These talented, resilient students are expressing themselves — and Kansas needs to watch what they’re saying

From front to back: Paula De Oliveira, Alexandria Strong, Carmen de Santos and Tate Orton model clothing designs by Johnson County Community College student Zach Baksh in the college's annual fashion show. The title of this year's show is "Resilience." (Submitted)

No one would mistake me for a fashion gal, but I know beauty when I see it. And what 13 students in the Fashion, Merchandising and Design Program at Johnson County Community College put together for this year’s annual fashion show is a thing of beauty that transcends the Overland Park campus.

Students have been putting on such shows for more than 40 years, says Joy Rhodes, chair of the department. This public presentation of at least five unique looks is a requirement for graduation.

In non-pandemic times, there are two versions of this spectacle: one at noon for an audience of mostly high school students — 450 of them, from as far away as Wichita — and another in the evening, generally a few hundred family members and friends, in the college’s Yardley Hall, which is one of Johnson County’s prime performance spaces.

But last September, knowing the show takes nine months of planning, and having no clue what the world would look like at the end of the semester, they decided this year’s would be virtual, filmed on location at the college’s Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

The result is 46 mesmerizing minutes as students explain what inspired them, their unique colors and shapes flowing on models who are mostly students at the college, all amid the Nerman’s world-class collection of paintings and sculptures that serendipitously echo patterns and themes in the students’ work.

It’s stunning to see these models stroll around one of the museum’s signature sculptures: Do Ho Suh’s larger than life (and death) “Some One,” a jacket made of dog tags.

“We did kind of plan that, matched certain designers to rooms based on work as much as we could,” Rhodes says. “Obviously the dog tag suit of armor, that was a given because it’s so striking and it’s clothing.”

One of the designers, Nate Snow, combines shorts, sneakers, T-shirts and jackets for a look of understated cool — or “Snow,” as his brand says in various sizes on different pieces — and his models end up looking a bit like the jacket-wearing, torch-holding, steadily strong figure in Kehinde Wiley’s painting “Alexander the Great (Variation)” standing just behind Snow’s models.

Rhodes’ favorite location was the museum’s foyer, where there’s not a lot of visible art but the Nerman’s architecture creates interesting patterns of light.

From now until noon on May 6, for a $15 ticket that goes entirely toward scholarships, anyone can watch this homegrown version of “Project Runway,” with its bonus virtual visit to the state’s jewel of an art museum, which has been closed to the public for more than a year (it’s set to open by appointment in June).

What you’ll see is a vision of Kansas that doesn’t get enough attention: Young people of all nationalities, all shades, drawing inspiration not just from the earth (strawberries and orchids, clouds during sunrises and sunsets) but also from pop culture, from famous artists in European art galleries and international cultures.

Alexandria Strong models a design by Johnson County Community College student Carmen de Santos. (Submitted)

Nuha Ahmad creates “modest streetwear inspired by Jordanian Bedouins,” using oversized clothing, layers, bold jewelry and belts to show “modesty with attitude.”

Leah Williamson takes the idea of vulnerability, which can feel “exposing and unsafe,” a negative feeling, and turns it into “something that can feel beautiful and empowering.”

Using high-performance tech fabrics and hardware, Tucker Sutter takes what he describes as an “avant-garde approach” to making “functional outerwear” for men.

Panyin Boye-Doe models a design by Johnson County Community College student Tucker Sutter. (Submitted)

Paula de Oliveira, who says she’s “inspired by freedom of expression,” creates garments as “love letters” to the friends who have bestowed her with confidence. Hoping to “empower and inspire people to make bold statements with their clothes,” de Oliveira says, “this is a collection for any young individual ready to take on the world and make an impact.”

Students go in all different directions after they leave Johnson County Community College. Some go on to get bachelor’s degrees, their credits transferring to Kansas universities as well as to places like the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in California. Other students, such as those with merchandising degrees, go directly into the industry. Some start their own businesses, Rhodes says.

All of which sounds great, except there’s a sad part.

“We have a fair amount of students who want to get out of Kansas City,” Rhodes says. “That’s why we have those opportunities on both coasts.”

What would it take to keep them here? Most Kansans know the answers. Whether we’re willing to create that world for them is now an urgent question.