Fashioning an education

Isabella Lee, 16, is among 20 teenagers from the Lower Mainland who are competing in SFU
Isabella Lee, 16, is among 20 teenagers from the Lower Mainland who are competing in SFU's Banner Bags — Beyond the Bag competition. She is designing and sewing a dress out of used nylon street banners.
— image credit: Brenda ANDERSON/Langley Times

If, as the saying goes, a silk purse can come from a sow’s ear, then just imagine what 20 enterprising high school textiles students can produce when they are given piles of colourful nylon street banners and plenty of creative licence.

That’s the challenge facing Langley’s Isabella Lee and 19 other students from across Greater Vancouver, who have been chosen to participate in Simon Fraser University’s Banner Bags — Beyond the Bag showcase.

It was after a presentation at her school by the SFU group organizing the event, that Isabella, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student from R.E. Mountain Secondary, decided to enter the contest which asks participants to “up-cycle” old decorative community street banners into articles of clothing and then display them on the runway.

For Isabella, the competition combined two elements that are of great personal importance — sewing and the environment.

The Langley teen’s application included a creative writing project and photos of past school projects. It was enough to earn her a spot among the 20 contestants who  will get to display their work on Sunday, March 16.

“I’m 99 per cent sure I’m the only one from Langley (in the competition). I’m definitely the only one from R.E. Mountain,” she said.

Once she was accepted, Isabella was supplied with nylon fabric taken from used community street banners. Beyond that, she was left to her own devices.

In order to qualify for competition, 70 per cent of each completed garment must be comprised of the recycled banner fabric.

Isabella set to work designing a lined strapless dress with a skirt that sits just above the knee in front and falls  into a longer “flow-y” drape at the back — “for glamour on the runway,” she explained.

Working from a book, the teen created the pattern for her original design using a roll of kraft paper she purchased at the dollar store.

Calling on a friend to act as her model, Isabella tweaked the pattern a few times before getting the fit just right — adding a few decorative touches and some bunching to help her garment stand out on the runway and to give it dimension.

Isabella took up sewing when she was 13 because it was a required course for Grade 8 students in Calgary, where she was living at the time.

But she quickly grew to love it.

Well before that, by the time she was in Grade 6, she had developed an awareness of fashion, she said, adding it is about far more than throwing on a trendy piece of clothing.

“I feel like people have a constricted view (of fashion). They don’t think about the process behind how a garment is created.

“It’s a huge process,” she said, gesturing toward the piles of patterns and fabric on her kitchen table, representing weeks of work on the project.

Once it’s complete, Isabella’s dress will be unveiled alongside the other submissions during a fashion show.

On the day of the competition, in addition to ranking the final products, judges will evaluate contestants’ marketing skills — including how well they promoted their work.

To help get the word out, Isabella has created a mock company called Hesper — which she named for the evening star — and created a Facebook page which features regular updates on her progress.

So far, the site has more than 300 likes. Her goal is to reach 500 by the day of the fashion showcase. She has also created an account on Twitter — @thehesperline.

It took her quite a while to come up with just the right name for her “company,” said Isabella.

Hesper ties in nicely to the environmental theme, she said, because in order to really see the stars, clean air is necessary.

The idea is to treat Hesper as though it were an actual brand, so she has created a logo — a stylized clothes hanger — and made business cards, which she will hand out at the showcase — all of it in an effort to get noticed as a contestant with business savvy as well as style.

At stake are three scholarships — $1,000 for first place, $500 for second place and $250 for third place.

Whether or not she ends up with a cash prize, Isabella is using the competition to help build her portfolio so that she will have something to show when she applies to university.

Her long-term goal is to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City, but being selected for the contest has also given the Langley teen the immediate benefit of a growing  awareness about the environment.

“I feel like Banner Bags competition really opened my eyes to what we can do to … limit the impact we have (on the Earth).”

Increased awareness about the environment is definitely among the benefits that Isabella’s home economics teacher, Andrea Freeman, sees for her students who participate in the Banner Bags showcase.

Through their extracurricular work, the students are answering the question: “Why would you care about banners just going into a landfill?” said Freeman.

“They’re taking something of no value and turning it into something of value,” she said, noting the competing students have bypassed the recycling process and moved straight to up-cycling.

The competition gets bigger every year, said Freeman, whose students have been participating in Beyond the Bag for the past four years.

A past student took third place and a $250 prize, she noted.

Even if they don’t win, the students leave the competition with plenty that is of value, Freeman added.

“They get to find out what it’s like to work with students at the university level,” she said.

Since the competition began, the contestants have been attending a series of workshops related to textiles and explore the career paths that are available to them.

They’ve also been paired with Kwantlen Polytechnic fashion students, in addition to making contacts in the business world, she explained.

The teens are reaping benefits in other areas, too, said the teacher.

“I also notice students making connections to their  other course work, especially math.”

If students’ mathematics skills aren’t strong, they’re going to have difficulty drafting patterns properly, Freeman said.

In Isabella’s case, using social media to market herself and her work is another skill she has developed through her participation in the competition.

The quiet, shy student Freeman began teaching just last year “has blossomed and stepped things up this year,” said the instructor.

“She’s so passionate about this (project). She’s putting in so many hours.”

Thanks to the competition, said Freeman, Isabella has taken her work much further than the classroom and has demonstrated “a deeper learning” of her craft.

Anyone who would like to support Isabella’s efforts is invited to check out her project at facebook.com/thehesperline and give it a “like.”

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