Charlene Parsons
“Leadership is not about you; it’s about investing in the growth of others.” - Ken Blanchard
photography: larry barnard Hair and Make-up: Silvana Avignoni production assistants: natasha tabunova and alejandro bárzaga special thanks: nick moNcada, the miami biltmore hotel, Gustavo Cadile, Luis Aponte, Nestor Camacho, Oscar Lopez, Stephanie Dickstein And all the MIU students and graduates who shared with us how Mrs. Parsons influenced them.
There are those who lead. There are others who empower. Some inspire. These role models are regular people who, at their core, lie a never-ending source of connection, understanding, and compassion that sets them apart from the rest of the mortals. When you woke up and got ready to take on your day this morning, did you consider the possibility that it might be the first morning of the rest of your life? Probably not. That morning back in 2018, I didn’t either. I was scheduled to have a 30-minute interview with the head of the Fashion Department at the Miami International University of Art and Design (MIU) for a position as an adjunct faculty member. I don’t remember driving over there, what I was wearing, or even waiting for that meeting. But I will never forget every second of my first encounter with her because meeting Mrs. Parsons changed my life. As soon as I entered her office, I immediately felt at home because it was a place of a woman who undeniably loved fashion. The Chanel and Vogue books behind her desk, the runway pictures on the wall, and the papers and sketches scattered over her desk turned that space into heaven. I remember seeing her beautiful smile and realizing how she looked straight at me with her piercing blue eyes. I recall not resisting feeling captivated by that beautiful woman who exuded sophistication with an effortless Carolina-Herrera vibe. I sat down and saw my resume on top of her keyboard, and with her first comment, I realized that she had read it before meeting with me. I had an instant feeling that I was sitting across a woman who would not speak unless she knew what she was talking about. I was right.
Jacket: Las Sureñas

“If I were to describe Mrs. Parsons in one sentence, I would say that she is someone who truly cares. She always had these gestures; at the end of fashion shows she would put a handwritten note inside my mailbox thanking me for my work with the students. She never forgot a birthday, she never forgot a Christmas time, she always made sure she made you feel that she cared, because she genuinely did. We used to go to New York for the CFDA meetings with all the universities of the United States; like FIT, Parsons, and Drexel… and being with her you could see that all these people knew who she was, and when you got there, she would introduce you to everybody, and she would speak highly of you to them that is the kind of person she is… Generous and caring.”

It is April 14th, 2022, and today is a big day for all of us that are part of MIU. The University is holding its yearly Style Runway Show, a very important event for everyone that is part of the Fashion Department at the school. I am sitting across from Mrs. Parsons at fashion designer Gustavo Cadile’s Miami apartment. A fantastic mural decorates the wall behind me, and a breathtaking view of the Miami Bay area provides the perfect setting for a time to chat. “How are you, Mrs. Parsons?” “I am doing great, dear… I just renewed my driver’s license. What an experience! They ask you for a bunch of documents, and you have to have everything original, and I don’t have anything, so this guy says to me, ‘do you have your original marriage license?’ and I say, ‘no, it is in the Smithsonian’!”. I could not help my burst of laughter. I am sitting across a fashion industry legend and renowned educator, and she is almost oblivious of all that she has achieved and all the lives she has changed throughout the years. Charlene Parsons was born and raised in Cumberland, a little town in Maryland, located 90 miles from DC and 90 miles from Pittsburg. She moved to Florida following her husband, who got a scholarship to play football at the University of Miami. “I had taken fashion merchandising classes in Baltimore, Maryland, and when I moved here, I started working at Burdines and was with Burdines until I went with the school.” “How did you end up in Burdines?” “I moved to Coral Gables, and don’t forget; I was from a tiny town. So, one day I got on the bus looking for Jordan Marsh, but the bus dropped me off at Burdines, so I had to work there because that was the only place I could find that I could get from Coral Gables! As corny as it sounds, this is the absolute truth. So, I stayed there, became a model, worked in the fashion department, and then moved to the school.” “Why fashion?” “Why fashion? Well, I studied to be a dental hygienist, got tired of looking into mouths, and decided to smile on my own and do fashion! I always loved fashion.”
Shirt: Lisu Vega / Jacket: Julian Chang / Sunglasses: Fendi

