TAMPA — Sarah Crawford sat inches from the runway at Tampa Bay Fashion Week, wearing a sleeveless blue dress and a bright pink necklace she had picked out the night before. Her eyes scanned intently as models made their way down, draped in the work of local and brand-name store attire.
At 12, this was not Crawford's first foray into the world of fashion.
When she was 9, she attended the fashion show, seated near the late Hugh Hefner's wife, Crystal Hefner, who showcased her lounge wear, and watched as designers such as Elizabeth Carson Racker showcased their work. Kato Kaelin, the OJ Simspon trial quasi-celebrity who had a line of pajamas, handed her a bag of chips.
That was the night she decided she wanted to be a designer.
"I got to see all of the different designs they were doing and I thought it was really interesting that they were all expressing themselves and they were all showing what they could do," Crawford said. "I thought it was really cool and I wanted to get my creative side and see what I could do."
Crawford, who has been homeschooled for the last year, goes to Seminole Middle School for chorus classes. But the educational options for kids interested in fashion in Tampa Bay is bleak. Sanford-Brown College, which used to have a student showcase at Tampa Bay Fashion Week, stopped accepting students last year. The Art Institute of Tampa offers a fashion marketing and management program, but little in the sphere of design.
Nancy Vaughn, owner of the White Book Agency, executive producer of Tampa Bay Fashion Week and a friend of the family's, suggested Sarah attend the 2014 show.
"I think it's really great when kids express an interest in a particular industry or field and get to experience it first hand," she said. "In my mind, there are some kids who know all their lives what they want to do. ...Other kids are exploring, and sometimes there are certain environments that allow a kid to be exposed to more or different opportunities. When they've got this spark it's putting them in front of these different ways to be involved in these industries."
Kids tend to be unaware of the options for fashion careers she said, ranging from writers to audio/visual specialists to fashion law experts.
Fashion design seemed like a natural choice for Sarah, said her mom, Jenn Greacen-Crawford of Seminole.
"She's always had this really dynamic, creative spirit," she said. "You could just tell. By the time she was two, two-and-a-half, she was absolutely not wearing whatever I'd pick out. I would pick out these pretty eyelet, old school very feminine outfits for and she would just be like, 'NO!' She'd always want to throw something extra into it. She had a very strong personality early on. That strength started to show itself as creativity."
Sarah wrote a speech about wanting to be a designer when she grew up for a contest. She won. She doodled in her sketchbook, storing ideas for future designs she'd want to see: "fun, feminine, casual and comfortable," she said.
She got a sewing machine for Christmas and started practicing patterns and sewing on buttons for her dad's shirts if they fell off. She picked out clothes for her 17-year-old sister. She used her eight-year-old brother as a figure to drape in dresses, much to his protest.
Sarah is the third of four kids, and this year, her family decided to try a new approach to education and homeschool her. Though she misses traditional school, lessons about fashion have been among her favorite. Her curriculum included topics such as women's rights versus women's fashion, the impact of war on fashion and fashion propaganda.
"There were years of men telling women they could wear this outfit or what's pretty," she said. "Which is not right. I just was really surprised about what was happening. It honestly made no sense. It didn't accomplish anything and hurt people."
Greacen-Crawford often finds herself walking the line of allowing her daughter to express her creativity and being the mom of a an-almost teenager: midriffs, short skirts and two-piece swimsuits are still not allowed.
For now, Crawford's focus is mostly on her designs, hoping to create capsule items and clothes that are better for the environment than the disposable clothes in fast fashion retailers.
At this year's Fashion Week, she enjoyed Free People's line the best. Her mom, who sat near her, asked her what she thought about Fabletics' athletic wear, something she often designs. Crawford admired the jewelry pieces Pandora models donned. She watched Carson Racker take the stage again, presented with a bouquet of flowers. One day she hoped her designs would make the stage.
"I want to set different trends," she said. "I want to make my designs last."