Education’s new frontier: Fashion school for children
New York – As New York City’s preeminent fashion institutions, Parsons and FIT,
prepare to open their studios and sewing labs to a new batch of bright-eyed
freshmen for the fall semester, a slightly different fashion school is
gaining notice. And while images of children operating sewing machines have
often accompanied exposés on sweat shops and exploitation, Britta B.
Wheeler, the founder of The Children’s Institute of Fashion Arts (The
CIFA), a non-profit organization devoted to expansive education in the
culture and craft of clothing for kids, provides a positive and empowering
narrative around such images. FashionUnited sat down with her to discover
why the search for the next great American designer might begin as early as
Why did you decide to open the Children’s Institute of Fashion
I feel on a very basic level that kids are more and more removed from
the materials and practices that make up our known world. The act of sewing
is an essential skill that is being lost to the average person. Knowing how
to make a simple stitch is an empowering act for children. They can have
some measure of control in effecting what they wear, how they present
themselves, and who they are as they understand how to work with cloth and
the design process. Plus, the kids are on fire with sewing! Once they get
it, they love it and go in so many different directions with it!
How did your background and career prepare you for this?
As a young child, I attended Montessori schools and throughout my life
have enjoyed self-directed forms of progressive education. As a teenager,
clothing was a bridge to my personal creative expression, a way to
communicate who I was and connect with like-minded people. I studied
fashion design at undergrad, went on to get a Masters and Ph.D. in Cultural
Sociology, and an MFA in Interdisciplinary art, then taught college-level
sociology and fashion design up until 2015. Clothing is one of the most
social forms of creative expression and fashion is a very heightened and
specialized form of that expression. The realm of fashion as art is one of
the most dynamic, ongoing, continually challenging and changing forms of
When did the CIFA launch and how many students have passed through the
I had the idea for the CIFA in 2012 and started running workshops myself
that same year. The CIFA became established as a non-profit organization in
April 2017, and it has been experiencing rapid growth. We’ve had programs
for over 400 kids over the last few years with six teachers.
Describe the age group of the students and their daily timetable.
We teach kids as young as 5 years old through high school age. Currently
we teach in New York City’s public and private schools. We have ongoing
afterschool programs and we run curricular workshops during the school day.
We will be running our second weekend workshop this fall with partial
funding from the Lower Manhattan Community Council. We are expanding our
programs each year. Once we receive enough backing from government sources
and private sponsors we will open a space of our own in New York City’s
How does what you do differ from some of the more advanced kindergarten
We are not giving “sew by the numbers” approach or “pot holder” projects.
We create programs that supplement the NYC Common Core Curriculum,
deepening it with hands-on programming and contextualizing the production
in culture and history. We also try to embrace the kids and their own
cultural identities because many schools in NYC represent the various
neighborhoods, each having a predominant cultural connection. Even the
introductory levels of instruction are comprehensive, connective and
interdisciplinary. We collaborated with a first grade teacher whose school
is in the Theater District, and as part of their Community Study, he
invites theater people to the classroom and the kids produce their own
musical. We were invited to provide the costuming curriculum. We discussed
the history of medieval clothing, and taught 60-first graders how to hand
sew the townspeople costumes for their play.
New York City kids are very sophisticated and know so much about math
and science and are very articulate. They are longing for ways to make
things, to apply what they already know, and gain confidence, not through
affirmations and PR programs but through actual, progressive, and
appropriately challenging projects. Once we give them some basic skills,
and permission, they start to explore their own natural inclinations toward
invention and creativity. Yes, there are struggles, like when the thread
tangles or the machine gets stuck. Then we get an opportunity to help them
learn how to work with challenges: guide them to slow down, examine, think,
Why do you think is it important to teach young children fashion
So many reasons: The visuality of media demands that kids understand
images and are pressured to be visual themselves. Many kids want to be cool
and hip, others just want to fit in and not call much attention to
themselves. The history of fashion is the history of the world—clothing as
well as “fashion” being a primary cultural expression rooted in tradition,
ethnicity, religion, natural materials, scientific and technological
advancements. The first computer was a loom! (The Jacquard Loom was impetus
for the invention of the punch card technology that the early IBM
Corporation used to translate into binary computer coding language.)
about society comes back to the simple act of basic materials and
processes, and their practical applications.
Why is sewing such an integral part of the program?
In contemporary society there are many disconnections that basic sewing
skills and design thinking will remedy: fine motor skills, the
disconnection between hands-on learning and analytic and intellectual
learning; the simple act of producing a stitch and making a connection
between a two-dimensional fabric and three-dimensional garment; planning
and executing a project gives the simple pleasure of productivity, as well
as persistence, learning to manage frustration and attention deficits. And
there is a primary connection to actually having control over your life
through the ability to make and alter what you wear. Kids know this.
In addition, some children tell me that they are having negative
thoughts. We know the suicide rate is higher than ever for kids now, the
first generation of children raised on smart phones. After one fourth
grade boy had made a small needle weaving in our workshop “Textiles in
Colonial America,” he told me that his negative thoughts went away and that
he felt happy and not stressed out.
What do you see in the future for The CIFA?
The vision for the CIFA is to become a full-service organization in New
York City’s Garment District that will let young people experience both the
glamour and the grit of fashion design and clothing production. We are
actively seeking industry partnerships. We will host special guests and
events, bring school groups into our space to not only inspire future
designers but bring a new level of awareness to the fashion arena. We will
collaborate with celebrities and industry to create exhibitions that will
highlight important issues of the day including sustainability, the
connections to media, identity and social justice issues, as well as
technology and invention, and the ways that contemporary fashion reflects
and responds to societal issues.
”If you talk to designers I think you will find that many of them knew they wanted to create beautiful
clothing from the time they were children.”
Finally, do you really believe it’s possible to spark the curiosity of
the next Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan at such a young age?
Of course! If you talk to designers I think you will find that many of
them knew they wanted to create beautiful clothing from the time they were
children. I hear from many adults that they wished they had something as
profound as the CIFA when they were growing up––me too, that’s why I
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk
for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion
All photos from theCIFA.org