Students working on graphic design projects as part of the Fashion Activism Institute. — image courtesy of Andre Wright

Fashion wasn’t the focus of last year’s racial justice protests, but what demonstrators wore — Black Lives Matter T-shirts, face masks reading “I can’t breathe” — became part of the message.

Andre’ Wright understands the role of fashion in activism better than anyone, and now he’s teaching others how to use clothing to send a message and start a conversation.

Wright’s new program, the Fashion Activism Institute (FAI), will teach skills in graphic design and financial literacy. Two cohorts — 15 kids and 15 adults — will spend six months each learning about and working in the design industry. At the end of the program, the students will hold a fashion event where they will present their projects.

FAI will have six sessions, one per month, which will cover topics from design standards, creating blueprints, telling a story through design and fashion, design organizing for a movement, retailing and distribution, marketing and fashion, production and more. Wright and other industry experts will teach the course.

Wright co-founded the fashion activism line Humanize My Hoodie with Jason Sole in 2018 to destigmatize Black clothing trends and stand against racial profiling. The brand has received national acclaim, and was featured in the 2020 New York Fashion Week.

“Humanize My Hoodie is a fashion activist brand, and it’s specifically what fashion activism is,” Wright said. “It’s being able to use clothing as a vehicle for change, to have those conversations… It’s us humanizing ourselves in real time, not letting other people tell our stories and rewriting a whole new narrative of who we are as Black people.”

Fashion activism goes back decades in the United States. Rewind to 1968, for example, when 19-year-old Paul Cohen was arrested for wearing a jacket that read, “Fuck the draft, stop the war.” His case, Cohen v. California, reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor and reinforced protections for emotive and cognitive free speech.

Many countercultural and social justice movements of the ’60s — the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party, the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement — used fashion to express their beliefs and advocate for change.

Symbolic clothing and accessories played prominently in protests over the past decade. In 2011, Guy Fawkes masks populated Occupy Wall Street protests; in 2017, a sea of pink “pussy” hats flooded cities during the worldwide Women’s March, including Iowa City and Des Moines; and at this year’s Met Gala, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress drew headlines and significant social media discourse.

Wright’s brand of activism brings attention to systemic racism against Black and brown communities, as well as Indigenous and Latinx communities. Through his clothing, and partnerships with nonprofits like the Great Plains Action Society, he hopes to instigate actionable solutions.

“We’re using our art to really just speak volumes of, you know, truth to power,” he said. “And really just speaking about who we are, why we do what we do.”

Activists gather at the Iowa State Capitol Complex for Great Plains Action Society’s second annual July 4th event in 2021 to demand that Iowa abolish monuments to white supremacy. Participants are wearing Great Plains Action Society and Humanize My Hoodie’s “The Truth Will Not Be Whitewashed” shirts. — courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

The idea for the fashion institute grew out of Wright’s Black Liberation Space, an art space that started in Revival’s then-vacant location at the Ped Mall, before moving on to other locations in downtown Iowa City. Young students and artists came to work on projects, collaborate and socialize.

“The Black Liberation Space was a really timeless moment, meaning that it was an opportunity for me to see the need and understand the need, and understand how art was able to transform people,” Wright said.

But the need to keep changing locations left them in limbo, feeling adrift, according to Wright.

“We were all feeling like this was the worst thing that ever happened to us,” he said.

“I started to realize really how powerful design and art [is], not just in its form of making, but how it could change someone’s life. And that’s really kind of what the Black Liberation Space offered us.”

Afterwards, Wright wanted to give kids a skill that they could take with them as life moved on. He started teaching graphic design Wednesdays on Zoom to anyone interested. And the kids showed up.

“I could feel the desire and the need,” he said.

Over the next six months, Wright and the students started working on graphic design projects, even partnering with Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records. The two companies provided projects so students could have real experience working in the design industry.

Artwork by Quincy Jagnow

Quincy Jagnow, 18, is one of the “alumni” of the Black Liberation Space, where he first met Wright. He recently graduated from Liberty High School in the Iowa City Community School District. Although he’s planning to enter the nursing track at Kirkwood Community College, he embraced graphic design and joined the FAI’s first cohort.

“I’m very privileged working with somebody who’s already navigated so much of the art space that I’m entering into,” he said.

Jagnow has plans to create non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a proof of ownership of digital files like photos, videos and audio. NFTs can be used to sell digital artwork, although they don’t prevent copying or sharing of the files. He hopes to combine NFTs with a line of exclusive hoodies or merchandise.

Jagnow came to the Black Liberation Space for the atmosphere. He liked talking with the other students about art, working together and occasionally sparring with them. The collection of artists were all diverse racially, but also ideologically and culturally, he said.

