The next time Serafina Kenwood wants to encourage her students to push their boundaries, she’s got a good example — herself.
Last week, Kenwood, an art teacher at La Cañada High School, won the People’s Choice award at the Metropolitan Fashion Show for her design inspired by the Red Queen in “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” The show was staged Thursday at the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles, where many of Kenwood’s La Cañada Flintridge friends were in attendance.
In line with the contest’s theme — a tribute to Colleen Atwood, a four-time Oscar-winning costume designer — Kenwood’s ensemble featured a large red 1950s ball gown and an assemblage of textures meant to evoke “an explosion of nature,” she said.
“It looks exactly the way I envisioned it and wanted it to look,” Kenwood said. “I’m so happy with how it turned out — and that it fit was a bonus!”
Kenwood, who has taught at LCHS since 1997, has a background in costume design. Before she became a teacher, she worked in New York City, making costumes and props for Broadway and off-Broadway productions, as well as television shows such as “Saturday Night Live.” More recently, she constructed costumes for Revolution Dance Center among other occasional local projects, usually when her children were involved.
But she’d never attempted to create something for the runway, much less a high-profile fashion competition.
Still, she felt compelled to answer an email calling for designers this past summer — and she got the part, joining 15 other designers in the competition.
“I’ve always worked with actors and not models, and their bodies are different — you’re dealing with tall people!” Kenwood said. “And [the design] has to have a ‘Wow!’ factor. Normally, for a costume, it would be functional, more realistic. This was not supposed to be something you could actually perform a three-hour play in, but more like a parade look.”
There were only three guidelines, Kenwood said: Avoid glitter; design with warm weather in mind; and, most importantly, go for “Wow!”
Kenwood estimated she spent about three hours a day working on (and many more thinking about) the project since she took it on about three months before the show. When her students got wind of what she was up to, many of them clamored to learn more and to get a peek at what their teacher was up to.
But Kenwood was prohibited from revealing images before the show of what was evolving at home as she hunted down suitable fabrics and materials, all of which she paid for herself.
“I always have to see it to know if this is going to work,” she said. “I’m trying to create a feeling, because for me it’s all about the feels. And it’s funny, a lot of time in my classes, [students’] projects change. They decide they don’t want to use that color or the shape changes and my kids ask, ‘Is it OK? My sketch doesn’t look like this.’ And now I say, ‘I’m designing a big dress at home and it really evolved.’”
Kenwood would love to offer a costume designing course at LCHS, she said, noting how she’s seen the most unexpected students liven up when there’s been an opportunity to sew. Currently, she oversees a STEP homeroom class dedicated to creating decorations for the nonprofit Once Upon a Room, which brightens up and personalizes the hospital rooms of terminally ill children.
Kenwood believes, in 2017, there is value in teaching young people sewing and design.
“There are so many jobs out there for wardrobe people,” she said. “They need people to dress extras. Just think about the number of extras in a time-period piece — it’s in the hundreds! And they all have to have something on and look believable.
“And,” she added, “when I do sewing art with the kids, I tell them, even the boys, when you’re in college and you get a rip, you’re going to be like, ‘I’m so glad Mrs. Kenwood taught me to thread a needle!’”
Participating in the fashion contest enhanced Kenwood’s desire to teach her students her craft.
“It’s given me more energy in a weird way because it’s something that I’m doing for myself,” she said. “In the summers, I’ll always try to do something creative, painting or photography, but it’s not really for anything. But it’s always good to have a client, to know where it’s going, and I have a deadline and a clear vision.”
And, of course, that “Wow!”