He’s just 19, but already Kevin Carter has hit many of the milestones fashion designers work for decades to achieve – seeing his work in museum exhibits, local fashion shows and even a solo fashion show at the Mint Museum.
In a field where getting noticed is everything, his determination opens doors.
Invite him for an interview and photo shoot at the newspaper, and Carter asks if he can bring a model, a hair and makeup stylist and a videographer to shoot footage for a possible TV documentary.
He still has the baby face of a teenager, but when he talks about his fashion line, KevinVain, a fierce determination takes hold. Turn the camera on him, and his cheery expression changes to a steely countenance.
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“Whether it’s fashion or music, you have to create a persona for yourself,” he says.
His designs are couture – bold silhouettes, exaggerated shapes, heavy beading, draping and painstaking pleating.
“What I consider simple,” he says, “others consider extreme.”
He says he picked the name KevinVain for his line because it represents an alter ego. “Kevin (Carter) doesn’t care about materialistic things,” he says. “KevinVain is into flashy clothes, fashion design and the shock factor.”
It was musical theater that enchanted Carter as a child. Theater, piano and chorus were his passions as a middle schooler at Northwest School of the Arts.
“My friends always called me a ‘Glee’ character,” he says.
His family moved shortly before ninth grade, and he enrolled in West Mecklenburg High School, where he quickly realized that clothes dictated status in a way he never saw at Northwest School of the Arts.
“I saw how much your clothing influenced your social scene at school – if you didn’t have on the right (Nike Air) Jordans, nobody would sit with you at lunch,” Carter says. “It made me want to do research on clothing lines. I started reading Vogue and Vanity Fair and signed up for apparel classes.”
He enrolled in fashion merchandising classes with West Mecklenburg apparel teacher Tammy Lane Reynolds. After school, he got a lift from a friend and rode a public bus four days a week to Mary Jo’s Cloth Shop in Gastonia for free sewing lessons.
As his sewing skills grew, he began repurposing thrift store finds, turning them into edgy statement pieces such as jackets covered in Lego bricks. At school some kids sneered, he says, but others asked him to create similar looks for them.
Some outfits were so extreme (lace veils with long trains, or shirts covered in mosaic glass), administrators deemed them a safety hazard and made him change.
“There was no box for Kevin. He was completely his own person,” Reynolds recalls. “There was never a day when I saw him in anything that would be typical standard teenager clothing. There would be days when he would have on these big Frankenstein-type boots that he had outfitted with silver spikes.”
She remembers Carter being sent to in-school suspension because of his dress code violations.
“Kevin had a high level of confidence in who he was, and he didn’t let what others thought about him affect his choice of what he chose to wear to school,” she says.
He transferred to Hopewell High his senior year, and he says administrators there were stricter about the dress policy. He says he received a 10-day suspension for wearing gloves he embellished with nails.
As different as he looked from all the other students, Carter says that is how he felt most comfortable. “I stayed true to my own craft. I never betrayed my creativity,” he says. “I stuck with it and ultimately, it benefited me.”
‘Above and beyond’
As a high school sophomore in 2010, Carter got what he describes as his first big break when his couture dress collection was featured in a Charlotte Fashion Week fashion show.
Fashion curators at the Mint Museum asked him to contribute two beaded dresses for an 2012-2013 exhibit titled “And the Bead Goes On.” Then the museum asked Carter to hold a fashion show in January 2013 at Mint Randolph.
So many people came that night, the museum added a second showing in the 170-seat round auditorium.
Kathleen Collier, the Mint’s Learning And Engagement Programs coordinator, recalls wondering what it would be like having a teenager responsible for putting his own fashion show together.
“Going into the process, I was a little curious because he was just 18,” Collier says. “But he really went above and beyond and made it truly an event,” composing original music to accompany the show, and assembling a team to be sure the models, makeup, hair and ambiance were just right.
Carter participated in other local fashion shows, such as Charlotte’s Passport for Fashion, and was featured in regional magazine spreads.
Cigi Guz, a Charlotte fashion designer who had retail fashion businesses and is now pursuing TV and film costuming, says it is Carter’s “boldness” that impressed her when they met about two years ago at a fashion show.
“He takes it to a place that’s thought provoking. He taps into people’s mind through sheer boldness,” she says. “He happens to speak in the form of clothing. That’s his language.”
Guz says she sees big potential in Carter. “That’s the most magical part of all – that he’s so young.”
‘An eye for fashion’
Carter suffered a serious back injury in a car accident last winter, and says he feels he is just now regaining momentum.
He is back at work, living at his parents’ home and designing dresses for clients and future fashion shows, hoping for another break.
On his Facebook page he displays images of dresses he is working on, labor-intensive gowns that entail days of finger-numbing pleating and beading by hand.
He says his parents have sacrificed financially to support his craft, selling possessions and tightening their budgets to help their son buy fabric, sewing machines, hire models and hair and makeup artists, and pay for inclusion in certain fashion shows. Carter has also held jobs at retail stores and call centers.
His dad, Kevin Carter Sr., owns Masters Touch Barber & Styling Salon on West Boulevard. He says he believes his son got his roots in fashion from spending time at the salon and watching his father style models’ hair at fashion shows.
“As a kid in the salon, he would have an eye for hairstyles. He would tinker with certain mannequins and do things with those,” he says. “Hair, fashion, it’s all related. Kevin just always had a eye for style and things that are beautiful.”
The younger Carter says he knows he’ll eventually have to move to a fashion mecca such as New York or Los Angeles. But he hopes to see how far he can go in Charlotte.
“I hate when people say they have to move away because Charlotte is so behind” in fashion, he says. “I’m just another fish in the sea in New York. But here, there is shock value in what I do.”
Reynolds says she won’t be surprised to one day see KevinVain gowns on the A-list.
“I don’t see his apparel items being mass produced or in your department stores. I see him designing high fashion trends that you see on top celebrities that are going to the Emmys or the Oscars,” Reynolds says.
“I see Julia Roberts saying, ‘My gown is designed by KevinVain.’ ”