Read an Excerpt
1: Big Dreams
From the time she was old enough to hold her first pair of scissors in kindergarten, Mickey Williams knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. Way before she could even read, she and her mom pored over issues of Vogue, Elle, and InStyle together, tearing out pages of their favorite couture looks. Not many little girls knew who Coco Chanel was, but Mickey considered the fashion icon her idol and inspiration-not to mention Donatella Versace, Miuccia Prada, and Stella McCartney.
"What do you think?" she asked her mom. It was her sixth birthday, and she was giving one of her presents-Pink and Pretty Barbie-an extreme makeover.
She held up the doll that she'd wrapped head to toe in tinfoil and stickers. She'd braided its hair into an intricate updo and topped it off with a red-pen cap.
Her mom studied the outfit. She was always one hundred percent honest with her.
"I think it's a bit avant-garde," her mom replied. "A little edgy for Barbie. But that said...I like it. It's very Alexander McQueen."
Mickey nodded. "I was trying to dress her for a runway show in outer space."
"Aha," her mom replied thoughtfully. "Then I'd say that look fits the bill."
Mickey smiled. Her friends in first grade all thought she was crazy for chopping off her dolls' hair and coloring it with neon-green highlighter markers. They were grossed out when she replaced each doll's elegant evening gown with scraps of old clothing. But who wanted her Barbie to look like a clone of thousands of others on the toy store shelf? Mickey wanted all her dolls to be individuals in one-of-a-kind outfits. She could always find tons of fabric scraps at the Sunday flea market-all sorts of velvets, satins, plaids, and brocades in every color of the rainbow. For five dollars, she could take home a whole bag full! She and her mom loved hunting for treasures among the rows of cluttered booths.
"Do you like this?" her mom asked one Sunday as they roamed through the stalls of treasures. She held up a brooch shaped like a peacock that was missing a few blue stones and attached it to the lapel of her denim jacket. "If you don't get too close, you don't even notice."
Mickey examined the pin with a critical eye. It made her mom's blue eyes pop, but it was kind of old-fashioned looking-what Vogue would call "so yesterday."
"Pass," she said, and picked up another pin-this one a dazzling emerald-green clover made of Swarovski crystals. "This looks so pretty with your red hair. And four-leaf clovers are lucky." It was only five dollars-a steal!
"I love it," her mom said, turning to the vendor. She hugged Mickey. "What would I do without you, Mickey Mouse?"
But Mickey's classmates were not quite as appreciative of her talents. In second grade, when she offered to give her friend Ally's doll a makeover, she never expected the little girl to burst into tears.
"You ruined my princess!" she wailed on a playdate. "I'm telling!"
Mickey examined her handiwork: Cinderella clearly needed a new look, so she'd given it to her. She combed her long blond hair out of its updo and gave it a swingy shoulder-length cut that resembled hers. Then she highlighted it with an orange marker. Finally, she taped on a black felt miniskirt and a red, plaid strapless top.
"I think she looks pretty," she said, trying to stop Ally's bawling. "She could be on a magazine cover now."
Ally wasn't buying it. "I want my mommy!" she screamed, until Mickey's mom came running in and calmed her down with the promise of a glass of chocolate milk.
"Mickey, seriously?" her mom whispered to her. "Now I'm going to have to go buy Ally a new Cinderella doll-and I barely have enough money to pay the rent this month!"
Mickey felt awful. She knew how hard her mom worked behind the makeup counter at Wanamaker's Department Store-sometimes seven days a week, from opening till closing.
"I'll pay for it," Mickey promised her. "I have money saved up in my piggy bank that Aunt Olive gave me for my birthday."
Her mom shook her head. "Honey, I know you were just playing, but you have to use your head." She ruffled Mickey's blond curls. "If something doesn't belong to you, please don't give it a fashion makeover."
It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last time that Mickey got in trouble for "redesigning." In fourth-grade home ec class, the assignment was to sew a simple skirt to wear for the school's spring festival. Most girls chose a pretty pastel fabric: pink, baby blue, or lavender in tiny floral prints. Mickey's skirt was...different.
"Oh my!" Ms. Farrell gasped when Mickey walked into the classroom modeling it. She'd found a shiny brown python pleather and trimmed it with perfect tiny green stitches around the hemline.
"Is it supposed to be a witch's costume?" Ally asked.
"No, it's supposed to be Mother Nature," Mickey insisted. "It's earthy."
Ms. Farrell didn't know what to say. "It's...very...unique," she stammered. "Maybe we can put it up on display, and you can make another skirt that's less, well, dramatic."
But Mickey was determined. "No, I'm wearing the skirt I made. I'm not going to make one that looks like everyone else's."
So when they stood on the auditorium stage and sang, "A Tisket, A Tasket, I Made a May Basket," she stuck out like a sore thumb. It wasn't that she wanted to. It was simply that she had to be herself.
