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Fashion-forward: Blake Martin inspires Chicago youth with model behavior

Blake Martin at his ICandy fashion show rehearsal Tuesday June 18, 2018. | Justin Jackson/ Sun-Times

If you have attended a fashion show in Chicago in the past 10 years, chances are it was created and choreographed by Blake Martin. The Chicago Heights native, and owner of the in-demand creative house Blake Martin Productions, Inc., has been a dominating force, working with brands such as Nike, Macy’s, Under Armour, Andrew Christian, Alice and Olivia, VH1’s “Black Ink Crew” and his most recent collaboration, with Gucci and Luxury Garage Sale, to produce a series of multi-dimensional runway shows that combine high-end fashion with high-end entertainment.

When: 7 p.m. June 24
Where: DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl.
Tickets: Starting at $5
Information: eventbrite.com

“I consider my shows the local Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show,” he says, his biggest dream to actually produce the real thing one day. “My shows are bright and colorful and have great music and dance, with models blowing kisses down the runway. It’s what people know me for.”

But Martin is also known for his open and inclusionary ethos when booking the modeling talent for his shows, which challenges standard industry politics that have often been criticized for presenting an unrealistic and less than diverse definition of beauty.

“When I started working in mainstream fashion, I remember going to photo shoots and runway shows, and it would be frustrating because I didn’t see people that looked like me or my friends. There were very few people of color, no one was plus size, no one had tattoos. And I figured, I buy clothes and my friends buy clothes, we are fashion consumers, so I never understood that. I knew I wanted to create shows that had regular people in them so attendees could see themselves in some way or form on that runway.”

Blake Martin talks with model Ariana Novak at a rehearsal earlier this week for an upcoming show at the DuSable Museum for African American History.  | Justin Jackson/ Sun-Times

At Martin’s upcoming 6th Annual iCandy “B!%#H, Don’t Kill My Vibe” Runway Show, at the DuSable Museum of African American History on June 24, fashions from Akira, Timberland, Lacoste and several local independent designers will be modeled by everyone from Vogue cover star Sessilee Lopez and Ralph Lauren go-to Broderick Hunter to local high school students that have never walked a runway before. “A majority of my models are from Chicago — that’s really important to me — and I train them from ground zero to be show ready.”

In fact Martin, along with special guests like Lopez and Hunter, hosts regular workshops and seminars for aspiring talent at various high schools around the city including his alma mater Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights and Excel Academy in Englewood. It’s a platform that is important to Martin to “provide an outlet to keep kids out of trouble” and one that is directly related to boosting self-image and confidence to transform them not only into models but also model citizens.

“I really take that responsibility seriously to uplift and mentor youth,” says Martin who will also be presenting college scholarships he funded to two of the participants at Sunday’s show. “I believe that young kids will do what they see. If you show them negativity on a daily basis then they think that’s the only possibility for them. I want to show them an alternative.”

Prince of Fashion Blake Martin at a rehearsal with his models on Tuesday June 19, 2018 for his upcoming ICandy Fashion show on June 24 at the DuSable Museum of African American History. | Justin Jackson/Sun-Times

It’s a lesson instilled by his mother, the late Dr. Tammara Winn, whom he pays tribute to with a special section on his website. “My mother was an avid educator and learner and she instilled in me this great work ethic that if you work at something hard enough, anything is possible.”

When Martin was just 15 years old he had to put that philosophy into practice after being diagnosed with testicular cancer and underdoing five months of treatment before making a full recovery and finding his calling as a dancer. Not only was he Bloom Township’s first-ever male cheerleader, by 16 he was named the No. 1 male cheerleader in the state of Illinois and was soon booked in commercials, appearing with NBA star Kobe Bryant in a Gatorade promo and with Madonna in a Gap ad.

“I thought dancing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says, but after auditioning to be a dance choreographer for a fashion show at the Illinois Institute of Technology and subsequently moving into the role of producer after the original individual quit, “I was hooked,” says Martin.

An internship would lead him to Baby Phat and Phat Farm in New York City as well as with gigs at New York Fashion Week for many seasons, but Martin says he always intended on coming home and making his mark in Chicago. “I feel an obligation to showcase the amazing talent here because sometimes we are overlooked since we are not New York or L.A.,” Martin says. Recently his company has been solicited to produce shows in cities like Atlanta and Miami, but Martin has a stipulation in his contract that spots will be reserved for Chicago models and designers. “In everything I do I want to incorporate Chicago talent.”

The connections he’s made with people like Oprah (who found him on Twitter and brought him on board for OWN) as well as his list of accomplishments including producing over 55 fashion shows around the U.S. as well as a 39-city tour in China, have led to his nickname as The Prince of Chicago Fashion, though it’s not always a title he’s comfortable with. “There’s just so much more I want to do, I haven’t conquered it all to be at that level yet, but I’m looking forward to what’s to come.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.