Avonworth football player designs then sews gown for his date

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Mike Simmons has garnered plenty of attention for his stellar performance on the Avonworth High School football team; just this season, the 16-year-old junior was named an all-conference offensive lineman in WPIAL's Class A Eastern division.

But if you really want to get people talking, tell them about The Dress.

In January, Mike decided to stretch his artistic talents and design a gown for his girlfriend, freshman Abbey Niklaus, to wear to prom this past Friday. Not only that, but he'd sew it from scratch as a project for his yearlong studio arts portfolio class -- despite the fact he knew very little about sewing in general, and absolutely nothing about dressmaking in particular.

Virgin territory, to be sure, and not just on the technical front.

"Yeah, friends made a few cracks," Mike said with a grin. Even Abbey, 14, he admits, initially thought he was crazy, all the more so because he knew she'd already bought a prom dress that she really, really loved.

Still, the news a macho football player was trading his pads and helmet for a girly sewing machine didn't send quite as many shock waves through Avonworth's halls as you might think. Many of Mike's classmates, including teammate Hunter Godkin, didn't even learn about The Dress until they saw it during a high school spring art show May 13-18.

The elegant turquoise gown, which teachers displayed on an adjustable dress form in the lobby, was actually impressive, acknowledged Hunter, 17. "It's really nice."

Similar accolades flew at Friday's pre-prom promenade, the formal grand march across the high school stage in which each prom-going couple is "presented" to an audience of friends and family.

Every teen wants to look his or her best and stand out from the crowd at prom, of course -- hence, the emphasis on dresses heavy on beading and sequins and skin turned golden brown with fake 'n' bake tans. Yet many of the 71 couples who gathered in the cafeteria to wait their turn on stage seemed truly amazed the floor-length strapless dress was a classmate's handiwork. And a boy classmate, to boot.

"At first when I heard, I was like, Mike? Mike Simmons?" said Hunter's date, freshman Jenn Bezilla, giggling. "But it's really cool. It shows a totally different side of him."

"I always knew he was into art, but wow. It's awesome," agreed junior Tom Sell, who's known Mike since the seventh grade. He then paid the ultimate compliment: "I wish I could do that."

Mike himself is kind of surprised the dress actually made it out of the classroom and onto Abbey's petite 5-foot-4 frame in time for promenade. Although he'd sewn her a jeans-lined pleather purse just a few months ago, he'd never used the sewing machine his grandmother had given him for Christmas -- at his request -- to stitch together anything more complicated than a pair of baggy pajama pants. And those, he said, turned out a little too small.

Yet looking with Abbey at a picture in a magazine of a dress made of a bunch of hearts sewn together, he thought, "I can do this."

He'd always loved to sketch and draw and prided himself on his creativity. And besides, it wasn't like other sports guys hadn't tried their hand at fashion. All-Pro defensive lineman Rosey Grier was know for his serious pursuit of macrame and needlepoint (he actually authored a book on needlepoint in 1973) and hockey left winger Sean Avery of the New York Rangers reportedly interned at Vogue magazine last year during the off-season.

So how hard could it be, really, to take two dresses he found on the Internet, incorporate their best features into his own design, and turn that design into a paper pattern?

Actually, a lot harder than you might think. Sewing is no longer taught in most family and consumer science classes (or what we used to call home ec) and Gabrielle Nicely, who teaches the portfolio class in which Mike would work on the dress every day for an hour, was only the most nominal of seamstresses. Avonworth didn't have a sewing machine on site until teacher Rachel Sebolt brought one in from home, which she's so glad she did.

"His seams are so straight!" she says, with a touch of wonder. "He took to it so naturally."

Realizing he'd probably make tons of mistakes his first time in dressland, Mike honed his dressmaking skills on a "practice" dress made out of plain muslin. That allowed him to learn how to fold a dart here to make the gown fit a little better, the importance of stitch length (too long and they won't hold, too short and you'll distort the fabric) and how to hem a dress for the wearer's killer 4-inch heels.

All the time, he was tinkering with the gown's simple design. The Grecian-style draping across the front that Mike included on the first sketch was eventually abandoned, along with a single-shoulder strap. But by the time the plain white prototype was finished at the end of April, his sewing was good enough that he was able to complete the final version, crafted out of a vivid aqua-blue silky fabric, in fewer than three weeks.

"I can't even sew a button, so I don't know where he gets it," said his mother, Jodi Walter, laughing. "Luckily, he can do anything he puts his mind to."

The only unknown, in fact, was whether Abbey would wear Mike's dress to prom, or change after promenade into the one she fell in love with so many months ago at Cache. Either scenario, Mike said, would be fine by him. "I really don't think it's that big of a deal. All eyes are on her either way."

Standing backstage at promenade, Abbey beamed as her classmates oohed and aahed over her boyfriend's work of wearable art, which Abbey accessorized with dangly rhinestone earrings and toenails painted a matching color. Striking in its simplicity, the dress couldn't have been more different than the beaded designs worn by most of her friends. But its vivid color, Mike noted, matched her eyes and the slim, tailored fit looked absolutely great on her, he said.

"I really like it," Abbey confessed, running her hands down her side. "I feel special because it's made just for me."

Less than a half hour later, though, after the couple had made their grand entrance under the lighted gazebo on stage, she'd be around the corner in the home ec room, changing into the other dress for the actual prom.

No one could have blamed Mike if he was disappointed. Surprisingly, he wasn't. Instead, the teen is inspired to try something even more challenging next year for his senior project.

"You never know. Maybe I'll make my own tux for prom," says Mike, who plans on studying fashion design in college.

Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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