Spotlight On: Shawnelle Cherry
Costume Designer Shawnelle Cherry’s fashion academy creates a new generation of expert sewers–and potential costume designers
By Valli Herman
Costume Designer Shawnelle Cherry scoured the Internet in search of cheese head headgear to properly outfit contestants of her popular Mac and Cheese Cook-off and Fashion Show, a sensation in downtown Mooresville, N.C., about 25 miles north of Charlotte.
The Los Angeles native found a rich source of sombreros, cowboy hats, fedoras and even crowns crafted of cheddar-cheese-like foam, perfect accessories for the event’s runway presentation of mac-and-cheese-inspired fashion.
“I go all out when I do this,” said Cherry, a guild member who is staging the April 11 event to raise money to upgrade a local art center and bring awareness to her other enterprise, the Future Fashion Designers Academy. The academy is housed in a 1,100 square-foot, art-lined studio with three huge cutting tables, 12 sewing machines and an area for draping, ironing and selecting fabric swatches. The academy can take up a big chunk of time for the working costume designer, who is known for “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist,” “Duty Dating” and “The Ghost Whisperer: The Other Side.”
A newcomer to North Carolina, Cherry, who has more than 30 costume design credits, established the school in 2010 to combine her dual passions–clothing construction and costume design. The academy is the result of her career passions, a life-changing realization about her desire to work with kids and her creative response to a recession-battered job market.
A year before opening her academy, Cherry followed her fiancé to North Carolina. A few months later, while tending to her dying father in Nevada, the message of Kerry Shook’s book, “One Month to Live” resonated with her. The book asks readers to ponder what changes they would make if they had limited time to live.
“That was one big turning point,” she said. “It made me think. I never had kids and I love kids. I would love to teach them my craft. Nobody is sewing anymore. Then something just popped in my head — future fashion designers.”
She quickly bought the domain name and put together a plan for the school.
She teaches sewing skills to students aged 8 to adult in classes such as Sewing 101, Sewing a Designer Pillow, Introduction to Fashion Design and Fashion Sketching and Vintage Inspired Designing. In Intro to Costume/Character Design, a class with no sewing, Cherry’s students work from a film script and design a wardrobe for the characters, pondering elements such as colors, styles and personality.
The academy thrives on full- and half-day summer camps, where students learn to thread a machine, pin and sew seam allowances and, for intermediates, sketch on a template, design and construct a patchwork skirt or a summer dress.
Though she has taught hundreds of students of all ages the basics of clothing construction, Cherry has found that among young people, sewing is an increasingly rare skill. The craft is taught most frequently in vocational or specialty schools. Even rarer is instruction in costume design.
Cherry was introduced to sewing at age 9, when she’d rummage through the box of scraps collected by her seamstress aunt. At 11, she received formal sewing instruction in home economics classes.
“I made all my own clothes by the time I was 13,” she said. “Without my aunt’s guidance I may never have discovered my artistic creativity in fashion,” she explained on her academy’s website. “I would have been in heaven if there was a place like this for kids when I was young.”
Determined to follow her passion, Cherry took extra courses to graduate high school early and enroll in a vocational program in clothing construction.
“I made my prom dress there. It had 18 yards of fabric with four zippers,” she recalled. “From there, I was going to go to FIT in New York,” but her father lived in Hollywood and convinced her to attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. In 1985, she graduated from FIDM’s fashion design program, though had the school offered its costume design degree then, Cherry said she “probably would have gone into that because costume design is more me.”
She also studied costume design for film at the UCLA Extension program, and worked in the Los Angeles garment industry before opening her own design studio in Pacific Palisades. She designed bridal gowns and evening wear, some of which adorned celebrities at many awards shows–the Oscars, Golden Globes and Primetime and Daytime Emmys.
In 1996, she pursued costume design for feature films, while operating her design studio. By 2000, she found herself working on “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist” in Mexico during the week and in Pacific Palisades making wedding gowns on the weekends.
“I think [the film] was a huge turning point. I was hooked. I ended up closing my design studio later that year,” she said. “I went 100 percent toward costume design,” said Cherry, who can create costumes from sketch to fitting. For one of her first films, she made upwards of 100 costumes for $5,000–including two wedding scenes.
Though she lives in the idyllic Mooresville, Cherry works in costume design nationwide, and in Atlanta, four hours away. With her dual careers, Cherry hasn’t often returned to where she began, making elegant, custom formal wear. But never say never: “People still talk me into making wedding gowns,” she said.