For Annette Acheampong, Sarah Jacob and Cecilia Jacobs, starting a fashion line in their Technology Access Foundation Academy engineering class was more than just creating clothing.
While the TAF Academy juniors, all from Federal Way, are all interested in fashion and are on course to display their clothing in a fashion and art show in Seattle in April, their clothes are aimed at bridging a gap they have noticed in the fashion industry.
Calling their upstart business Melan, after melanin, which determines skin and hair pigmentation, the 16-year-olds are creating their fashion line with dark skin in mind. Acheampong and Jacob said they started Melan to empower young women of color.
Both Acheampong and Jacob said the team has noticed a lack of bright-colored clothing that flatters darker skin tones in the fashion industry and wanted to do something to change that. Their engineering class turned out to be the perfect venue. Using digital fabrication, including laser cutters to cut out symbols to sew onto their clothing and 3-D printers to produce patterns and designs to be printed onto the fabric, the students are creating fashion and cultural statements.
“It was kind of like a need that we felt we needed to do,” Acheampong said. “We want women of color to feel important and realize there is something out there for them.”
Jacob, whose ethnicity is Indian and south Asian, said the fashion industry is ignoring a large segment of the community by presenting plain colors with simple designs worn by lighter-skinned women.
“In the media, we don’t really see representation of darker-skinned women,” Jacob said.
For their fashion line, the three teens chose patterns, colors and symbols related to their ethnic backgrounds to make it personal and special to them.
Jacobs’ inspiration for her clothing pieces represent her Honduran Afro-Carribean background.
Acheampong, who describes herself as African-American with a Ghanaian background, said the fabric in her clothing is based on Kente cloth, which includes elaborate designs and colors.
“It’s very special in the kingdom that I’m from,” she said, adding it was mainly worn by kings and queens.
Jacob said she went to her south Asian and Indian roots for her inspiration, choosing pookalam designs, which feature elaborate flowers, used for Onam — a traditional Hindu harvest festival.
Jacob said incorporating their cultural backgrounds into their clothing line adds more to the designs by giving them more depth. It’s a nice change from the plain, simple designs found in stores, she said.
The teens intend to have 10 pieces to show in April, Jacob said, and while some of the pieces will be featured separately, others will be mixed and matched to feature the different patterns and ethnicities.
Team Melan doesn’t intend to stop with 10 pieces, however. Acheampong said the girls eventually would like to turn their ideas into a fashion line they could present to the masses.
“We don’t want this to be just for a school project,” Jacob added. “We want to see it progress in the fashion industry.”
Jacob said it is important for the three teens to create something that little girls of color can wear to feel proud of their skin tones.
“It might sound cliche to say we want these little girls to feel beautiful, but it’s really a problem,” she said.
Both Jacob and Acheampong said, when they were younger, they did not like their darker skin tones and even went so far as to try to lighten their skin because they felt ashamed and left out.
“It’s kind of a devastating thing,” Acheampong said. “It’s really sad.”
Jacob said each of their insecurities about their skin color were reinforced by a lack of representation in the media and in fashion, as well as cultural ideals that promoted lighter skin. Both Jacob and Acheampong said they have heard little comments, such as to stay out of the sun because that causes skin to get darker, which only made them feel worse. Other girls share those feelings of inadequacy, Jacob said.
“That’s the goal of Melan, to change that way of thought in young girls, ” she said.