC. She worked at the post office at the same time until she retired in 2015 and transitioned into a full-time student.
Now here she was, leading a line of women wearing garments she made in the crochet style in the 2019 spring fashion show. She felt the style needed more representation and was her motivation for choosing it.
That show led Cheryl to win the Best of Show award with one of her pieces, worn by model Erika Leyva, 19-year-old psychology major at El Camino College.
The 2020 spring semester fashion show was going to be Cheryl’s opportunity to grow and show off her newfound trademark. She had plans to incorporate crochet designs in her submissions for this year’s show and Erika was ready and willing to help Cheryl with that goal.
“I asked her [through message] whether there was gonna be a fashion show this semester because I wanted to model again,” Erika says. “I still have the other designers’ [contact information] but… when I spoke to them [last year], it would be like ‘Oh, I’m only doing this semester. I’m not sure if I’m gonna do next semester.’ If I needed answers, Cheryl is the one who’d know.”
Erika was not a student at El Camino College this spring semester. She was obligated to take a semester off to take care of her sick mother, which was not related to the COVID-19 pandemic. She did have plans of returning as a student and participating in the spring fashion show as a model again.
However, due to the pandemic, Erika, like many others, was forced to put her plans on hold. She did not re-enroll for the 2020 spring semester.
Instead, she hopes to continue her studies at EC in the fall, hoping that the dangers of COVID-19 subside and allow for life to return to a sense of normalcy, including a fashion show in spring 2021.
“We’re gonna have all kinds of fun, getting bigger and better than before,” Erika says. “We’re gonna make up for this year.”
For both of these women and many others in the community, the annual fashion show at EC was an opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of fashion, be it as a model, designer, planner, or just an admirer of the artistic interpretations of fashion and beauty presented.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has overtaken the world and put a pause to daily life. Shutting down work and school, and postponing or canceling event after event. Even something as local as the EC’s spring fashion show was affected.
On a global scale, the fashion industry has taken a large toll. Places like India has experienced around $2 billion worth of order cancellations in apparel goods, according to a statement from India’s Apparel Export Promotion Council President A Sakthivel to The Times of India publication on April 7.
Around the world, fashion shows have started canceling or postponing shows, many of them transitioning into a digital format. The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, France’s governing body for all things fashion, has recently announced plans for its Paris Fashion Week to be conducted in a video-only format, slated for July 9 through 13.
Despite the global slowdown, Cheryl continues to dabble in fashion, even if with no fashion show. She still has plans to develop her brand and trademark of crochet finishing on her garments. She continues to work on individual projects, currently working on a crochet piece for her niece.
For Cheryl, fashion is life.
“Modeling and fashion is really a part of me,” Cheryl says. “If I couldn’t do it, I’d still find a way. I’m in my element when I’m designing, and it just feels great; I feel like I have something to contribute to others in the world. I couldn’t imagine life being without it.”