Christine Ha on MasterChef

Christine Ha on Workshop Houston's Style Shop

Christine Ha contributed the article below to Cite 85 in Spring 2011. Since then she has achieved some fame as the first blind contestant on the TV show MasterChef. In the first episode, she was chosen as one of eleven finalists. “Notorious tough judge Joe Bastianich teared up during the show while critiquing her work,” Huffington Post noted. “Her palate’s way beyond everyone else’s,” he said. I met her at a group dinner a year ago and was impressed by her without realizing she had any visual impairment, so I asked her to write about a young woman practicing fashion design at Workshop Houston. She offered to take up another assignment given that she would not be able to see the design, but she rose to the challenge in her now well-known inspirational fashion about a subject who is herself an inspiration:

Under a haze that settles over the skyline, the houses-turned-workshops sit unassuming and quiet. Inside, though, there is a bustling of adolescent energy. Up a flight of steep stairs is the Style Shop where Arbay Muya spends her afternoons spinning ideas into clothes.

Arbay, photo by Seth Capron

Before coming to the Style Shop, the 13 year old knew nothing about fashion. “I wore whatever clothes my mom got me.” But since her participation in the program starting in September, Arbay has developed a sharp sense of personal style, rattling off her likes and dislikes as definitively as any designer in the industry. The Style Shop is Arbay’s haven for fashionable self-expression, where she is free to use computers, sewing machines, screen prints, and pressers to design and produce her own clothes and accessories. She learns about different clothing lines, the fabrics, how to sew and make something out of nothing. What was once an old t-shirt becomes a book bag which houses Arbay’s binders for school. Since she is required to wear a uniform, this book bag is the only piece from her self-made collection that makes it onto the school grounds.

I ask her if she’s received requests to make these bags for her friends. Arbay nods. “But I told my friend to come here instead and make her own t-shirt bag. What if I make it a certain style, and she doesn’t like it?” For a young girl, Arbay possesses a keen sensibility towards those around her, freely acknowledging the vast possibilities of creative pursuits, willing to leave others to their own devices. And in the midst of this growing awareness, she observes, ingests, and manufactures her own designs.

All this, of course, is not without mistakes. “When I first used the sewing machine, I would push too hard on the foot pedal, and this made the fabric move too fast.” I tell her she’d better watch that leadened foot when she learns to drive. She laughs and quickly adds that she is much better at the foot pedal now.

“I like it when I make mistakes,” she says.

I raise my eyebrows.

“Then a new thing pops up. I get to make it a different way. It becomes a different style.”

I raise my eyebrows again. Could this person half my age already understand something that three years of graduate education in the arts still hasn’t embedded in to my stubborn adult brain? When I find myself lost in the middle of broken prose, I don’t like the situation at all. I fail to see it as an opportunity for change, for a “new style.” Instead I grumble and resign to the possibility of defeat. But not Arbay. She welcomes, even embraces, defeat, and I can trace the excitement in her voice.

To Arbay, graphics and fashion designs are an ongoing building process. She uses Photoshop to create the design, makes the image into a screen print, presses her own shirts and bags. And if the butterfly applique is in the wrong place or the print’s not the right color, Arbay simply shrugs and reinvents the design. Things in this fashion world are ever-changing. Perhaps my adult self is too set in my own ways to accept this. I envy Arbay’s nonchalance.

I ask her which item she is most proud of making at the Style Shop.

“I made this shirt that has a cool logo on it. It has the letters ‘BMG’ on it, and it stands for ‘Best Muslim Girl.'”

It is not until the next day after talking to Seth Capron, one of the founders of Workshop Houston, that I learned BMG is the name of the clothing line Arbay plans to start.

“Is this what you want to do when you grow up?” I ask.

“No, fashion’s just a hobby.” She tells me about taking care of her nephew when he’s sick, how his chubby cheeks puff up when he laughs, how this makes her laugh. “I want to be a pediatrician. I want to help kids.” I am marveling at her ambition when she cuts in. “I would be a kindergarten teacher but I don’t want that headache.”

So in the meantime, in the years before she’ll have to leave the sewing machine for the stethoscope, Arbay can be found in an upstairs room of that converted four-plex on Sauer Street putting her thoughts onto cotton. Maybe by the time she is driving, having mastered lightness of foot, Arbay will be the proud face behind a local fashion label. Her nephew, which by then would be walking and talking, would don one of the t-shirts, the tag on his inseam bearing the recognizable letters: “BMG. Product of Workshop Houston.”

To learn more about Workshop Houston, check this previous coverage on OffCite.

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