His family was never poor. They had food on the table, clothes on their back, running water and lights, but they weren’t wealthy either. He’s also mixed race and carried an internal identity struggle, Jagnow explained.

“I was raised by my mom in a white household, in a majority white city, in a white school,” he said. “Those things in particular, my life experience in general, is what deviates me personally. It’s what sets me apart. It’s what allows me to offer the unique perspectives that I do.”

And all his peers brought their own unique experiences, too. Clashing with other people’s viewpoints is what he loved about the Black Liberation Space and Iowa City, Jagnow said.

“It’s because I think this is such a diverse city, and it’s really offering me and the people around me — my peers, my family, my friends — such a plethora of different people, different perspectives, different ideas,” Jagnow continued. “It offers so much, so I’m super grateful to be in a place that, you know, not only I call home, but [has] just given me such a selection, so much wisdom in the upcoming years.”

Dasia Taylor feels the same way. You may recognize her as the Iowa City West High student who invented a suture thread that changes color from bright red to dark purple when a surgical wound becomes infected. The invention won her the Seaborg Award and led to an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

As a sophomore and junior at West High, Taylor was the president of the Black History Game Show club, where she met Wright. With his guidance, she started her own line of tie-dye T-shirts and face masks in school colors.

Taylor, now a freshman at the University of Iowa, is another alumnus of the Black Liberation Space. Coming from a science background, Taylor said she felt her skills served as an interesting contrast to the students whose creative approaches were informed by a more traditional arts orientation. During her upcoming semester at UI, Taylor said she plans to create a line of STEM-inspired clothes.

Courtesy of Andre Wright

Wright is still looking for a permanent location and more funding for FAI. Currently, students and instructors are meeting at Goosetown Café after hours or on Zoom.

“I wanted to have it be a pinnacle in downtown Iowa City, where people can celebrate us in a different way versus having to come over to our neighborhoods and patronize us where we live,” he said.

Wright is a proud resident of the South District, where he raises his three kids. While he could find a location there, he’d prefer to be in the heart of Iowa City. He said they should have a space solidified in by March.

“I feel like it needs to be downtown,” Wright said. “There’s so many people saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you go into South District?’ And I’m like, well, for you to keep telling me to go to the South District, I feel like you’re trying to gentrify our community. Why couldn’t I have something downtown? Why can’t this be a place for BIPOC kids to go downtown and be celebrated and feel like they’re valued and have a sense of place?”

Wright is stubborn about his vision, and optimistic. He wants a fashion house where people can make and sell fashionable goods, and where visual artists make and sell their work.

“I’d rather arm wrestle someone downtown to get a space,” Wright said. “Why would I go out when I know all the energy’s in the middle?”

The fields of design and graphic communications have large racial disparities, which Wright hopes the FAI will combat. Black people represent only 3 percent of the design industry, the American Institute of Graphic Arts and Google’s Design Census found in 2016.

“That’s why I started the institute originality, and yeah, I feel like that void in the market is what we need to fill,” he said.

Wright said that living in the South District, with police surveillance, barricades and armored vehicle deployments, shows that Iowa City needs programs like FAI to help counter the prison-industrial complex.

“We never talk about preventative measures for us not to go to prison. We always talk about what we can do after the fact, right? Like if we want to really decrease crime and decrease violence, well, we gotta have programs like this,” Wright said. “It’s an abolitionist framework, meaning that if we can learn to take care of ourselves and love ourselves more, we don’t need as many police arresting us, and we don’t need cages for us to be in.”

There are five students in the institute currently with 10 spots remaining. Students must meet some prerequisites to get into the formal program, Wright said, but he’s looking for BIPOC kids that want to work in fashion and graphic communications. For now, enrollment is limited to students from the Iowa City area, with plans to open the program to students across the nation later on.

“I’m really excited about being able to provide this service to the community,” he said. “This is my way of giving back to something I really care about and to people I really care about.”

FAI has an initial fundraising goal of $20,000, which will go to buying laptops and software, sewing machines and to hire additional instructors. FAI’s total fundraising goal is $500,000, which Wright aims to hit by next spring.

The institute had a Kickstarter, which failed to reach its goal in mid-November. Wright said he didn’t advertise the campaign, and that most people have been donating to him personally. Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records has compensated FAI for the work students have done on their projects. Anyone who would like more information on how to support FAI can email Wright at [email protected].

“It’s gonna be awesome, and it’s gonna be amazing, and all those wonderful things,” Wright said. “It’s really exciting seeing what the kids are being able to learn, and how they are able to get to use their skills now.”

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