By Alexander Gonzalez, Correspondent
LINDEN, NJ — The model stood next in line to hit the runway, wearing the markers of a circus ring leader.
A black top hat and knee-high gold boots? Check. A red coat topped with gold shoulder pads, pinned to a buttoned black bustier? Check.
Jah’Nasia McDougald, a Linden High School student and backstage dresser for the show, said she then noticed a missing crucial prop: a black whip.
“I legit had to run out to the front,” she told her fellow dressers after the show, as if she had passed the baton at an Olympic race.
McDougald, 16, can already say she prevented a model mishap at a New York Fashion Week event. She and other students at LHS got to work backstage at the Yandy.com Halloween-themed fashion show, held Friday, Sept. 9. For them, working behind the scenes provides a real-world classroom for the fashion industry.
McDougald and her peers are members of F.A.B., a club that uses fashion and entertainment to curb low self-esteem at Linden High School. Terri Todd, executive director of F.A.B., started the club as a community organization two years ago when a 15-year-old from Linden committed suicide because of alleged bullying.
In October, students across the country observe National Bullying Prevention Month. About 21.5 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school during the school year, according to a 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. “At school” refers to the school building, anywhere on school property, the school bus or the commute between home and school.
“What could we do? What do we have in common with young people in our community?” said Todd, also a substitute teacher at Linden High School. “We have fashion and entertainment as common ground.”
Todd, 49, a former technical design specialist for a Manhattan-based children’s manufacturing company, draws on her network of industry insiders to land backstage gigs.
Before teaching at Linden, Todd earned her fashion design degree in 2012 from the Art Institute of New York City. There, she met professor R. Scott French, creative director at The Bromley Group, which produced the Yandy.com show.
Production companies like Bromley recruit volunteers for less glamorous chores: setting up the auditorium, preparing gift bags — also known as swag bags — and dressing models.
After their third day of school, 18 students, wearing matching black T-shirts with the F.A.B. logo, followed Todd to Pier 59 Studios in Chelsea. The young volunteers helped transform a blank auditorium into French’s vision of an “upbeat … festive atmosphere” for Yandy.com’s line of Halloween costumes.
Three hours before the first model stepped onto the runway, production captains, along with Todd, divvied up tasks. Newer members filled trick-or-treat buckets, plastic jack-o’-lanterns containing masquerade masks, whimsical cat stockings and the staples of a Halloween diet, which included Sweet Tarts, Tootsie Rolls and Dubble Bubble chewing gum.
More experienced F.A.B. members, “the veterans of the group,” as Todd called them, prepped the models’ costumes. These students made sure Alice carried a plush white rabbit to Wonderland; Donald Trump sported his blond wig and “Make America Great Again” red cap; and a circus ring leader whipped the big top into shape.
Veterans like Alexus Candia steamed costumes, too. The 18-year- old’s backstage experience was evident. A small burn on her arm didn’t faze her; it was all part of the job.
“That’s what fashion comes down to,” Candia, who has volunteered at several fashion shows with F.A.B. and aspires to be a fashion attorney, said.
Todd cited Candia as an example of F.A.B.’s ultimate goal: to expose young people living outside New York City to all facets of fashion.
The F.A.B. Coalition, which became a school board-sponsored club in April, also serves as a mentoring program. Both Todd and Nadriena Wesley, the club’s school adviser, said they help students build creative portfolios, and submit college applications and research scholarships.
Todd said her “adopted kids” and youngest of four daughters, Asia, a F.A.B. member, can garner enough work experience to land part-time jobs in college.
“Once they get to that college level, they have a full resume — experience in dressing, understanding how to take orders, following instructions,” Todd said. “These are elements that they’re going to need to work in everyday life.”
Wesley, an anatomy and biology teacher at Linden High School, added in a phone interview that F.A.B. members network with professionals who host on-campus workshops, saying “They get experiences they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get.”
Wesley said four students interned at production companies last summer. And according to F.A.B.’s Facebook page, students got “their shot” at meeting celebrities, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, of “Hamilton” fame and Jay Manuel from “America’s Next Top Model.”
F.A.B. contributed to both the September and February fashion weeks last year. This year, in addition to Yandy.com, Todd and her team volunteered at her alma mater’s show and Latinista Fashion Week, a biennial event geared toward the Hispanic community.
But F.A.B. has a broader appeal. Monique Boss, 16, said she joined the club to build her confidence. The junior said that F.A.B. “allowed me to let people get to know me.” She plans to attend art school after high school.
Monique Williams, Boss’s mother, said she noticed the change in her daughter’s personality after her first trip to New York City.
“I see how it made an impact on her; it opened her up,” Williams said.
Williams thought Boss initially joined F.A.B. because of her two older sisters and younger sister, who had been bullied at some point between elementary to high school. But she realized that Boss also wanted a creative outlet.
“When I realized that this was something in her heart, just by her going to her first event in New York, I seen it in her eyes that this is something that she really, really enjoys,” said Williams, who suspects Boss may have also been bullied in elementary and middle school.
The 38-year-old single mom of four daughters calls herself a “worrywart.” When Boss started traveling to the city with F.A.B., she had to call or text her mom at certain checkpoints during the 40-minute trip from Linden to New York City — once before boarding New Jersey Transit, once after stepping off the train, and several times during the fashion show.
“I actually had to psyche myself out and keep telling myself, ‘Hey, she’s gonna be okay. It’s only New York,’” Williams said. “But reassurance came when you talk with Ms. Todd.”
Williams has since eased up on the notifications. Still, she’s grateful for social media, and is reassured when Boss posts photos or statuses.
Williams said that her own parents’ generation would not have supported her in the same way that she has encouraged Boss to pursue an artistic career.
“The area that I came from, your parents were supportive, but if they felt that you weren’t going for a career that made sense — like a nurse or a doctor — and you say, ‘Oh I want to go to school for photography,’ they’ll turn around and tell you, ‘that’s a hobby. You can’t make no money off of that,’” Williams said.
Unlike other parents Williams encountered, she didn’t mind that her daughter would be exposed to models undressing backstage and changing into strange outfits or a revealing Halloween costume.
“For me, it’s just part of the job,” said Williams, echoing what F.A.B. member Candia said earlier.
About 30 minutes before the Yandy.com show began, the young dressers checked their hangars one more time, placing last-minute pins and unclasping closed boots, then Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” signalled a final rehearsal.
“That’s when the adrenaline kicks in,” said Ciera Feliciano, 16, a F.A.B. member.
F.A.B. members like Feliciano said they live for these final moments and the rush of being backstage. For them, that rush makes up for the long commute and late nights spent on homework and a fashion show that ends as quickly as it starts — 45 minutes to be exact — as fast as the crack of a whip.
Alexander Gonzalez is a master’s candidate in magazine journalism at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.