• • •
Her art teacher Mrs. Archer was one of the few people who actually "got" her. Her BFF Annabelle tried-they'd lived in the same apartment building in Philadelphia since they were toddlers-but she didn't quite understand why Mickey was so driven. Or why fashion rules were meant to be broken.
In the middle of fifth grade, her teacher handed her a brochure for the Fashion Academy of Brooklyn (FAB for short). "Have you heard of it?" Mrs. Archer asked her.
Mickey had not just heard of it, she'd dreamed about it. It was simply the best middle school in the country for kids who wanted to become fashion designers.
"I know it's in New York, but I also know how much fashion design means to you," Mrs. Archer told her. "Maybe if you talk it over with your mom?"
Mickey knew better than to open that can of worms. There was no way her mom would agree to sending her to FAB, unless...
She filled out the application and checked the box requesting a scholarship. Then she attached copies of her designs and snapped pictures of Annabelle modeling them.
"Try and look fierce," she instructed her bestie. "Put your hand on your hip, look deeply into the camera, and tilt your head to the side." She tucked a stray strand of Annabelle's long, wavy, dark-brown hair behind her ear. "Could you try and not look so awkward?"
"I feel ridiculous," Annabelle replied, trying to balance the hat Mickey had designed-a lopsided saucer-and still keep her stare from wavering. "And my skirt is pinching."
Mickey made a few adjustments to the black pleather mini and made sure that the gray tweed moto jacket sat perfectly on her friend's shoulders. "Fit is everything," she explained. "Tailoring can make or break a design."
"Uh-huh," Annabelle said, stifling a yawn. "Mick, we've been at this for hours. How many more outfits do I have to put on?"
When Mickey was done shooting four more looks, she placed all the materials in the envelope and scribbled her mom's name at the bottom of the application. The following day, she handed it back to her teacher to mail.
"Oh! I'm so glad your mother decided to let you try out!" Mrs. Archer said.
"Well, she said I could give it a shot," Mickey lied. "I mean, the chances are pretty slim, right?"
And that was that. She practically forgot about FAB, until a large, white envelope arrived in the mail four months later, shortly before elementary school graduation.
"What is this?" her mom asked, examining it.
Mickey snatched it out of her hand and tore into the envelope. Inside was a course catalog, a financial aid package, and a letter that read, "Congratulations! Welcome to FAB!"
"No way!" Mickey screamed. "I don't believe it!"
Her mom read over her shoulder. "Neither do I. Mickey, what did you do?"
She was too excited to cover her tracks. "I mailed in the application. I kinda signed your name and told my teacher you were cool with it. Mom, do you realize what this means?"
"Yes. That my daughter forged my name and lied to her teacher and to her mother. Mackenzie Elizabeth Williams, I thought we never lied to each other."
"This wasn't a lie-because I didn't know they would give me a scholarship. It was kind of a wish that I wasn't planning to mention unless it came true."
Her mother shook her head. "Mickey, we can't just up and move to New York," she said. "Even if I could get another job there, we don't have a place to live or money to afford an apartment in the city. I can barely pay our rent now, and New York is twice as expensive."
"I know-which is why I was hoping you'd call Aunt Olive and ask her if I could come stay with her?"
That last suggestion pushed her mom over the edge. She was now pacing the floor, waving her hands in the air, and yelling. "Olive? You want me to call my sister-whom I barely speak to-and ask her if she'll take you in for the next three years? And you want me to send my only daughter to live three hundred miles away?"
Mickey nodded. "In a nutshell-yes."
"This is ridiculous. You're going to write a very nice letter to the admissions people at FAB and say thanks but no thanks."
Mickey felt her heart sink. "Mom, I know it's a long way away from Philly, but it's all I've ever wanted."
"You can still be a fashion designer when you grow up," her mother insisted, "without picking up and moving to a strange city."
"It's not strange. It's New York. I love New York!" Mickey replied.
"You love going ice-skating at Rockefeller Center at Christmas and shopping for fabric in the garment district," her mom said. "You don't have any idea what it's like to live there. Besides, all your friends are here. I'm here."
Her mom suddenly got quiet, and Mickey sensed that was what this argument was all about. Ten years ago, when she was just a baby, her dad had left as well. All she and her mom had was each other.
"I'll come home on the train on weekends," Mickey promised. "And I'll Skype every night. It'll be like I never left. Mrs. Archer says they only take ‘the crème de la crème' of design students. I can't say no!"
"Let me think about it," her mom said, sighing. "And let me speak to Aunt Olive." She made a face. "That should be fun..."
Mickey hugged her. "You're the best mom in the whole world."
"Or the biggest pushover," her mom grumbled. "I'm not saying yes. I'm saying I'll think about it."