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Lifelong passion for fashion leads Chicago’s Chelsey Carter to ‘Project Runway’

Her designs have covered the bodies of internationally known artists like Chance the Rapper and SZA. She has been featured in various magazines, most notable is Vogue Italia. Her designs have shown in New York Fashion Week, and still, this moment stands alone.

Chelsey Carter’s hands are in constant motion inside her design studio, Dojo Studios, on Chicago’s West Side.

She is busy stitching a shirt, meticulously guiding the thread through the fabric, correcting whatever minute detail she felt needed fixing.

Snoh Aalegra’s latest album “Ugh, Those Feels Again” is playing in the background, and Carter is singing along softly while she works.

“I love her music,” Carter says, looking up from the sewing machine through her purple tortoise cat-eye framed glasses.

As she sings and sews at the Humboldt Park space, the 30-year-old designer from St. Louis is contemplating the significance of this moment in her career.

Her designs have covered the bodies of internationally known artists Chance the Rapper and SZA. She has been featured in various magazines, notably Vogue Italia. Her designs have shown in New York Fashion Week, and still, this moment stands alone.

Carter is one of three Chicagoans competing on season 18 of Bravo’s “Project Runway,” premiering Thursday, and of all her accomplishments, this sits at the top.

“What it taught me is no dream is too big or too large to obtain,” Carter said.

Carter didn’t begin dreaming of becoming a fashion designer until she was in high school, but she was honing her skills long before that.

Carter’s first fashion endeavor was cutting up her baby clothes and sewing together new outfits for her dolls. She elevated her skills with the help of her aunt, Vickie Danley, who taught her to sew when she was 10.

“I would tell her, ‘Today we’re going to make some easy elastic-waist pants,’ ” Danley said. “Hers always had something on the side or were shorter than what the pattern called for. I would tell her, ‘Chelsey, that is not going to fit anybody,’ and this was her favorite saying: ‘Just wait, just watch.’ ”

Chelsey Carter works on a design challenge during this week’s season premiere of “Project Runway.”
Bravo

Carter has kept her family waiting and watching for what statement she would make next with her fashion choices. Her mother, Ingrid Mills, said beginning when she was a little girl, Carter would articulate precisely how she wanted her drawers, shoes and closet organized.

It wasn’t surprising to anyone in the family that she developed this attention to detail when it came to fashion. After all, she was raised by the family’s very own fashion icon, her grandmother Bennie Mills, who Carter calls Nana.

Bennie’s attention to detail from head to toe always has been incomparable. She matched her undergarments with all of her outfits, and every time she stepped out of the house, she looked like a diamond ring, Danley said.

Carter’s signature look is an effortless combination of simplicity and edge, but it’s not complete until she puts on a bold pair of eyeglasses — a look she undoubtedly picked up from Bennie, and one that’s instantly admired by her fellow designers in episode 1 of “Project Runway.”

“My mother always wore bigger glasses; she was before her time too,” Danley said. “Chelsey would play around with my mother’s glasses, and today they are her staple.”

Chelsey Carter
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Carter’s family knew early on that she had a creative future ahead of her. No one in her family recalls Carter mentioning a desire to pursue a career in fashion, except her grandmother. “She told me,” Bennie said.

She graduated high school in the spring of 2006 and moved to Chicago to begin studying at the Illinois Institute of Design-Chicago that fall. The emotion she brought to her work as a designer separated Carter from her peers.

“Her art was always in service of her beliefs,” IID professor Nancy Rosenheim said.

Her brand, Alex Carter, shares the emotions of her life in every collection.

Carter is currently working on a five-part capsule collection, a condensed version of a designer’s vision, titled “Hue’s.” The inspiration for this series derived from Carter’s feelings of unfamiliarity with using color in her designs. Early in her career Carter only worked with and wore neutral colors.

“I wanted to broaden my comfort zone and expand the options offered to my clients by way of color,” Carter said. “I chose to do this with capsule releases of vibrant colors, beginning, or should I say ascending, first from black. Second green, third red and now blue is set to release soon. As a woman of color, I think it is necessary that I illustrate the use of color in my designs.”

Carter takes her role as an African American designer very seriously. The fashion world is notoriously exclusive, and cultural visibility, as well as inclusivity, is something Carter strives for with every collection.

In the last few years, Carter has made it a priority to work solely with African American photographers, models and makeup artists.

“The last two look books were all black,” Carter said. “And I’m very proud of that because there needs to be more visibility of people that are good in places of power. If I’m using my platform to show that this person is talented and I’m putting money in that person’s pocket, I’m strengthening my community.”

Chelsey Carter
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

The success Carter continues to attain is in large part because of her unique ability to marry her emotions with her beliefs and her artistic talents to create a garment.

Pretty soon, Carter’s name and brand will garner more recognition than ever before. The “Project Runway” journey forces her to confront everything that led her to it: the long nights at her apartments that once doubled as studios, the responsibilities that stretch far beyond Alex Carter as owner and designer, and the hours of labor that no one saw.

As she finishes stitching her shirt and Aalegra’s album transitions to the next song, Carter raises the garment to eye level, breathes deeply and smiles.

“Every success story is human first,” Carter said.