“Mrs. Parsons is a rock in the Florida fashion industry. It is so much fun to go out with her because she gets stopped everywhere, she is like a celebrity. Even with the mask on she could not hide… And everyone that stops her, or calls her, she remembers. She will remember you, your name, and your story. It is remarkable”

Mrs. Parsons built the Fashion Department at MIU from the ground up. Miami International University, previously known as the International Fine Arts College, was funded by Edward and Anna Lee Porter in 1965. In the beginning, the school offered Fashion Merchandising, and in the year 1988, they opened the Fashion Design major. Her leadership and work at the University have spanned for decades and have influenced countless students who are now successful players in the fashion industry. Mrs. Parsons is the wind behind the wings of many fashion designers who have dressed numerous celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Eva Longoria, and Laverne Cox. Her force and determination paved the way for many generations of designers, and everything she did, fought for, and built, was all for the students and with them in mind. “In those years, I was so fortunate… when I needed a scholarship, I would knock on Edward Porter’s door and say ‘Edward, I have somebody in my office that is so talented, I have to have a scholarship’, and he would say ‘all right, I think I gave you a few already’ and I would say ‘uhm… not that many!’… ‘And you know what?” she continues, “all the kids he gave scholarships to were all successful, and they all remembered him. All those kids were incredible. And I still hear from them; I still keep in touch with so many of them”.
Jacket: PABLO BORGES / Neckplate: Lisu Vega / BroocH: Stash Wardrobe by Danny Santiago / Sunglasses: Gucci

“I think that what we see is a reflection of the industry and a reflection of our times… And also, I see that a lot of fashion isn’t very glamorous anymore like it used to be… I think the ‘celebritism’ – if that is a word – has taken over”

You can see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice; she lights up when she talks about her students. Mrs. Parsons is an institution in her own right, having influenced and encouraged countless souls throughout the years. She mastered the art of moving human intellects and emotions in the most elegant and effortless way. She has the incredible ability to spot strengths and bases the development of young talent through it. With every step she makes, she gives people the incentive to succeed, and with every word she speaks, she gives them the strength to overcome any obstacles. She is the embodiment of a remarkable woman. The delicacy of Mrs. Parsons’ voice is the perfect match to the beauty of her face. No wonder she was a model for Burdines for so long. “Burdines hired me first as a model because in those days, all stores had their own models and their own identity; it was how things were done. Working as a model, I started helping the Fashion Director with all the fashion coordinating and so I began working under her”. Mrs. Parsons modeled, assisted in coordinating all things fashion for Burdines, and became a speaker for the shows, specializing in fashion trends. “How did you get involved in trends?” “Well, I loved tracking trends and looking at what people had on… I mean, even today, when we were downstairs, I thought, ‘to live here, you must have a dog so you can walk the dog and look at what everyone is wearing!’… I also read a lot, I read every day, and if I went to New York, or Paris, or whatever, I walked and walked, looking at trends and what was in the stores”. Her pores exude the passion she feels for this trade. “And then you can almost judge, like the other night watching the Oscars, everybody had red on, so you knew red was going to be one of the biggest things coming in the stores; there were a couple of other colors as well but red… everybody that came up you would go ‘here comes another red dress’ (laughs)… I used to have the students watch all those award shows and ask them what looks they liked and what designers were worn”.
Jacket: Julian Chang / Necklace: Lisu Vega / Sunglasses: Fendi

“Mrs. Parsons is someone who spent decades motivating students and making them fall in love with fashion. She succeeded in making them understand that fashion requires commitment, structure, work, training, dedication, and high standards. It is our responsibility to follow what she started, to continue her work and legacy. With each experience and success, I still think, ‘When I tell this to Mrs. Parsons, I know she will be proud of me.’ I want to make her proud. We all do.”

