Dynamic teacher expands unique fashion program


Chloe Prendergast

Valerie Williams entered the halls of Grady as a teacher in 2012, prepared for the challenge ahead. Since that day, Williams has created the curriculum for Grady’s fashion program — one of the only full high school fashion programs in the nation — and has grown what was once a handful of seniors into a group of over 40 junior and senior designers.

Williams believes passion for her job is vital.

“I think as a teacher a big part of what you do is inspire and motivate, and I think I do that with the kids,” she said.

Williams first cultivated her love for teaching during stints as a college fashion design teacher and teacher for the Peace Corps.

“I wouldn’t teach if I didn’t love some aspect of it, and I have my days, but I love teaching and I think I’m good at it,” she said.

Williams credits the Peace Corps with forming her teaching philosophy.

“I loved the Peace Corps,” Williams said. “You know you don’t make money, but you’re volunteering. I was in my 20s and to go to another culture where they can’t go to the store, and buy stuff [impacted me].”

In the program, Williams and her students made pots out of clay that they dug from a nearby mountainside.

“Living with very minimal things taught me to appreciate all, everything,” Williams said.

It is with this minimalist mentality that Williams approaches the arts at Grady.

“I’ve learned that the politics of education don’t always align with my vision, and that’s okay, because I can force my vision into the politics and make it work,” Williams said. “The politics of current education versus the creative end, we’re not always highly respected.”

Williams has always considered herself an artist and is proud of her artistic abilities.

“One of the things I like to say about myself, when I look in the mirror, I see an artist first, a woman second and a woman of color third,” Williams said. “That people see the reverse is not my problem. I navigate my life like that.”

Working as a female artist has significantly impacted her world outlook. When renaming the fashion program at Grady, she thought of, “Une Belle Revolution,” which translates to “A Beautiful Revolution.” Part of the reason Williams chose the name was due to the femininity of the phrase, which in the French language is comprised of female words.

Her evident love affair with art, design and ingenuity began at a young age.

WILLING TO LEAD: Valerie Williams, fashion teacher, helps a student in her Fibers II class create a mood board. In this stage of the Grady fashion program, students learn to draw and sew. Eventually, students design and create a line of clothing that is modeled at a fashion show in the spring.

“I actually started making clothes for my dolls,” Williams said. “I had a little cottage industry, and I came home with a wad of money and my mom said, ‘Where’d you get that money?’ I had been selling the clothes to my friends for like a dollar.”

Williams grew up in Durham, N.C. in the Research Triangle, which boasts with the most PhDs and MDs per capita inside the U.S. The city is also a flourishing creative region of the country. Both of her parents were scientists; her father was an entomologist (one who studies insects) and her mother a chemist. Williams, unlike the rest of her family, fell in love with art.

“My immediate family just [thinks] I’m the odd duck,” she said. “My other siblings go, ‘she’s the artist,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m sitting right here, right here.’ They talk about me in hush tones, but they quietly love that I’m so weird.”

Williams has worked throughout the art world, including as a fashion, costume, product designer and author.

Williams has also published six books in her lifetime: three adult poetry books, one book for social workers detailing how to uncover creativity and protect at-risk youth, one book about young, black female artists and one children’s poetry book. One of her sons inspired her book, “Mixtape Revolutionaries: Poems for Young Readers,” when he expressed frustration that he couldn’t understand the words in her adult poetry books, but still wanted to read her poetry.

Despite her many career paths, Williams says being a mother is both the hardest and the most impactful job she’s ever had. For four years, Williams was a ‘stay-at-home mom’ to her five teenage boys, including two sets of twins.

“I’m passionate about life,” Williams said. “I’m a very passionate person, and I feel like if you’re not going to love what you’re doing, why do it? Why bother?”

This is a message Williams hopes to pass on to her students — that the passions and skills you gain in life are vitally important, both in the fashion industry and in the world at large.

“So, all of these life skills can be applied anywhere in anything you do and creativity is important anywhere,” Williams said. “That innovativeness applies to whatever else you are going to do in life. ”

To Williams, creativity is integral to a happy life.

“Anyone and anything I encounter have the potential to be motivation or inspiration — for my art, for my writing, for motivating [my students],” Williams said. “All of it.”