A year ago, Chloe Ayissi-Etoh didn’t know how to sew. But this spring, in a school auditorium packed with more than 900 people, the teen soaked in thunderous applause as a bona fide fashion designer.
In a red dress she’d finished perfecting just minutes earlier, Chloe followed models who’d walked the stage at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda in nine looks from her first collection, under her brand chlolanà—a blend of her first name and middle name, Alana.
For Chloe, an eighth grader at the time, the fashion show was a major accomplishment. What made it even more impressive was that she’d had just four weeks to design, sew and fit the dresses, pants, shirts and corsets she’d sketched for various body types. The show was held during a retreat for the Minority Scholars Program, a group led by Montgomery County Public Schools students that’s working to close the achievement gap.
“I didn’t have time to even sleep—I got between two and four hours a night,” says Chloe, 14, who lives in North Potomac and attended Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville. “It was very hectic, but if I’m set on something, I’m going to do it regardless of what anybody says and no matter how crazy it sounds.”
The fashion show was so well received that it earned an encore performance two months later as part of Robert Frost’s 50th anniversary celebration. Robert Frost science teacher Sunila Varghese, who co-sponsors the school’s chapter of the Minority Scholars Program and has known Chloe for two years, notes that the teen managed two assistants and two makeup artists during the show, and also choreographed walks for the models, all fellow classmates.
“You could hear a gasp when the [audience] heard she was 14. My heart was just full,” Varghese says. “She’s a very bright and talented girl, and whatever she does, she’s a rock star at it.”
Chloe, a rising ninth grader at Wootton High School in Rockville, describes her aesthetic as mainly monochrome with a pop of color—“a mixture of streetwear and chic.” She draws inspiration from fashion brands including London designer House of CB, known for its figure-hugging pieces.
Chloe became interested in fashion in June 2021 after getting into thrift-store shopping and watching TikTok videos about upcycling clothes. She soon started taking sewing lessons from an aunt. Countless hours on YouTube followed as she soaked up sewing and fashion terminology.
Once school started that fall, Chloe says, she no longer wanted to wear sweats and hoodies to class. She quickly became known for her own designs, even earning a “Best Dressed” award from fellow eighth graders in a student survey. “For some reason, I just became a fashionista,” she says. “I would go into my closet, look at some clothes, put together an outfit, and it would turn out amazing.”
Just because she’s no longer wearing sweats and hoodies in the hallways doesn’t mean Chloe never dresses down. But even then, she says, she puts a spin on her look. “Honestly, it depends on my mood,” she says. “If I feel extra that day, I’ll create a really extra outfit for that day at school—maybe spice things up with some high-waisted flare pants and [a] turtleneck with an under-bust corset.”
Describing the process of deconstructing a garment as “beautiful,” Chloe earlier this year took out a zipper and ripped up the seams of a pair of stretchy pink shorts she bought for $2 at a thrift store. She then added interfacing and created an under-bust corset she sometimes wears to school over a white dress shirt. “My mom doesn’t like that I have such a big obsession with corsets,” she admits.
Her mother, Katrina, 45, says she endures constant fashion advice from Chloe, her only daughter among four children. “She does ask if she can style and dress me, but I tell her, ‘No, get out of my closet. I’m fine,’ ” Katrina says. “But maybe this summer I’ll ask her to make me a shirt.”
Chloe plans to become a designer with her own line of middle- to high-end ready-to-wear clothing. She says she finds inspiration everywhere and recalls once devising a color-blocked streetwear look from a ladder propped against a wall in French class. She is converting a basement storage room at her home into a sewing studio with light pink walls, white tables, lots of green plants, and a sign bearing her brand name.
Katrina, meanwhile, is trying to reconcile that the daughter she has seen hop from one hobby to the next—though Chloe still loves to bake and cook—now seems committed to a future in fashion. “The Lord must work in mysterious ways,” she says. “Never did I see this one coming. … She loves what she does, and you can’t buy that.”
This story appears in the July/August 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.