The lights dim, the music bumps and slouchy, unimpressed models begin their seemingly grueling walk down the wood-clad runway. Taking on the role of walking hangers, models are an afterthought to the impressive designs of Prada and the atmospheric indulgence of Dior. These are the faces of fashion worldwide: The solemn, concentrated looks of incredulity, a patented and well executed face.
But in a small office on the fourth floor of the Michigan Union, nine people work toward a different approach to fashion. NOiR’s stake has less to do with a classic model pout or avant-garde designs and focuses primarily on the purpose behind the show.
“The thing that’s unique about NOiR from other organizations in fashion is that NOiR was one of the few organizations that actually got into service,” said Canon Thomas, College of Engineering junior and NOiR’s president.
BE bold, BE kind, BE you
Each year, the group decides on a community service venture. Last year, NOiR’s annual fashion show helped raise money for Autism Speaks, an autism spectrum disorder awareness association. The show raised $1,500, the largest amount the organization has been able to donate to date. This spring, NOiR is donating money to Food Gatherers, an Ann Arbor-based group that provides hot meals, snacks and groceries for seniors, children and low-income individuals in Washtenaw County.
“We chose Food Gatherers because we noticed that a lot of times we’ve worked in communities outside of Ann Arbor, and we want to see how to implement change inside the Ann Arbor community,” explained Jonathan Glymph, an LSA junior and NOiR stylist. “After doing our research, we figured out that there were a lot of communities within Washtenaw County who go hungry and who needed those types of resources, and we wanted to provide that.”
NOiR hopes to raise $2,000, beating its previous record and providing thousands of meals through Food Gatherers.
“A dollar provides three meals at Food Gatherers, so if we provide $2,000, it would be 6,000 meals,” Thomas said. “Every year, we try to strive towards a cause that we feel is essential to all of us, and we feel like we can make a change.”
The fashion-forward group’s slogan, “BE bold, BE kind, BE you,” resonates with every project it chooses to take on and has a profound impact on the members of the executive board.
“We wanted to raise awareness about bullying,” Glymph said. “There was a big problem with how people treated one another, and we wanted our motto as well as anyone who went to see the show, anyone who has an awareness of the NOiR show, to be conscious of the fact that individualism is appreciated and wanted.”
This same cognizance of originality and independence led to the creation of NOiR in 1999. The group was then spearheaded by two University students who aimed to affix themselves in the fashion world by building a new outlet for their artistic expression.
Anchored in the black community
“It was two women who were interested in creating something that was serious about fashion, but also centered in the black community,” said NOiR’s vice president Ciarra Ross, an LSA sophomore. “They wanted something different, something of higher quality to represent the fashion industry.”
Though NOiR has matured and carved its own space among the many student groups at the University, Ross said the original mission is still very much a part of the organization.
“Now we’re here and wanting to encapsulate it, but also broaden it a bit, always wanting to be more diverse but to be anchored in the black community, knowing that that is what the vision was for it to begin with.”
Despite having close ties with the African American community, NOiR is a large advocate of diversity and multi-culturalism.
“We have premier fashion in our organization, and we are very diverse,” Thomas said. “You can just look at our e-board.”
Like many fashion groups on campus, NOiR’s style is distinct. Rather than blending in with the trends, NOiR highlights them with clothing and accessory pieces chosen from both local designers and big-name brands.
“We find (designers) on different social networks like Twitter and Instagram, and we’re like, ‘oh they have really cool stuff.’ I reached out to this guy from Oklahoma, and he’s donating wooden bow ties this year,” said Lou Pope, Engineering senior and VIP coordinator. “We are cognizant of the different trends that are going on, things that we want to show in the show, but we also know who is credible and who has good pieces to represent.”
In order to sponsor the show, the non-profit student group needs to spend a number of hours reaching out to companies and organizations, asking them to help fund the show. Each e-board member has a specific sector of companies they contact, furthering the sponsorship relationships along.
“The basis is gathering resources, but where we gather our resources from is all over the place,” Pope said. “Every executive board member has a role or a specific sector that they’re reaching out to to bring in those resources.
“Within the organization, there are a lot of different dynamics and avenues that you can support. My specific job is to coordinate the experience our VIP will have and when our models are coming on to audition.”
An outlet for creativity
NOiR models go through a week-long casting process at the beginning of December. Each model comes in with contact information and measurements in order for the e-board to compile the candidates’ information and be ready when the final selections are made.
“People come in and we have a sheet that says, ‘confidence level,’ ‘eye contact,’ things like that — things we normally look for,” Ross explained. “And then we rate based on different categories, and we have numbers, so at the end, whatever your total is puts you into whether or not you made it.”
Though casting might seem competitive and judgmental, HoJeong Shin, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman and NOiR’s fashion recruit, assures that the models chosen aren’t stereotypical cover girls and are selected based on personality and presentation rather than looks alone.
“Because our organization is about diversity, we look for models that are diverse. We don’t look for the typical skinny, tall girls. We go from small, petite girls, to tall girls, to plus-sized models and models from all backgrounds and races, so we look for that, too.”
The girls and guys chosen to walk at the annual spring show are revealed at a party thrown in order to raise money for NOiR’s cause and also to celebrate the models.
“That helps us out, supporting our cause, making sure everyone is present,” Ross said.
The different opportunities presented in NOiR all stem from their cohesive mission: to give back to the community with a fashionable touch. Sundai Johnson, model coordinator and LSA sophomore, noted that the trade doesn’t matter as long as service is a part of the mission.
“In whatever we’re doing, regardless of what industry it is, it’s important to give back,” Johnson said.
In this way, NOiR is able to continue as a non-profit group, helping the community and providing an outlet for creative individuals. Preaching the acceptance of others and community service, NOiR prides itself in continuing its tradition of producing quality shows with a purpose.
“Putting a face to some of these causes and letting people know that you can do something really fun and exciting and participate in fashion, but you can also have something behind it,” Johnson said. “That fashion doesn’t have to be a place where you have to look a certain way or be a certain way, and knowing as an organization we offer that space for people to express themselves without the limitations and restraints the fashion industry can put on you sometimes.”
This year’s show, “La Nuit,” premiers March 30 at the Union. Though the contents and theme of the show are kept secret until the last minute, tickets typically sell out quickly as the shows draw a large crowd and noticeable attention.
Despite its direct, meaningful motto and mission, one aspect of NOiR can be confusing.
“ ‘Noir’ is French for black,” Thomas said. “A lot of people don’t know that.”