Desmond Hanks is making alterations to a blue velvet crop top at his sewing machine.
It’s prom season and his Miami apartment doubles as his workspace
Prom dresses in various stages of finish are everywhere--in the living room, hanging on hallway walls and in bags waiting for pick-up.
Most of his clients are high-school girls, but middle schools and even pre-schools are also throwing proms this time of year.
“Proms start for me February through June,” says Hanks, a self-taught fashion designer. “I just finished my first prom toddler and she won prom queen. She was 4 years old.”
While department and formal wear stores remain popular, some teens are opting out of those options to have their dream gowns custom-made.
Keyshira Lombrage, a senior at American High, heard about Hank’s fashion company KISS (Krazy Intuition Sense of Style) Fashions from her cousin.
“Last year my cousin came to him,” says Keyshira.
She was so impressed she knew Hanks had to design her prom dress too.
Keyshira is trying on her dress for a final fitting. It’s a wine-colored velvet gown with split sleeves. The bodice is bedazzled in rhinestones.
Hanks makes some minor adjustments to the dress and Keyshira loves it.
“You know me; I just slay wherever I go,” she says as she poses and twirl. “They’re just going to see me, the queen.”
This prom season Hanks is designing for 30 clients. His custom gowns for prom can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,200.
Senior prom is a big deal, Hanks says. Some of his clients compare it to getting married, except senior prom actually only happens once.
“In dealing with prom, that’s such a delicate time that if I don’t get it right somebody’s going to be mad,” Hanks adds.
When he consults with his young clients during the design process, he doesn’t mind if they come with inspirations already in mind, but he urges them to be inspired by who they are.
“If they bring me a picture of Beyonce, I’m like, ‘OK, that’s Beyonce. That dress was made to fit her. The way that dress fits Beyonce might not fit you, so let’s sit down and find your favorite color. What’s your style?’”
Hanks’ nickname is “Cracker Jack” for his surprising designs. He got his start designing in the Liberty Square Housing project ,also known as the Pork ‘n’ Beans, where he grew up.
In middle school, he would embellish and modify his own clothes.
“Fashion was my way to be different. Bleached jeans, cut up shirts, and loud shoes—pink, neon colors.”
His unique fashion sense didn’t always draw admirers. He says bullies would yell out mean names at him at school.
“Homophobic names and stuff like that,” he says. “But I did what made me feel free.
It also helped that Hanks found a fashion mentor in Liberty Square who encouraged him to be his own kind of beautiful.
His mentor’s name was Melvin Alexander and the neighborhood kids would hang out in Alexander’s apartment and watch him sew for local celebrities, drag queens and wedding parties.
“I’d go downtown to the fabric stores with him and see all these different fabrics and vibrant colors and I was like, ‘OK, I like this,’” says Hanks. “It’s because of Melvin that I’m doing what I’m doing right now.”
Alexander, who now lives in Davie and still designs, says his apartment was a safe space for young people in the Liberty City neighborhood.
He always knew Hanks was interested in fashion, but he didn’t realize that the little boy who used to help him add rhinestones to fabric would turn it into a career.
“I was shocked when he took on totally designing,” says Alexander. I’m very proud of him. Very proud”
In Hanks’ living room, he’s putting the finishing touches on two more dresses
Jada Holloway is wearing an all black gown that could easily fit in at the Met Gala.
Holloway says she gave Hanks complete creative control.
“He just sketched something out and I trusted him with it,” says Holloway.
Next to her, Jordan Lawrence, a student at Turner Technical Arts High, also looks red-carpet-ready in a long silver dress with a puff of tulle for dramatic flare.
She says going the custom route means she gets to really stand out on prom night.
“I wanted it to be big, like dramatic type,” she says. “Not just boring regular. Like, out there… I love it. “