KALAMAZOO, Mich.—If Lesley Ware could speak with her "tweenage" self, her advice might be something like: Embrace your uniqueness, proudly display your inner fashionista and don't feel obligated to bend to trend.
It's a message she was hesitant to express as a girl, but fully embodies today, inspiring and teaching the up-and-coming generation of fashion lovers.
Ware is the proprietor and chief educator at Creative Cookie, a boutique sewing studio in Brooklyn, New York, where she teaches sewing and design to young fashion enthusiasts. She also is a multiply published author. Her first book, "Sew Fab," is a sewing and style guide for youth ages 8 to 13.
"I just want girls to know it's OK to wear what you want to wear and be who you want to be," she says.
Ware's work is almost as she envisioned it years ago as an elementary education major at Western Michigan University. It's just that her classroom is a little unconventional.
"It brings together every experience I've had in a really neat package," she says, dating back to when she was a 4-year-old getting her first sewing lessons from her mother to her college years studying teaching to her early professional life working in youth-related programming at nonprofits.
A home away from home
A Muskegon native, Ware has fond memories of moving to WMU in the 1990s, a transition that was scary for the first-generation college student but long anticipated.
"Growing up in a small town in Michigan was kind of hard. I always felt different ... I was just never comfortable being myself," she says.
High school being a realm where a quirky style and uniqueness can be woefully underappreciated, Ware remembers thinking, "I can't wait to get out of high school. In college, you get to be yourself."
And that's exactly what happened.
"I came to the campus and it was, of course, gorgeous and had really awesome support services for students. I felt instantly comfortable and at home."
In 2001, she completed the elementary education program on a full academic scholarship and then earned a master's degree in public administration as a Thurgood Marshall fellow, also at WMU. In the decade that followed, she worked in the nonprofit sector for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Forbes Funds, and the Girl Scouts in New York.
Pursuing her passion
Relocating to the Big Apple in 2006 turned out to be more momentous than she had imagined. The Girl Scouts' national office happens to be in Manhattan on the edge of the garment district. And at that time, New York Fashion Week was in Bryant Park, a four-minute walk from her job.
More than just geographically, Ware found herself in one of the fashion capitals of the world, an environment that intensified her lifelong love for clothing design.
"I was so inspired and almost overwhelmed on a daily basis," Ware says.
She eventually moved from fashion industry fan to moonlighting at something more formal, starting a fashion blog called Creative Cookie. Through connections, one of her big breaks as a blogger came with an invitation to Fashion Week.
"I kind of networked my way in," she says. "I learned the ropes enough to get invited. The next year, I got press credentials."
After almost three years blogging, Ware tailored herself a new future and turned her pastime into a full-time business venture. Today, she teaches sewing and clothing design at Creative Cookie studio and also at a charter school in the Bronx, where she incorporates math, writing and fashion history lessons for her students.
But don't envision that section on sewing you had in "home ec" class in which everyone learned to assemble an animal-shaped pillow.
"I don't like a cookie-cutter approach to fashion," Ware explains. "In my classes, I have the girls do what they want to do once they learn the basics. "
While one of her pupils at Creative Cookie may make dresses, another pursues designing a line of clothes.
"Everyone is doing something different. It speaks more to an individual style, and it's more exciting for the girls to do something that's them," she says.
Exploring new ventures
In 2012, Ware again let her creative inclinations lead to an exciting new venture. After searching for reference materials that would teach sewing to tweens and coming up empty-handed at local bookstores, she decided to write something of her own.
"Sew Fab" was published by Laurence King of London in 2015, and released in Canada, United Kingdom and the United States.
In addition to sewing projects with step-by-step instructions, the book offers tips from the practical to the inspirational, such as, "Pins keep your fabric from moving when you sew" and "The most important fashion accessory is being yourself and feeling confident."
Ware's second Laurence King title is "My Fab Fashion Style File," published in early 2016.
"I hope that by inspiring the next generation, fashion will have a more exciting future. I just want girls to feel good about themselves," she says.
Read more alumni profiles and features such as expert insights and classnotes in the WMU Magazine, online at wmich.edu/magazine.