Two years ago, a dejected Bishme Cromartie almost gave up sewing altogether. He had just received a rejection letter from the famed Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
"I just sat there and cried. You would have thought that someone died in my arms," the 21-year-old recalled. "I stopped sketching and sewing. ... I started questioning myself."
Cromartie had done everything right. A creative type, he earned A's and B's at Reginald F. Lewis High School in Hamilton. He had been designing since age 7, when his aunt showed him the basics. He would look at a design in a library book and, with no instruction, re-create it himself. He thought he had aced the interview and entrance project.
But there he was, sobbing in his sister's Waverly rowhouse, contemplating cutting short his career. He stopped sketching for three months after that. But the urge to create and design clothing grew too strong.
"I really couldn't find myself doing anything else," said Cromartie, who has never had formal design training.
Cromartie ultimately used the rejection from fashion school to fuel a series of designs. Garments from those collections have been featured in Vogue Italia and Elle Vietnam. Celebrities routinely wear his signature frocks, including R&B singer Ashanti on a "Good Morning America" appearance in February. His designs range from $140 for a simple cocktail dress to $1,000 for a gown. Locally, he's won over supporters such as the owner of Stevenson-based design house Victor Rossi, who sees in Cromartie the makings of a "major success story."
"I use that [Fashion Institute rejection] for everything I design," he said at his sister's home, where he creates most of his designs in a tiny upstairs bedroom. He also works from his aunt's nearby home. "It shows that just because one major door slams in your face, that doesn't mean you should stop. You should push forward and do more."
Cromartie will unveil his talents Friday night during his first New York City fashion show, a gathering of stylists, boutique owners, fashion scribes and buyers from across the country. He's tapping models from the Ford and Fusion agencies and notables such as Bianca Golden from "America's Next Top Model." He's expecting more than 200 people to attend what he calls an "intimate, floor-level show" in a midtown loft.
"It's going to be a clean runway show," he explained. "I want this collection to hit people. I'm a little nervous to see it all come together."
The show centers on his latest collection, Burton's Battle, 20 looks with an emphasis on pink, gold, blue, metallic fabric, jackets with exposed zippers, peplum tops, circle skirts and other architectural-looking silhouettes.
"I wanted something soft and wearable that a woman from late teens to early 50s could wear," he said.
The collection, which took Cromartie five months to make, is dedicated to struggling women he observed in his life and everyday interactions.
"It took a long time for inspiration to kick in," he recalled. "I was looking for inspiration. I found it by watching women who were going through different obstacles. These were strong women, fighting, going through different struggles in life, but still remaining beautiful and strong."
Cromartie is staging the show with money he's made by selling clients custom garments such as wedding gowns and prom dresses. He has called in favors and connections to tie up the remaining loose ends. Kevin Parker and Kerry Scott, founders of Philadelphia Fashion Week, helped Cromartie scout out venues and coordinate the show. The models are participating as a favor, Cromartie said.
"I don't have money. I have connections," he said with a laugh. "Sometimes it does cost to get things done. But if you know people who work in that area, it makes it much easier. It is best as an emerging designer to keep your costs as low as possible."
The collection is much like most of Cromartie's life — persevering in spite of adversity.
"I don't live in the best neighborhood," said Cromartie. "But I like to believe that you don't become a product of your environment."
From Cromartie's unusual name — his mother heard "Bishme" and fell in love with it — to his football player's build, he's used to experiencing raised eyebrows from fashion-industry types.
"I remember going to a shoot at Milk Studios in New York City and having a photographer ask me if I was an assistant," he recalled. "That's when I realized that they didn't expect to see this young black guy. It was not hard to deal with, but it was questionable."