For two months in early 2022, a group of LGBT Worcester-area teenagers met weekly to design clothing, exchange ideas, build community and get comfortable with being themselves.
Young people from as far as 40 miles away came to Worcester every Wednesday night to sit at sewing machines and bond with new friends as part of the Threads program. Threads, which takes place yearly and ends with a final fashion show, was founded in 2019 by local nonprofit Love Your Labels to give LGBT youth the opportunity for free expression through fashion design.
In September, two Threads alumni will have another chance to showcase their creations, this time alongside nationally known designers and performers, as part of the Queer AF fashion show.
The event is a fundraiser for Love Your Labels’ programs, including Threads, and will take place on Sept. 9 at the Palladium. It will include a runway and live drag and music performances, as well as a post-show dance party for attendees 21 and older.
New York drag queen Peppermint, who rose to national fame as the first openly transgender woman to compete on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” will co-host the event. Designers Asha Ama and Sam Donovan, who were both featured on “Project Runway,” will present their work, and local musician Ryleigh Modig, who competed on “The Voice,” will perform.
Worcester-area residents of all backgrounds, genders, sexualities and body types will be walking the runway as models.
“One of our priorities is to celebrate the unique beauty that every person holds and shatter the media depiction of what beauty looks like, and that’s especially relevant in the fashion world, with who is allowed to model based on size, height, and appearance,” Love Your Labels founder Josh Croke said.
Croke recalled models in previous years who credited their experiences at Queer AF with boosting their confidence enough to convince them to pursue their own creative projects.
“I’ve had folks say to me, ‘No one’s ever said that I could model or that I was beautiful, and this was the first space I felt that.’ The energy at these events is palpable,” Croke said.
Croke also said that another goal of the show was to combat the stigma around questioning one’s identity or choosing not to label it at all.
“We’re celebrating the fluid nature of existence with this show, and are saying, welcome, everybody. You might not have any idea what your gender or sexuality is while you’re figuring it out, and we celebrate that, too,” Croke said. “We’re meeting people where they are.”
One of Queer AF’s young designers, Tyler Charpentier, participated in Threads in 2019 and returned this year to mentor current students. Another, 13-year-old A. Santora, participated in Threads this year and is currently working on two matching sets of button-down shirts and shorts for the Queer AF show.
“That’s always been my dream, doing designs for a runway, especially if everybody is being themselves,” A. Santora said.
Santora is the son of Oxford mechanic Jai Santora, who is part of this year’s Queer AF organizing committee and whose journey of self-discovery took a crucial turn at a previous Queer AF event.
“It was right around the time I decided I wanted to transition, but I was really concerned about so many different things. I didn’t know anybody in the community, and I thought I was all alone,” Jai Santora said. “[The people I met at Queer AF] inspired me, to know I could just be myself, live my life, still find happiness, still find friends, and still be successful.”
Jai Santora said that she decided to join the Queer AF organizing committee after seeing Love Your Labels’ programs for LGBT youth and remembering that she had not been able to find similar support during her own high school days.
“I didn’t have anybody that I could look up to who was going through the same things that I was going through, and just thought that I was all alone with no idea as to what this meant about me. When I saw Threads, I knew then that I needed to find a way to give back,” Jai Santora said.
Croke said that Love Your Labels also runs a drag queen story hour and is part of a group of Central Massachusetts LGBT organizations, but that Threads is the nonprofit’s flagship program, and that it makes clear differences in the lives of the youth who participate.
“I had a chance to talk to [one Threads participant’s] mom at our fashion show and she said that before the show they were depressed and not having a good time at school, and you could tell that the way they dressed was very guarded and shielded,” Croke said.
“Since participating, they go to school wearing what they want, and regularly come back from the program with the biggest smile on their face. That’s why we do this work.”
Tickets for Queer AF are available at www.loveyourlabels.org/queer-af.