FLINT, Michigan—Brianna McMillian cares about color, she wants something that stands out. White gowns and black dresses bore her — muted shades of blue and green don’t impress her. If it doesn’t immediately catch your eye, it isn’t worth it.
That’s why she is making her own prom dress. More importantly, that’s why she needs to make clothes for the entire world to wear and she's starting with Flint.
McMillian is one of a handful of students chosen to operate in Southwestern Classical Academy’s makerspace. The space, a repurposed classroom in the school’s northernmost wing, overlooks an empty field. It’s quiet, secluded from the rest of the school. The room has been outfitted with 3D printers and VR headsets. Most importantly for McMillian, the room is also hosting state-of-the-art sewing machines and a heat press for printing designs onto shirts.
Like any other senior in high school, McMillian is excited for prom. She’s sitting at a table with her friend Ashanti Miller and her teacher Suzzane Lossing when the subject comes up.
“Did either one of you tell me you wanted to make your prom dress here?” calls out Lossing. McMillian looks away and pretends she didn’t hear the question. Lossing is about to move on when Miller interjects with an assertive “I ain’t making my prom dress.”
Miller and Lossing turn their heads to McMillian. She doesn’t see them do it but she knows she’s been found out.
“I want to make my prom dress,” says McMillian.
On top of designing and making her own prom dress, McMillian has filed the papers necessary with the City of Flint to start her own clothing store. Remember that thing about clothes having to catch her eyes to be worth it? She means that. It’s a concept she decided to base her entire brand on by calling it Caught My Eye.
Upon getting introduced, it may be easy to assume McMillian wants to keep her affinity for fashion low-key. Let her get comfortable though and she’ll fill you in on what’s in vogue at the moment. Then if you wait a few extra moments, she'll start to tell you why it shouldn’t be. While she enjoys browsing social media and seeing the fits of the day, McMillian admits she’s not often impressed.
“You know, on social media you see everything. I just see everybody posting what they wear and a lot of the stuff is not really my taste.”
Of course, a fashion magnate is nothing without their partner. Gianni Versace had his sister Donatella, McMillian has Miller. According to McMillian, the two girls will often talk business. They come up with designs and ideas specifically made to draw any potential onlooker’s attention away from anything but their clothes.
“We talk about what would look nice on a t-shirt or what would catch somebody’s eye if we put that on a t-shirt … Something that you have to stop and look at it.”
Though she’s now ready to dedicate her life to fashion, McMillian's past with the craft has not been without falter. Up until she was 15, fashion was barely a blip on her radar. It wasn’t until a random day in the spring of 2017 that McMillian’s father came home one day after work with a vinyl cutter, an ink printer, and a heat press. “He wanted me and my brother to find a skill, he wanted us to find something to do other than just sit around the house,” says McMillian.
She started with small things at first, teaching herself how to use the machines along the way. Her dad, a barber, had no real interest in the ins and outs of shirt printing. He was just happy his kids were discovering something new.
“It’s really interesting how stuff turned out,” McMillian says as she pulls her phone out of her pocket. “You see the pictures?” She points at the phone and turns it over to show the back cover. The phone’s case is a picture of McMillian and her cousin. “It's made out of the dye-sublimation printer, I was just so intrigued to see it and see how it's made. I like to create my own things and I wanted to see how it was made.”
Not long after her first trial with dye sublimation had proved a success, a YouTube video appeared on her account’s "recommended" feed. Out of curiosity, she tapped on it. What followed was a trip down one of YouTube’s many rabbit holes. “I saw a video teaching me how to make the case and I was like ‘if I can make the case then I can make shirts and I can make pants.’”
Of course, printing and design is only half the fun. For an entrepreneur like McMillian, you have to be able to do it all. “I like sewing actually … I have an embroidery and sewing machine at home,” she says. “Sewing is nice 'cause it’s simple. If you’re gonna sew something or patch something up, that's fine. But embroidering, that’s embedded into the clothing.”
After about two years of dabbling in the world of clothes creation, McMillian says she started to get bored with it. She’d spend hours alone in a dark room working on designs and it was starting to drag her down. It was then that the makerspace was announced at Southwestern.
“I was thinking about just giving it up, I thought to myself, ''I don’t even wanna think about doing it no more.’ But now it’s like I don’t know, something’s telling me to do it … I don’t know, It was out of the ordinary for the school to purchase all this new stuff,” says McMillian. Now, the very thing she had sworn to stop doing was following her from home to school.
When McMillian saw how her classmates were being positively affected by the opportunities the new makerspace afforded them, she realized her knowledge with machines like the heat press and the dye-sublimation printer could for once benefit more than just her. She didn’t just care about her designs, she cared about teaching them to other people.
“The makerspace is special, it makes a lot of people that don’t really have nothing to do learn a talent or a skill. They can actually have something to do in life.”
McMillian knows life isn’t just about homework and grades. She sees her peers, many of whom come from low-income families and struggle with their daily school work, learn something new when they come into the space. They’re taking something home with them and for once that’s not a burden.
“They don’t have just school work, they can learn a skill, they can use it for something,” she says.
This realization put McMillian on a new track. Being able to teach someone a new skill was just as gratifying as making something on her own.
From then on, McMillian started asking herself what she could do for her community. She wanted to know how she could truly make an impact on her city, the city she doesn’t plan on leaving.
“I want to spread positivity. I want to let other people know that they can do it too. Just because somebody else is doing it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Whatever you want to do, just try it.”
McMillian has plans to continue with her business after graduating in spring of this year. While she doesn’t know quite yet whether she’ll own a physical store or dedicate her time solely to designing, creating and selling on a digital storefront, McMillian is sure she wants to stick around and become a harbinger of positivity for her community.
Every morning, McMillian wakes up, does her variation of the typical morning routine and drives to school. Once there, she sits through her classes, talks with her friends, and complains about the lunch food. When she gets the chance, however, she sneaks off to the makerspace in the northernmost wing of the school. When she enters the room overlooking the big empty field, she turns into a teacher, a designer, and a businesswoman.