Nearly a half-century ago, Edessa Meek Dixon taught her young granddaughter how to sew.
Today, that young granddaughter, Lynne Dixon Speller, has established the Edessa School of Fashion in honor of her grandmother.
Hosted in the MARN ART + CULTURE HUB’s Conference Center, the Edessa School of Fashion’s mission is to encourage a diverse body of motivated students to enhance their creative skills through the use of design, experience, and community engagement.
You might notice the word ‘fashion’ is missing from that mission. That is because the school believes that ‘fashion’ does not have a single definition that can be taught, and that its role is to support its students’ inherent skills and creative visions.
This means there is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing Edessa’s students. James Kent Kaddatz said part of the student’s journey is figuring out who they are and what they want to express before working with fabric.
“It’s about people coming together and learning who they can become.”
‘Fashion is who I am and what I feel’
Perhaps the easiest way to understand what happens at the Edessa School of Fashion is to break down its name, word for word, in reverse order.
First, the word ‘fashion’ at Edessa has a different meaning than the one you may be familiar with. Traditionally, something is typically described as ‘fashionable’ if it matches an established trend, looks expensive or rare, or otherwise creates distance between the ‘fashionable’ wearer and the ‘unfashionable’ masses.
For Edessa students however, fashion is personal expression, nothing more or less. Something is ‘fashionable’ if it communicates how the wearer is feeling in that moment, or expresses a statement, ideal, or first impression that the wearer wants to invoke as they move through the world.
“A lot of people think you can look at someone and say whether they are fashionable or not. I don’t believe that,” said student Sabrina Lombardo.
“Fashion is who I am and how I feel. Some days it’s bright and funky, others it is drab and gray because I don’t feel like being outspoken as a person, I feel more introverted.”
Furthermore, the word ‘school’ may imply that Edessa is where students of fashion go to be told how to identify fashion, or told how to talk about fashion. It implies a hierarchical structure with teachers who dispense knowledge to students who otherwise would be lost.
But this is not how Edessa classes work. At Edessa, students are there to build on their already unique identities and experiences with fashion, whether that be as five-year-olds creating unique outfits for their Barbie dolls or entrepreneurs trying to make it in the industry without sacrificing their identity.
Maintaining and building on a personal identity is what makes Edessa unique. In fact, the school’s existence is a form of maintaining and building on its namesake’s identity and accomplishments.
Edessa Meek Dixon was a pioneering Black woman who, despite the obstacles and societal norms of the day, graduated with a degree in home economics from the Tuskegee Institute in 1920. She set an example of perseverance and achievement that eventually led her granddaughter Lynne Dixon-Speller to earn a B.S. in Interior Design and Architectural Planning as well as a M.S. in Textiles and Clothing.
This tradition of self-growth through continuous learning is preserved within the Edessa School of Fashion’s curriculum, which students say gives them hope in education when so many institutions cannot offer the same level of individualized attention.
“It’s a school like no other – every day is different. It goes with the flow about who’s in there that day and how we’re feeling collectively,” Lombardo said.
“I was close to giving up on the school experience because of past experiences, but I’m glad I didn’t because this experience is like no other.”