Takiya Rocks the Runway

Holding up her trophy, Takiya acknowledges her adoring fans.

Magnet School Student Named ‘Top Model’

WINNSBORO — Takiya Willingham won the Rockin’ the Runway award for ‘best model’ at the Runaway Runway Show on April 5 at the Township Auditorium – but she isn’t just your average toast-of-Columbia supermodel. For one thing, she designs her own runway couture.

And she’s just 12 years old.

Willingham is a sixth-grader at the Fairfield County Magnet School for Math and Science and a student in Kimi Daly’s art class. Daly, who was recently named the school’s Teacher of the Year, recognized Willingham’s interest in designing a project for the show and encouraged her. She said that Willingham’s meteoric rise to fashion fame came only after months of toiling away on a dress that started out as, well, a pile of trash.

Runaway Runway is an elaborate annual fashion show produced by the Columbia Design League, a member group of the Columbia Museum of Art. Up to 60 designers from around the state are featured, and the outfits must be created from used materials that would otherwise be headed to the landfill.

“It’s a show that combines fashion, fun, creativity and environmental awareness,” Daly said.

Willingham learned about the potential of recycled fashion when Daly showed the class two recycled dresses that were modeled in the 2013 and 2014 Runaway Runway competitions by her daughter, Tagan, who attends high school in Chapin. The students in Daly’s class were inspired and wanted to make their own recycled outfits, but Daly explained that it would take a lot of work, and would have to be a side project. Willingham was up for the challenge, and her creative vision was soon sparked while helping her grandmother clean out her house. There, Willingham discovered a bunch of old VHS tapes and magazines destined for the trash heap.

“I thought they would make nice materials,” she said, “so I brought them to the art room at school. I broke open the videos, pulled all the tapes out and tore out my favorite pages from the magazines.”

“I looked around at this big mess,” Daly recalled with a laugh, “and I said, Takiya, what are you planning to do with all this!? And she said, ‘I’m going to make a skirt.’”

Willingham’s first hurdle was figuring out how to layer the strips of videotape. First she tried taping them together, a tedious process that took two months of after-school time. But when she put the skirt on and wore it down the hall, it fell apart.

“Then she tried hot glue and duct tape,” Daly said. “It was an ordeal!”

So it was a stroke of luck when Lois Robinson, a classmate’s grandmother, stopped by the art room one afternoon and noticed Willingham’s frustration.

“Lois said, ‘let me show you how to sew, honey,’” Daly said, “and she taught Takiya some stitches.”

“Sewing was easy,” Willingham said, “except for when I pricked my fingers!”

After sewing the skirt, she wove together contrasting strips of magazine pages to form a bodice. Then she combined both parts to completely cover a $5 Goodwill dress that functioned as the underlying structure – a design option allowed in the competition.

Normally quite shy, Willingham said she started getting nervous as the date of the competition grew near. A practice runway walk was organized during a school assembly, but Daly said Willingham had some difficulty getting the hang of the runway style of walking and turning.

“She tripped a few times,” Daly said, “and she was so shy as she walked – just pressed her arms against her body. But she still wanted to do the competition.”

Soon it was time to zip up the garment bag and head to Columbia.

“I was very nervous,” recalled Willingham. “But everyone at the show was nice and really helpful. I loved being in the dressing room with the models and makeup mirrors and other artists.”

“Her mother, Pamela Mobley, was there with her,” Daly said, “and all the older models were fussing over Takiya and just loved her! She had her makeup and hair done, and really got into the whole experience.”

“But we were still worried about how to get her around that runway!” Daly said with a nervous laugh. Eventually, the team came up with a plan – while Willingham hadn’t mastered smooth catwalk turns, she did like to dance. So that’s what she would do.

Just before curtain call, Willingham caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror.

“I couldn’t stop smiling,” she said. “I was so excited. But then I walked out on stage, and I was shocked to see all those people in the audience looking at me!”

Daly said that despite Willingham’s initial stage fright, she blossomed in the limelight.

“Takiya began, literally, dancing her way around the runway and had a great time,” Daly said. “And the crowd just went bananas for her. They knew she wasn’t just the model, but had also designed and made her own dress, and she was adorable. She took three turns around the runway – and by her third time around, she was rockin’!”

Willingham said that when she heard her name announced as winner of the modeling award, she could hardly believe it.

“I looked around,” she said, “and asked, ‘are they talking about me?’”

The event was televised, and the evening was filled with camera flashes, paparazzi and interviews.

“She was truly the star!” Daly said. “Winning one of the competition’s five awards was a huge honor for her. And the confidence she’s gained has helped her in her other classes at school, too, to persevere and work hard.”

Does she plan to do more modeling and designing in the future?

“Definitely!” Willingham declared with a big grin and am eye to the trash can. “I love it.”

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