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."
Cromartie's hard work hasn't gone unnoticed. He has won the respect of many of those fashion-industry types.
Toni James, owner of Katwalk Boutique, a women's wear shop in Fells Point, has followed Cromartie's career for years. She appreciates his attention to detail and the overall construction of his garments.
"His work has really matured and grown throughout the years. I just love it right now," said James, who plans to attend the New York City show. "It's really great to see people from Baltimore pushing themselves, leaving here and going to the next level. ... He's going to keep going to the next level, no matter what."
Manish Singh, the owner of Victor Rossi, the Stevenson-based design house that attracts international and domestic clients, met Cromartie a couple of years ago. The two keep in contact and talk about navigating through the fashion industry.
"I wanted him to learn from the many, many mistakes I made along the way, because everyone who starts any business is bound to make mistakes," Singh said. "I felt it was my duty to help him build a foundation of what I truly believe could become a super brand, his eponymously named brand."
Singh said he's not surprised by Cromartie's quick rise.
"Not only is he talented beyond his years, he is very disciplined, very humble, ambitious yet very pragmatic, and he sets short- and long-term goals for himself," Singh said. "I have no doubt that he will emerge as a major success story in the near future."
Bishme Rajiv Patrick Cromartie
Education: 2010 graduate of Reginald F. Lewis High School in Hamilton
How he got started: He started sketching at 7. He made clothes for his action figures from socks and shirt sleeves. At 9, his aunt taught him how to sew. He taught himself everything else from books.
Notable appearances: Featured in Vogue Italia and Elle Vietnam in 2011; his designs were worn by Ashanti and her backup dancers during her "Good Morning America" appearance in February.
Influences: Nina Ricci — "I love what she's able to do with fabrics." Alexander McQueen — "I have his logo tattooed on my arm. I love him. I've studied this man's work from when he was an intern."
Online: bishmercromartie.com and twitter.com/b_cromartie