Aya Dixon, 15, has dreams of working for a top design house before eventually branching off to create her own line of couture. Up until now, her only brush with that industry was thumbing through glossy magazines or watching reality shows on television.
That changed Wednesday when the Baltimore Design School sophomore got a chance to mingle with the likes of Anna Wintour, popular designer and "Project Runway" judge Zac Posen and other big names in the fashion industry.
Dixon was part of a group of 10 students from Baltimore Design School who attended the White House's first Fashion Education Workshop, led by first lady Michelle Obama. About 150 youths were selected from mostly East Coast schools to attend the White House event.
"I'm going to tell them [friends and family] about all the people I met today," Dixon said on the bus ride back to Baltimore from Washington. "I'm going to show them all of the notes I took. I'm going to show them the lanyard with my name on it. I'm going to show them everything. It was really a great experience."
During the daylong event, students participated in panels and workshops led by the world's top names in fashion, including magazine editors and designers. The roster of presenters and panelists was a who's who of fashion, including Tracy Reese, Jason Wu, Diane Von Furstenberg and Prabal Gurung.
Dixon got to interview Posen during a journalism workshop led by Ursula Carranza, fashion and beauty director for People en Espanol. The admittedly reticent high-schooler was encouraged by Carranza to approach Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, for a picture and a quick chat.
"She really pushed me to get out there," Dixon said about Carranza. "She helped me with designer names. She really directed me. She was key in helping me introduce myself to designers."
But it was Posen's words that really stuck with Dixon, she said.
"I had a really fun time interviewing Zac Posen. He told me to 'learn how to sew, get your hands dirty and build from your heart,'" Dixon said. "Listening to all of the designers speak was very, very inspirational."
White House officials said the goal of the event was to "show young people what it takes to succeed in the fashion industry, and how important it is for the next generation to commit to their education."
Students and staff at Baltimore Design School were pleasantly surprised to learn that their school was selected to be among the 14 represented at the workshop.
"Just to be named is an honor," said Molly Roberts, the fashion design teacher at Baltimore Design School, who accompanied the students to the White House. "Being a school that is so new, it's an amazing opportunity."
During the morning, the students participated in several workshops focused on topics such as inspiration, wearable technology, journalism, entrepreneurship and clothing construction, followed by remarks from Obama and a panel discussion featuring designers and experts.
"I know that many of you are hoping to one day pursue a career in fashion — and that's why we invited you here today … because we want you to really understand what it's going to take to be successful," Obama said during a luncheon for the students.
The first lady stressed the importance of education and hard work even when pursuing a career in the often glamorized world of fashion.
She said she knows people think "it's all about catwalks and red carpets and 'who wore it best,' and whether some famous person wore the right belt with the right shoes. … But the truth is that the clothes you see in the magazine covers are really just the finished product in what is a very long, very complicated and very difficult process, as I've come to learn working with many designers."
Obama's message resonated with the students, according to Roberts.
"It really sank in when they were in the East Room having lunch," Roberts recalled. "Yes, they got this amazing opportunity, but now they can go back and share with their classmates. They can tell them all the hard work and dedication that fashion and design takes."
The opportunity to be in the company of the first lady was a major draw for the Baltimore students, Roberts said. "Younger girls look up to Michelle Obama as a woman of color and as a woman who is of interest to them," she added.
Tyler Beasley, a 15-year-old student from Park Heights, got to eat lunch at the same table with Obama and Wintour.
"She [Obama] told me how lucky I was to be there," he said. "It was a really nice day. We all learned something new."
Beasley said he was most excited to meet Wintour. "Vogue is the magazine that all of my family reads," he said. "To meet her was a big accomplishment."
He was able to take a picture and speak at length with the famed editor. "She was telling me [about] the hard work that it took to get into her position," he said. "She also told me to love doing what you do."
Roberts immediately noticed a change in her students by the end of the day. "They became so comfortable around these people who they were totally star-struck by a few minutes before," she said. "They seemed at ease."
Quentin Klein-Alfano, 15, said he most enjoyed the vast selection of designers who participated during the day.
"I got to observe some of the greatest designers of our time," the Roland Park resident said.
Roberts could not believe the caliber of fashion industry leaders that participated during the day.
"There wasn't a name on this list that didn't have me in tears because I was so excited," she said. "This group provides all the professional experience that I could give them, and then some."
Educational opportunities like the event at the White House further legitimize the fashion industry and encourage the next generation of innovators and leaders, according to Michele Nagel, director of evening, weekend and pre-college programs at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
"Summits such as the one at the White House show students the breath of these careers," she said. "It's connecting interest and potential careers. Any opportunity we have to bring children into the realities of the industry, it is important. For the White House to endorse America as a fashion source is fabulous."
The lessons learned were invaluable to Dixon.
"I can now put names to clothing," she said. "I'm building up my fashion vocabulary."