Becoming Burdines’ Fashion Director’s right hand opened the door to her life as an educator. Her boss was friends with Mr. and Mrs. Porter, who founded and owned the school. The Porters fell in love with Mrs. Parsons and her vast knowledge of the fashion business and industry, so they offered her a position. She began working at the University taking over the Fashion Merchandising program and making it one of the best in the country. When the school opened the Fashion Design Major, it became the molding force of many successful fashion designers. “When I first started, the Porters were very trusting people, and they gave me complete freedom to manage the fashion program. They told me, ‘Hire the best and you will be fine,’ and so that is what I did… we always had and still have the best teachers”. She beams with pride when she talks about the faculty at the University. I have witnessed firsthand how she was always available to her staff and trusted the people she hired. Always direct and to the point, she is a person who knows how to make her point across without talking down to anyone. She is a true team player, a generous leader, and loyal beyond words. “As a person who worked with you, that is something that stuck with me because you don’t see that amount of trust.” “I guess no,” she said, looking away “you don’t see it, but as I said, I took it from the Porters; they were incredible. Phenomenal. They believed in the students so much, they believed in the students traveling because they thought that it was part of growing up, part of learning, and part of the experience. They were remarkable”. Mrs. Parsons took on the fashion program at the University while she continued modeling for important fashion brands. “For several years, I still freelanced and did fashion shows; I walked the Christian Dior shows in the US. One day I got a call from Paris saying, ‘there is a contest, and we would like to know if your students would be interested’, and I said, ‘of course!’… It was the Christian Dior people that put the school’s name in”. That simple phone call was the beginning of what many MIU graduates call ‘the best experience of their life’. “For the first five or eight years, we were the only school along with FIT to represent the US in Paris. Seventeen countries competed, and each country sent ten students, and they had some of the top designers of Paris judging. After a while, the other schools caught on and wanted to be a part of it, so we had to have a contest in the US first, and the winners of that contest would fly to Paris and compete in the show that would take place in the Louvre… even though we were always in there I still didn’t like it (laughs)… I don’t like to share; I was an only child (laughs)”. And she adds, “We made it every year. We traveled for 24 years. So, a lot of our top designers went, a lot of teachers went, it was great, you can imagine. It was incredible”.
Jacket: Shantall Lacayo / Brooch: Stash Wardrobe by Danny Santiago / Sunglasses: Fendi

“I am proud to have been able to introduce our students to well-known designers. I am most proud of having said ‘yes’ so many times, even when I didn’t know how we would be able to do what I was saying yes to.”

Mrs. Parsons thinks a good education should provide students with two elements: knowledge and experience. She believed and took pride in bringing instructors who knew their craft and the industry so that they could pass all their theoretical and practical knowledge to the next generation of fashion professionals. She made sure the school organized fashion shows to showcase the work of its students, even though the shows were not a part of the curriculum. That is how the yearly Style Runway Show came to life. She arranged everything regarding the show through the contacts she had in the industry and took it upon her to put together every piece of the fashion show puzzle; making sure she organized a professional event that would provide the students the thrill, exposure, and experience of a real runway show. Mrs. Parsons thrived putting these events together, choosing the music, assisting with fittings, and making sure she cast the right models for each look. And the day of the fashion show, she was the first to arrive and was not afraid of getting down and getting dirty to get things done. “What would you have today in place of the traveling you used to have? How would you create something similar that could offer such a big opportunity and such a huge experience to the students?” “I think the internships are the ones that can do that because when students go out into the industry, that gives them encouragement and confidence. We started having internships long ago, and we still have them today. They are so important because they get to see the real world, good or bad… it is not always fun and beautiful, but they get to see it. They see it all”. “Do you think fashion education is hurting just like the fashion industry is hurting because of fast fashion?” “I think for sure. I think that what we see is a reflection of the industry and a reflection of our times… And also, I see that a lot of fashion isn’t very glamorous anymore like it used to be… I think the ‘celebritism’ – if that is a word – has taken over. Nowadays if you can get a celebrity to walk down the runway is like, ‘Oh my God!’ were before, none of the buyers would care who was walking the runway, they were there to buy the clothes … I would like to see more focus on the quality instead of on the quantity”. “Where do you think this change should start?” “That is a good question. I think the designers themselves are going to have to change the way they go back and almost regulate fashion”. “When teachers, students, or graduates talk about you, they mention how inspired they were and still are by you. What do you think you did to inspire them?” “Well, I think for the students, it was to back them up and give them encouragement. Just to give them that encouragement or that confidence. And then for the teachers, I loved just bouncing ideas off of them, or have them come to me and say, ‘Oh my God, you should see what this student is doing…’ (looking at me, she says) You did that all the time.” “What do you think the other people think about Mrs. Parsons?” “I don’t really know … But like (looking at me again), I remember when I met you, and you told me what you wanted to do and your enthusiasm, just the way you wanted to show me the things you’ve done, I mean, I thought that was incredible, you know?”
Scarf: BÁrzaga / Dress and belt: Sebastian Grey

