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In the 1940s, She Dropped Out of Fashion School. In the 2020s, Her Designs Made the Runway.

At over 238 billion views (and counting), #Fashion has arguably become one of TikTok’s most popular and ubiquitous tags, even the primary destination where users can scout for new outfit ideas and styling techniques — if not articles of clothing shilled by creators outright.

TikTok’s primary user demographic skews heavily towards Generations Z and Alpha, but the app, and the #Fashion tag by proxy, have recently experienced a boom (pun somewhat intended) of influencers who belong to the Generation X and Baby Boomer cohorts. Those individuals are often affectionately referred to by the portmanteau granfluencers, a play on combining the words “grandparent” and “influencer”.

The grandmother of Chicago-based content creator Julia does not necessarily fit the bill of a “granfluencer” — for one, she keeps a very low profile and opts not to show her face in any of the videos Julia features her in. She still, however, has managed to become a cornerstone of Julia’s account and amass quite a fascinated fanbase, and it’s all thanks to the unconventional way she’s fulfilled what was once perceived as a long-lost dream: Having her fashion sketches and designs come to life nearly eight decades after she dropped out of fashion school.

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Julia, who does not give out her last name publicly on the advice of law enforcement, says it all started with a situation that has ironically become a catalyst behind so many social media juggernauts’ careers: COVID-19 lockdowns.

“[While in lockdown], my grandmother was going through her house, because what else is there to do?” Julia tells Hollywood.com in an exclusive interview. “And she uncovered some of her sketches from when she was in fashion school.”

Before that, Julia had only heard about her grandmother’s fashion school endeavors in passing, and had never really been exposed to her grandmother’s artistry outside of an occasional dining nook doodle. This made the unveiling of grandma’s sketches, along with a plot she’d hatched for them, quite the mind-blowing surprise for Julia.

“She was kind of gloating about that,” Julia recalls, “Because she is up there in years, she was like ‘when I pass on, I would love for these to be displayed at my funeral or sent out to magazines so that people know that I did this, that this was something in my life that was really important to me at that time’.”

Julia did not know how to contact or reach out to magazines, but there was something she proved very good at: Making a social media post despite having no experience in content creation aside from maintaining a private, personal Instagram account. She got to work that same night (“[because] why would we wait until her funeral for her to get recognition for this?”), posting a simple TikTok slideshow of some of her grandmother’s sketches, along with a blurb of her grandmother’s backstory as a woman who went to fashion school in the 1940s and ended up dropping out to care for some older members of her family that had developed health complications–and also to start a family of her own, as women were highly dissuaded from pursuing those sorts of career paths at the time.

The next day she woke up to over three million views of the slideshow accompanied by a myriad of comments pleading for a real-life recreation of the sketches. Once again, Julia did not have any fashion design or sewing experience. But once again, she knew how to use Google and YouTube, and she had a background in upcycling and thrifting, the latter  a skill she says she naturally developed out of financial necessity rather than fashion-forward vanity. Now, almost two years into her quest to honor her grandmother’s old dream, Julia is capable each month of bringing approximately two of grandma’s sketches to life, which she sews based on her own body measurements and showcases on TikTok by wearing the outfits herself, often accompanied by her grandmother’s commentary and critiques.

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“She’s just being a proud grandma at that moment,” Julia explains. “She is also well aware of my skill level. … It would be different if she saw these kinds of designs on a professional runway, and I’m sure she would have a different reaction. She’s critiquing me at the skill level she knows I’m at.”

Julia proudly modeling one of her creations for Grandma @boringbb | Tiktok

Pride appears to be a sentiment that is also shared by Julia’s (and her grandmother’s) audience base, considering that she still receives pleas in the form of comments and direct messages to make some of her grandmother’s designs available for purchase on a larger scale as a ready-to-wear collection — pleas in the process of partially materializing by way of an upcoming collaboration with Jillian Von Beyer of the sustainable swimwear line JVBSwim.

“Grandma [already] had a few different swimwear designs, but she and I wanted to create some new designs for this collection,” Julia says. “So, there’s one that is inspired by a ‘grandma design’ that’s more 1940s, 1950s-inspired. There will also be a bikini that I designed that’s more 1980s, and then there will be a wrap skirt that is inspired by my background in ballet and some of the creations I’ve made in the past.”

