In a period when there seems to be so much bad news about Baltimore, fashion designer Bishme Cromartie represents the best of the city. Earlier this month, we watched as he reached the final four contestants on this season’s “Project Runway.”
Throughout the competition, Bishme spoke of how his designs were inspired by his hometown — Baltimore. His understated and endearing personality came through in every interview. However, because he did not win, his fashions and his incredible journey did not get the attention they deserve here at home. This is in spite of the fact that his work has already been featured in Elle, Vogue, WWD and many other major publications, and many celebrities are wearing his creations.
Three days after the airing of the show on which Bishme was eliminated, he appeared as the graduation speaker for the Baltimore Design School. The students and their families were thrilled to have him on the podium because his story is similar to so many of theirs, including the neighborhood he grew up in, the challenges he faced and the obstacles he had to overcome. They knew his story because it is also theirs. He had come to the design school a number of times over the years, sharing with the students his journey — how his interest in drawing and making clothes began when he was 8 and that he had no mentors as a young designer. And as a result, he became a mentor to many of the fashion students, advising them on their designs and techniques. Neither those students, the Design School nor Bishme have gotten the plaudits and recognition they deserve locally.
Baltimore Design School students have all faced challenges — personal and financial — yet the entire senior class graduated. They worked with their families and the guidance counselor to complete financial aid forms and applications. They earned outside awards and scholarships. And they all were accepted into colleges. However, their success was greatly facilitated by the amazingly dedicated faculty and staff and the mentorship of generous role models like Bishme.
Over the course of the year, in spite of the pressures of “Project Runway,” Bishme regularly shared his real-life experiences, which afforded the students a local example they could relate to and an idea of what it takes to move forward with one’s career. Seeing the success he has had, especially at his young age, inspired each of them.
When a group of us came together a decade ago to establish the Baltimore Design School, it was to provide opportunities for creative young people in Baltimore like Bishme and the students who have just graduated. It also was to change the demographics of the design professions that have too few individuals of color. Bishme once said, “I want the story of my designs to appeal to my demographic, and inspire those who may not see proper representation of themselves.” Through his generous work with young people, the amazing work of the faculty and staff of the Design School, this is happening in Baltimore.
Fred Lazarus (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired as president of the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2014.