People say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In Demeatria Boccella’s eyes, it’s everywhere, even when others might not see it or recognize it within themselves.
For more than a decade Ms. Boccella has strived to diversify people’s views of what’s beautiful — particularly when it comes to the African diaspora and culture — through the FashionAFRICANA events she holds throughout Pittsburgh. Whether it’s a fashion show, a film or art exhibit, she picks attractions that celebrate black beauty and inclusivity.
This time she’s expanding her efforts by making it about beauty at any size — and age. On Saturday, the first FashionAFRICANA kids runway show will be held at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside and will feature nearly 80 models, ages 2-13 from the region.
“It’s more than just a fashion show,” Ms. Boccella says. “It’s a cultural experience, and I want kids of all ethnicities to be exposed to that.”
The African-inspired designs models will be wearing are by Pittsburgh-based designers and brands — Kiya Tomlin, Kelly Lane, Adey Sol and THREEAfrica, plus some FashionAFRICANA originals. At the show there will be a red carpet, a candy and popcorn bar, and other kid-friendly foods. And the signature drink: Shirley Temple, a favorite of Ms. Boccella’s 7-year-old daughter, Adia, who’s helping her mom produce the event. Guests also will be treated to music and dance performances and face painting.
So far the response has been positive and has exceeded expectations, Ms. Boccella says. When she held a public casting call for the fashion show, she predicted a turnout of a few dozen and planned to cast up to 30 models. But when more than 70 children, plus their families, came she was overwhelmed and struggled with who to cut.
“When I saw those beautiful faces I couldn’t say no,” she says. So she decided to ask all of them to be in the show.
From the start she’s shaped the experience like a professional job for the children so they can learn about fashion and runway production. At the casting, each had head shot photos taken. Some of the older participants were invited to visit designers’ studios as part of a fashion camp, something Ms. Boccella would like to build upon next summer. Fittings and rehearsals also were held.
“We’re treating them like we would treat any other model in a fashion show,” Ms. Boccella says.
In recent months, her efforts to shatter traditional stereotypes of beauty have attracted national and international attention. Last fall, an executive in Paris contacted her about the “GLAMAZONIA” exhibit of portraits and contemporary magazine covers spotlighting African beauty and hairstyles photographed by Cameroon-born photographer Mario Epanya, who’s now based in Paris. Ms. Boccella brought the photo display to the August Wilson Center for African American Culture for a few months last year. She met with other executives in New York City and was invited to show the exhibit and give a presentation at the annual New York Coalition of One Hundred Black Women's role model program, which was held in the spring at L’Oreal’s Manhattan headquarters. Students from 28 colleges and 11 high schools participated.
“These girls had to stand up there and say what they loved about themselves. That is not easy,” says Ms. Boccella, who grew up in Hazelwood wanting to be part of the fashion industry but felt shut out because she didn’t look like the women she saw in magazines. “It’s really deep when you think about the power media has to influence our young people around beauty and what is beautiful.”
One fashion show and workshop at a time, she hopes to change that message.
“I just want young people to embrace black beauty,” she says. “I want them to learn about their African ancestry in a fun way through fashion.”
For more from style editor Sara Bauknecht, visit the Post-Gazette’s fashion blog Stylebook at www.post-gazette.com/stylebook. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SaraB_PG or email firstname.lastname@example.org.