Tacked and stapled next to penciled sketches, handwritten notes-to-self and cut-out pieces of fabric, photos of dimly-lit alleys, decayed buildings and other unlikely Baltimore sights adorn the walls of fashion designer Bishme Cromartie’s Downtown studio. The images and their juxtaposition of various textures, colors and shapes serve as inspiration for the 28-year-old designer, fresh off a stint on Bravo’s famed “Project Runway” reality show.
“I love to take something that’s not beautiful and try to see the beauty of it,” the current Federal Hill resident said. “I love abandoned buildings — for me, it’s a story you want to know.”
The season 17 contender can’t yet reveal the show’s outcome or how he placed. On the most recent episode, he designed a video game-inspired Queen of Hearts look, and with immunity from the week before, he moved on to the next round. The next episode airs Thursday.
But, with the experience of a lifetime under his belt, he said he feels ready to move his brand into the mainstream. And he’ll do it with the influence and inspiration provided by his upbringing, which he tries to highlight as often as possible.
“I want to be the type [of designer] that inspires,” he said. “I always try to make sure my customer understands where I’m from.”
In fact, Cromartie’s Baltimore roots and self-taught fashion education came to his aid on the hit reality show: In the fifth episode, contestants had to pull inspiration from legendary New York-based designer Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day and his brand of streetwear style that many cite as the hip-hop community’s introduction to high fashion. Cromartie’s creation — a structured bomber jacket complete with his neighborhood, Greenmount, stitched onto the back and his initials sewn delicately on the front — wowed the judges and earned him his first win.
Designers also got to meet and learn from Dapper Dan — an opportunity for Cromartie that he describes as an out-of-body experience.
“Hearing Dapper Dan tell us that he uses people on the street for inspiration helped me realize that I could do the same,” Cromartie said on the April 11 episode. “My main message that I got from him is not to forget where you come from and just to never give up.”
Cromartie’s tireless work effort was cemented long before his “Project Runway” bout. He began sewing as a boy, learning most of his basics from an aunt and YouTube videos. When the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York rejected him as a teenager, he willed his frustration into productivity and continued to create, network and win clients. Celebrities like Dascha Polanco, Jill Scott, K. Michelle and Eva Marcille have worn his garments, and he has shown a collection at LA Fashion Week.
Critics have raved about his work: Shortly after showing at LA Fashion Week, Vogue named him as a “designer to know” and praised his “sexy, sculptural dresses” and his keen attention to “celebrating a woman’s body.”
Despite his ascent, he has remained true to himself. In his studio, a pink-and-gold, custom-made prom dress for his cousin’s upcoming prom hangs in a closet (“She’ll end me if I show this,” he said). He designed his sister’s wedding dress, a floor-length ballgown with sheer sleeves and a sprinkle of shimmery sparkle embroidered in a criss-cross fashion on the top. On a recent Thursday in his roomy Saratoga Street studio, wearing a plain black hoodie paired with a simple black baseball cap and black, cuffed khakis with Air Jordan sneakers, he smoothed out a multicolored floor-length dress with an asymmetric top.
A leather skirt with a ruffled bottom and a short black dress hung gracefully on a metal rod at the back of the studio. Like most of his work, the clothes invoke loudness, boldness and power, featuring elegant shapes, vivd colors, accentuating fits and intriguing, architectural cuts.
Cromartie envisions the women wearing his clothes as those who convey messages of self-confidence through their style. “She’s a boss,” he says of his ideal client. “She’s confident while ruling the world.”
When I first started designing, people assumed I was my assistant.— Bishme Cromartie
And on “Project Runway,” he said he creates looks with the ultimate Baltimore woman in mind: Someone who “is always flashy” and “might not have all the money in the world, but [is] going look like she has enough money to get where she’s going.”
But like many industries, Cromartie said fashion still has hurdles to clear before it achieves real equality — not only in terms of the talent it employs but also the intended customers and whom it speaks for.
“When I first started designing, people assumed I was my assistant,” he said. “We have to make sure everyone feels included and beautiful, no matter their shape, size, background or where they’re from.”
He plans to continue to design with this progressive approach to fashion and his homegrown sensibilities in mind. A move to New York City to further grow his brand and reach appears almost imminent.
“It’s something I think I need to do, but it’ll be a challenge,” he said. “I love it here, but as far as creating, it’s not big enough for as big as I want my name to be.”