Mae Johnson has been designing and sewing most of her life, but she finally mustered the drive to host her first fashion show a few weeks ago.
At 72, Johnson admits that life works in mysterious ways.
The entire 20-piece collection she showcased was inspired by her 8-year-old great-granddaughter Kayia Rhodeman.
And the collection bears Rhodeman's name — Kayia's Inspirational Designs, or K.I.D., clothes by kids and for kids.
Johnson of Olivette explains that one day in April her great-granddaughter was sitting next to her in church and she was drawing intently with colorful markers. The family attends Word of Grace church in Mexico, Mo., because Johnson's daughter, Ivy Rice, is the pastor.
"It was odd because Kayia never, ever sits beside me in church because there are kids there, and she is always over there with her friends," Johnson said. "So I guess that's why I was paying attention. It was unusual."
Kayia happened to be drawing clothes, including dresses, shorts, tops, purses, hats, sunglasses. Most of the looks had bold diagonal stripes and vibrant color, some embellished with flowers. Someone else might have looked down and saw doodles, but Johnson said that she knew it was a kid's clothing collection.
"I said, 'Kayia, could I have that?' and she tore it out of her little book," Johnson said.
Johnson said that she used the drawings as reference, because she wanted to get the color combinations and the asymmetrical stripes just right. The results were Johnson's interpretation of the young girl's imagination, and Kayia couldn't stop beaming with pride.
The young designer may not know about seam allowances, bias and pattern making, but her great-grandmother is convinced that the little girl had a vision, and she says the line wouldn't exist without her.
Kayia closed the show, held at Olivette Community Center. wearing her favorite of the dresses created from her simple drawings. Friends, family and church friends modeled Kayia's other designs. And another great-granddaughter, Erika Young, 14, modeled a dress based on her own design.
When Johnson walked out to greet people as the show ended, she said that she wished there had been more people in the audience, but she wasn't complaining.
"You can't feel bad about humble beginnings, because you never know where it may lead," Johnson said.
She might be the queen of humility. Johnson insisted on giving most of the credit to her great-granddaughter, even though grandma was obviously the mastermind behind the collection. She even created her own fabric to match Kayia's vision.
Johnson said that she never got the encouragement that she could do anything or be anything in her youth, and she wonders what would have happened if she had. She said that it's important to pay attention to children and to validate their ideas when it's warranted.
She said that it makes sense that an 8-year-old might have more authority on figuring out what a child wants to wear than a 72-year-old, but it also makes sense that it might take some collaboration to make it a reality.
"I'm not afraid to listen to children and take their opinions," Johnson said. "I think everyone has something to say that could be important."
Johnson has had more time putting this into practice than most. She raised 10 children — seven boys and three girls — and her youngest is now 36. Kayia's Inspirational Designs has become a family affair.
The website is being designed by Johnson's grandson Marlon Rhodeman, a graphic designer. He also designed the logo.
Another grandson, Paul Rhodeman, took the images for her first look book and documented the fashion show.
Her youngest son, Damon Toombs, is officially her business manager.
At the show, one of her granddaughters was the emcee, one daughter designed the Power Point presentation and another daughter catered the event. Naturally, a few great-grandchildren walked in the show.
And Johnson's sister Peggie Williams provided the jewelry, Trinity by Design, a line Williams designs and crafts with her two daughters.
Johnson laughs at the irony that when her children were young and she made their clothing, they groaned, even when they liked her designs. She says they couldn't wait to go shopping for clothes at the mall. Now, her children and grandchildren know how special it is to get something custom made by skilled hands.
Johnson's husband died in May, and she says that staying busy is really the only thing that helps. Besides, it makes her feel good to give people something to feel good about.
Johnson has been designing custom garments under the name of GOPA, Garments of Praise Apparel, for years. She talks with people about what they need — often they bring photos of garments they like — and then Johnson takes their personality and body shape into consideration and they create something together.
"It's always about honoring the person and creating something that celebrates and praises them," Johnson said.
That's what she loves about the line inspired by her great-granddaughter.
"We tell kids what we think they should wear, but they have their own opinions. We should respect that," said Johnson, who is now busy filling some orders for custom garments that she got after the fashion show. And she's planning a bigger show for spring.
A handful of Johnson's nieces, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have been submitting designs for Johnson to consider for the collection. Her young family members are particularly inspired now that Kayia received her first paycheck for design work.
"You mean I get paid for this," followed by wide eyes and giggles was Kayia's response.
To order or get more information on the K.I.D. clothing line contact Johnson at email@example.com.