- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

Growing up in inner city Baltimore taught 18-year-old Bishme Cromartie a couple life lessons.

“You have to be ready and be quick and know your surroundings,” he says of a childhood engulfed by “the temptations of gangs.”

Lesson No. 2: Don’t ask why.

“When I realized that my father was not going to be around, I just told myself to forget about it. I would be the man of the family and help provide for them,” he tells The Washington Times without a hint of resentment.

Since his first fashion show at age 16, Mr. Cromartie has defied his youth and underprivileged background to launch a precocious career as a designer that has garnered the attention of Washington and New York style-industry insiders.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that my brother is doing this,” says Mr. Cromartie’s older sister Chimere Didley, who grew up with him in Baltimore. “It is so refreshing that he looked at his surroundings and told himself that he did not have to be like so many kids from the streets. I am so happy I don’t have to run to a detention center to get him or that the cops have my address memorized.”

(Corrected paragraph:) When Mr. Cromartie was 12, his mother, Regina Didley, a nurse, sent him to live with relatives in Newburgh, N.Y., to attend a better school and be in a safer environment.

It was while staying with his aunts that he met his destiny. “I saw her making quilts and bedspreads, and all I wanted to do was sew,” Mr. Cromartie recalls.

Quickly learning to sew by hand, his first client was his favorite G.I. Joe action figure. “I would get in trouble for cutting up my socks to make shirts for him,” he says.

When he returned to Baltimore, his mother and sister, who do not sew at all, were amused by his interest, and thought it would keep him from straying onto the wrong path. That Christmas, they saved enough money to buy Mr. Cromartie a sewing machine, but he kept his new toy and budding hobby to himself.

“You don’t want to tell the other boys that you sew because you might get beaten up,” he says.

Quietly, he examined the skirts and blouses of his female friends and relatives to learn how clothes are made and taught himself to use the sewing machine and to make clothes without patterns.

“I made my first shirt when I was around thirteen,” he says. “One arm was longer than the other, but I was so proud because it was something I had made all by myself.”

Wanting to make clothes for friends, but apprehensive about how his male peers would react, Mr. Cromartie designed hoodies, casual sweatshirts popular among young rap and R&B artists.

Suddenly, Mr. Cromartie became the Alexander McQueen of his school.

“I would make the hoodies with rhinestones, and put my name on the back. I bought the fabric from wholesale stores or from Wal-Mart,” he explains.

Utilizing the social networking site MySpace, Mr. Cromartie sold hundreds of his hoodies for $50 each, mostly due to the word spread by his young, devoted following.

By his junior year in high school, Mr. Cromartie had a Web site, business cards and a healthy bank account, but that wasn’t enough.

“I wanted to challenge myself to learn to sketch so I could make couture dresses,” he says.

After applying to the esteemed Baltimore School for the Arts as a drawing student and being rejected, Mr. Cromartie volunteers, “I went through a period of a lot of sadness.”

Undeterred, he took a Saturday class in drawing and “expressed the sadness through fabrics, shapes and motions” in his first collection designed from his makeshift studio.

“My studio in my room is basically a corner in my room. It’s not a lot of space due to my bed being so huge and my tailor dummies. I have three of them plus clothes and shoes, but I manage it,” he says with humor.

His reinvention from hoodies to gowns was captured on film by New York fashion photographer Karen Genetta, who agreed to shoot his first collection for free after being taken by his work.

Since then, he and his sister have taken the bus to New York for additional shoots, something Mr. Cromartie clearly relishes. “I could do photo shoots every day of my life,” he says.

Ms. Genetta says that she has shown his work to various New York designers and modeling agencies, who have responded enthusiastically.

Makeda Saggau-Sackey, the editor of the popular Washington fashion blog the Glamazon Diaries, first encountered Mr. Cromartie’s work through a friend who styled one of his local shoots.

“He’s right up there with the big designers,” she says. “I have been impressed with his craftsmanship, architecture and attention to detail.

Miss Saggau-Sackey would like to see Mr. Cromartie eventually show at New York Fashion Week, and is planning to throw a cocktail party fundraiser to help him raise the funds necessary to be included in the industry’s biggest event in September.

“His young talent is putting D.C. on the map,” she says. “People in his own backyard need to know who he is.”

In the meantime, Mr. Cromartie, before beginning his senior year at Reginald F. Lewis High School, will show at Baltimore Fashion Week next month, where he will present his 2010 spring line.

“I would describe his collection as avant-garde, feminine, but edgy,” reflects Baltimore Fashion Week founder and CEO Sharan Nixon, who, like Miss Saggau-Sackey has become a friend and mentor to Mr. Cromartie.

“When I think about what he can do, it makes me want to cry,” she says. “I don’t want to lose him, but know that he will one day end up in New York.”

“I want to go to the Parsons School of Design or Fashion Institute of Technology,” he volunteers of his ambition to attend one of the two top fashion schools in the country — both are in New York — and is planning to finance his education with the sale of his designs.

As for his admirers, they see him as a visionary in the truest sense of the word.

“He has seen beyond what is out his window and sees a future for himself,” says Miss Nixon.

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