Penny Williams is always looking for creative ways to challenge her costume design students at the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, perhaps because she sees a bit of herself in each and every one of them. Williams started teaching at Dreyfoos 28 years ago, after the West Palm Beach–based high school hired her to design show costumes on a freelance basis. Though she wasn’t sure about teaching teens at first, she soon fell in love with encouraging students who were just as enthusiastic about embracing fun and unconventional design as she was.
“To this day, I’m still close friends with the first students I had,” Williams says.
Not every teacher maintains decades-long bonds with their former pupils, but not every teacher provides her charges with a safe space where their imaginations can run wild. The freedom Williams offers her students, coupled with their own innate talents, has led to some impressive collaborations. Her pupils once appeared in a back-to-school commercial for Office Depot, creating clothing out of Post-It notes and binders. In 2013, they crafted gowns from recycled materials for a feature in this magazine. This year, they put on a spring fashion show full of pieces made from interior designer Leta Austin Foster’s latest wallpaper collection with Waterhouse Wallhangings.
It’s a testament to Williams and her connection with her students that a handful of them would willingly show up to her cluttered classroom on a Friday morning in June. “These kids are so dedicated and creative,” Williams says with pride as she supervises three students who are finishing their designs. “Right now, they’re making a whole new line of clothes from this wallpaper collection.”
She holds up a summery, red gingham clutch that one of the students made, pointing out the pleats and added fabric that soften the overall design. After flipping the bag open to demonstrate how roomy it is, Williams fastens it shut with an inch-long piece of Velcro that was discretely tucked underneath the flap.
“The kids are learning draping from this without even realizing [it] because they’re building this with no pattern,” Williams explains. “They’re building this on mannequins or other people’s bodies and cutting and fitting to everything. So, they’re learning to drape and they’re learning the complexities of dealing with different types of materials. They’re sewing these on machines and by hand and figuring out how to make it be the shape they want. Do I need tape? Can I use pleats? Should I dart it?”
With this project, the sewing alone is difficult enough, Williams notes, because paper is fragile and can tear easily. And yet, some students in her atelier have stitched together intricate corsets and skirts with multiple “fabrics.” There’s a certain fearlessness in their work, no doubt fostered by Williams’ constant encouragement and Austin Foster’s enthusiasm.
“Once I saw what these kids were doing with my wallpaper, I was really impressed,” Austin Foster says. “They are so talented and hardworking. I just fell in love with them.”
Projects like this enable students to picture themselves in a creative field such as fashion design. Plus, they help them build professional networks early and develop the kinds of portfolios that will get them into top design colleges. After all, how many high schoolers get to see their work showcased in places like Austin Foster’s shop window?
“I don’t know where I’ll go to college yet, but [costume design] is something I think I could do,” says Claire Keith, a junior who has been sewing costumes for community productions since middle school.
Williams did not have that same sense of possibility when she was Keith’s age. Though she started sewing at age 5, she never realized that making clothes for other people was something you could do for a living. Her parents nudged her to study the business side of fashion, perhaps believing that was a better guarantee of future employment. Yet, Williams, who also acted in her youth, gravitated toward the theater, where she found jobs as a stitcher and eventually as a resident designer. Though she continues to design for the theater and independent films, she says working with students on a day-to-day basis is what pushes her to innovate in her own work.
“I’ve learned so much from them,” she says. “These aren’t the same kids I taught 28 years ago. I’ve learned so much from their perspectives, their ideas, and the way they view other people and the world around them. It’s a different perspective from the kids I first taught. But being with them and doing these fun things with them keeps you young.”
Williams believes that if you can work well with kids, as she does, then that’s exactly the sort of work you should be doing.
“My costume shop is a safe haven,” she says. “I want to be able to provide an even playing field for everyone because I love to give them opportunities. For me, the best compliment is when kids come in here and say they’re so glad they’re in this room. They feel good here, and that’s what’s most important to me.”
Shot by PBI on location at Via Mizner, Palm Beach
Hair and makeup by Deborah Koepper, Deborah Koepper Beauty, Palm Beach