By Shannon Mullane (MJour’19)
Photos by Kimberly Coffin (CritMed, StratComm’18)
With pink stage lights, the horn chorus of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” and a confident high-heeled strut, they were off.
Eleven LGBTQ teens from the Boulder County area took to the stage in November’s Slay the Runway event, the final act of a program designed to celebrate both fashion and empowerment.
“Some of the kids were dreadfully shy, and by the end, they were stomping down the runway to Lady Gaga,” said Steven Frost, Slay the Runway coordinator and a faculty member in the College of Media, Communication and Information. “It was awesome.”
Slay the Runway launched in fall 2021 as an eight-week program in fashion design, performance and sewing for LGTBQIA+ teens ages 12 to 18. Community groups, including several at the University of Colorado Boulder, collaborated to enlist experts in fashion and sewing, videography, drag performance and more.
Stitch by stitch, the program aimed to create a new way to bring the area’s LGBTQIA+ community together, while helping teens celebrate their place within it.
“To feel like they can take up space in the world can be dangerous if you’re trans or nonbinary,” said Frost, a media studies assistant professor in CMCI. “To surround them [the students] with people who were celebrating them—and to show them they can really be ostentatious and bold and perform their fantasy—was really an awesome experience.”
Frost, who uses they/them pronouns, specializes in using textiles and weaving to explore topics like queer history and tactile memory. They had just returned from working with queer youth in Maine when they met with Elaine Waterman, executive director of the Firehouse Art Center, to discuss a new queer youth program in Boulder.
Waterman, a fashion designer turned arts educator and activist, was looking for artists to help her expand her idea for an LGBTQIA+ youth fashion show.
“Having that personal experience of having a kid that wanted to express themselves but didn’t really know how to—Slay the Runway came from that,” said Waterman, founder of Slay the Runway.
The pair received a $22,000 Arts in Society Grant through RedLine Contemporary Art Center to fund the inaugural program, and Arc Thrift Store donated vouchers so the students could buy materials.
They brought on LeeLee James, an undergraduate student in computer science at CU Boulder also known as Twirling Tech Goddess, to help with design and performance. Elle Hong (MFADance’21) and Alnite Alliance, a Colorado nonprofit focused on LGBTQ advocacy, drag and alternative performance, jumped in to help with the performance and make-up.
“Especially for young people who are queer, being able to make your own clothes is so important,” Frost said. “Access to clothes for people who are not gender binary is really hard. … The ability for queer people to refit and make their clothes is a really good skill to have.”
The organizers faced a yearlong delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, but by September 2021, the teens were altering clothes, choosing patterns and designing their final looks at the Firehouse Art Center in Longmont and Boulder Public Library’s BLDG 61 Makerspace.
In the days before the performance, the B2 Center for Media, Arts and Performance at CU Boulder’s Roser Atlas Institute suddenly featured a full fashion runway with professional lighting—and a dozen teenagers tweaking their final looks at sewing tables in the lobby.
“It looked like Project Runway. It was totally wild,” Frost said.
On Nov. 13, about 70 community members and families gathered around the stage to see the show. The teens strutted and stomped down the runway in their own creations, sporting looks that ranged from flowing, tulle dresses to goth-inspired creations.
“The parents were so immensely proud of them. I think for a lot of the parents, they had never seen their kids’ queerness celebrated in this way,” Frost said. “I just wanted to sit in that moment forever. …It was like love and tears. It was joyous.”
As a parent of a nonbinary child, Waterman wanted to build a space where LGBTQ kids could be creative and meet role models who found success while presenting their truest selves to the world.
“I wanted to provide that safe space for the kids to design and create clothing that expresses who they really are,” Waterman said. “But I also wanted to make sure that caregivers and parents had a space to ask questions to help them create that safe space at home.”
To that end, Slay the Runway held its first caregivers conference in early March to help share resources with families, Waterman said.
The program is also gearing up for its second year, Slay the Runway 2022 from June 27 to July 8. In the future, the organizers hope others copy their program as much as possible, Frost said.
“(This program) brings visibility of queer youth, and it also brings people together intergenerationally,” they said. “Our hope was that this would provide other people the ability to see this model and do it on their own.”