Aside from the line incorporating a mix of her own and her grandmother’s designs, part of Julia’s excitement for the collaboration springs from the prospect of a “grandma design” that people finally would be able to buy and wear. However, that same prospect might be a lot trickier to secure for other “grandma designs”, particularly her couture designs.

“I’m someone who doesn’t have a lot of money to just throw at a company,” Julia says. “I’m a content creator, but not necessarily someone who’s personally rolling in dough in my private life. So in order to get a clothing company off the ground, I would have to cut a lot of corners in terms of the quality of the items to [put] it out in a certain size range. And I just don’t want to do that. Of course one day I would love to be able to bring more ‘grandma designs’ to fruition, but right now with my budget constraints, I don’t want to cut corners just to push a product to market.”

Another thing Julia expresses concerns about is the potential for contributing to the fashion industry’s increasing carbon footprint, adding that the reason she agreed to the JVBSwim collaboration has to do with the brand’s claims that it ethically makes its products with deadstock fabric. In fact, she maintains that she typically attempts to be mindful of promoting the idea of sustainability in fashion — a medium she says is notorious for encouraging overconsumption– in more ways than one, including repurposing the fabric she uses to bring her grandmother’s sketches to life.

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Above: Two of Grandma’s fashion school sketches from the 1940s @boringbb | Tiktok

“One, it’s therapeutic,” she says. “By the time I’m done, I don’t even want to look at them. Yeah, I come down the stairs [in my videos] smiling, but inside, I’m like, ‘Oh, God, I can’t wait to get this off’. There is a therapeutic element of destroying your work and being able to start again, but it mostly is so that I can repurpose the fabric. I will oftentimes also take thrifted pieces that I find, deconstruct them by ripping their seams, and make them into something else. Then I’ll take them apart again, kind of like LEGO bricks.”

Those tuned into Julia’s platform to watch her bring these sketches — along with reused fabric, deadstock fabric, and upcycled thrifted attire – haven’t necessarily seen her grandmother beyond her occasional video appearances. During all she is strategically positioned with her back facing the camera and maintaining a low profile. This has prompted curious (albeit well-intentioned) entreaties for grandma to appear on-camera in her own designs, something Julia knows really amounts to her audience yearning for a happily-ever-after for her grandmother. But she won’t be participating in a fairytale ending of that sort.

“We have to remember that she has her own emotional and physical boundaries,” Julia says. “If you spend a lot of time around people in older generations, they sometimes can have boundaries or limitations that might not make sense to younger people, and we have to respect and be okay with that. She’s the designer. She wants her focus to be on the work. When you go to a runway show, the designer might peek out at the end kind of sheepishly and wave at the audience or something, but they usually aren’t front and center.”

If anything, according to Julia, grandma is already living her fairytale ending, having people show love for her designs on several platforms, including New York Fashion Week — a full-circle moment for a woman who never thought she’d see her designs walked down an actual fashion runway (although she had to tune in via livestream due to her age and health issues).

“That’s how grandma wants to be,” Julia says. “She wants the focus to be on her sketches. She wants the focus to be on her work. She doesn’t want it to be on her as a personality. Also, she’s up there in years, and physically getting in and out of these designs would not be enjoyable for her whatsoever … She’s very happy being the designer and not being the model.”

Julia and grandma both seem quite content with keeping a low profile, to the degree that Julia asked Hollywood.com to refer to grandma in this piece as just that — “grandma”.

“We call her grandma, and everyone online just calls her grandma,” Julia says, beaming. “Even when she calls up Papa John’s for pizza, she’ll be like, ‘Hi, it’s grandma’, and they’ll be like, ‘Okay!’”


Above and Below: Evolution of a Dress–From Grandma’s original sketch to a runway at the celebrated New York Fashion Week.



Dalia Abdelwahab is a music, entertainment and culture journalist based in the NYC Metropolitan Area. Her reporting focuses on identifying the intersections between how entertainment is produced and perceived in all its forms, and the state of our society and culture at every given moment. She also has experience with covering national news and foreign affairs.

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