“I always hear from everyone ‘be here now, be present, in the moment’. I heard people saying it, but I have never experienced someone doing it in the way she does it. When you talk to Mrs. Parsons, she is present; she is with you, and she will listen. It can be the craziest day, but if you need her to listen to you, she will because she wants to be present. Because she cares for what you have to say. She genuinely cares.”

It is funny to see how I want her to talk about herself, and instead, she chooses to talk about me. And she does this not only because she is absolutely humble but also because she is always focusing on others and not on herself. To her, others are incredible. She has the ability to see how great someone already is, and she has the unique superpower to see the hidden greatness that has yet to blossom. “How would you define a good leader?” “I think the encouragement….” “Do you consider yourself a leader?” “I don’t know… I knew I had to be a leader. I don’t know if I was good one or not (laughs). I just knew I had to be a leader.” “What are you most proud of?” “Well… I am happy and proud that we got chosen as one of the top seven fashion schools. Because that took quite a lot. I am proud of all the traveling we did with the students and teachers. I feel very proud of being part of the Hispanic Designers – although I don’t speak a word of it – (laughs) I was part of it with Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera… I am proud to have been able to introduce our students to well-known designers. I am most proud of having said ‘yes’ so many times, even when I didn’t know how we would be able to do what I was saying yes to. I am very proud of that”. She pauses for a second, and starts smiling as she remembers, and continues, “Thank God people knew of us, and then, they would call and say, ‘do you want to do this?’ and my answer was always ‘yes’, while I was already trying to figure out how we were going to do it (laughs). Like the chocolate contest, making clothes out of chocolate, we did that! And then Goya, which we are still doing. They came to us because they saw what we had done with the chocolate on TV, so they wanted to do something similar. One thing just kind of trickled to the next; we just said ‘yes’ a lot! I remember with Goya, that was big and tough, but they loved it!... We had rice and beans all over the floor! You couldn’t walk anywhere!” (laughs)
Coat: Mena Lombard / Sunglasses: Gucci
Whoever knows Mrs. Parsons can vouch that she is humble to a fault. She is quick to see the accomplishments of others and is so proud of what those around her are able to achieve. But when it comes to her own achievements, she does not focus on them. Instead, she focuses on being grateful for having the opportunity and thankful for the help she got along the way. “I was fortunate… I had so many people helping me; I never did it alone. I loved it!” she said with a warm smile. “What is next for Mrs. Parsons?” “Well… working with my grandchildren, I have three. I also said that at one point I was going to write a book… we’ll see. And then talking to the graduates, keeping in touch”. “So, in a way, you want to continue the legacy.” “I want to continue. I want to help the graduates, hear from them, or let them bounce ideas off of me. Keep in touch with the teachers, which I do, so I think that’s it. I’ve enjoyed this so much. Of course, there were days where you would tear your hair off, but all we did was always for the students, so I always enjoyed it very much”. She pauses and looks at me with her piercing blue eyes, and smiling says, “So, let’s go to the show. It will be my first show in forty-plus years, the first that I am going as a guest, not as an organizer, can you imagine?” It is hard to imagine. Mrs. Parsons’ influence and presence is still very much present in every corner of the University. She is not only the creator of MIU’s Fashion Department; she is still the heart of it because we are all working hard to continue what she started. We all want to make her proud. We want to honor every time she was supportive, understanding, loyal, pushy, witty, strict, and compassionate. Because truth be told, we would do anything for her. She inspires that. Like I said before, there are those who lead. There are others who empower. Some inspire. And a very few of them do it all. Like Mrs. Parsons.


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