There’s a golden palace built in a Spanish Renaissance style on Biscayne Bay encased with warm golden bricks and an imperial porte-cochere leading to a calm, cool entry. There are gorgeous spaces on the inside with vaulted pale vanilla ceilings, grand fireplaces, and serene gardens with verdant tropical plants providing shade and glamor It was an eminently suitable spot to host Fashion Group International’s 2023 Legacy Award for Charlene Parsons on March 5, 2023. Ms. Parsons is legendary in Miami and Florida fashion circles as an educator, mentor, and promoter of design and fine arts. It would be a platitude to mention that this recognition was well deserved. There is no doubt that Ms. Parsons earned this honor, and she received it while supported by her still adoring ex-students, co-workers, and friends, all surrounded by the beautiful interiors of this palace, also known as the Miami Woman’s Club. This historical building is one of the most elegant structures in the American Southeast, and it provided the proper backdrop for the enthusiastic fashionable crowd.
Appropriately, this building was also the original home in 1965 for the International Fine Arts College, later the Art Institute’s Miami International University of Art & Design. Ms. Parsons was the strategic heart of this original school and its later evolution. The International Fine Arts College was founded in 1965 by the generosity of Edward and Anna Lee Porter as a proprietary, coeducational art college. They intelligently asked Ms. Parsons to transform their idea into the best arts college program she could. And Ms. Parsons took them at their word and started a legacy.
Today that school grew into the Miami International University of Art & Design (MIU), which produces vibrant art in all media types, from visual, interior, film, and animation to fashion. Until recently, Ms. Parsons was the Department Chair of Fashion Design, Fashion Merchandising & Accessory Design at MIU. Tammy Apostle, couture designer and professor at MIU, was a primary driver for this event. She proudly told us, “This event had been in the works for over seven years, and it was destined to be a success because everyone who knows Mrs. Parsons had been thinking about this, honoring her as a way to thank you. Everyone who collaborated as a sponsor, committee member, or guest feels very close to her, and I am talking about many people. We were at capacity, and unfortunately, those who didn’t get the tickets immediately were left out; we had a long waiting list.”
From the beginning of her career, Ms. Parsons worked in various capacities in the fashion industry, first as a model, then organizing shows for major stores and designers. At the university, Parsons oversaw top-notch programs that allowed students to compete and thrive in a harsh industry. She was a visionary that incorporated schoolroom teaching with Miami’s fashion events and school shows and worked behind the scenes on productions for local and international designers.
Miami society is well known for its hilariously weak sense of time. Guests typically arrive 40 minutes to an hour late to any dinner, party, or event. So imagine the utter gob-smacking surprise when at 11:15 am, only 15 minutes into the celebration, the library being used for pre-brunch cocktails was already chocked with people. Upon entering the beautifully decorated room, one could already see a long, ceaseless line of penitents, all patiently waiting to admire and converse with their object of honor, Charlene Parsons. It is always a delight when you first come upon Ms. Parsons. She was dressed in an insanely chic ice-white blouse with an asymmetrical ribbon laying over her pristine ebony slacks and formal flats.
At AVESSA, we have documented the beauty and selective fashion of European “grandes dames,” and Ms. Parsons would have put them all to shame with her garment’s elegance and peaceful simplicity. What makes seeing her even more remarkable is looking at her gorgeous mischievous eyes and smile. Ms. Parsons always seems on the verge of playfully teasing someone or making a tart observation of what she sees. The line of fashionable admirers was like a flock of colorful, joyful Papagayos trembling with excitement and with an ambiance of great satisfaction to be with their idol.
Taking in the whole scene, one could immediately imagine Ms. Parsons when she first started as a young aspiring model in the 1960s. Ms. Parsons came onto the Miami scene as the rate of changing fashion trends accelerated. In that era, women who cared about clothes threw off old norms about what was proper. Art, cultural, and youth movements thrust themselves into the fashion world, radically changing what we wore and how we thought about the world around us. Burgeoning feminism was embodied first in miniskirts, which defied the femininity of the 1950s, and then with clothing designed for women in careers.
For Ms. Parsons to be a successful model in the 1960s, she would have had to be a proactive self-starter. For example, she not only would have had to apply her make-up but also lug around her deep and heavy bags of rollers, undergarments, tights, pots of make-up, sticking plasters, false eyelashes, safety pins, a sewing kit, boxes of jewelry, scarves, aspirin and, probably, a good book to forestall the boredom of waiting for her next photoshoot. Ms. Parsons would not have had an entourage or glamor squad of assistants that are more prevalent today. She would have been independent and ready for any change, leaving nothing to chance. You can see how Ms. Parsons learned from her early experiences. Today we see a woman ready for every sartorial eventuality with poise and personality that immediately catches your attention.
As cocktails were finished and guests entered the event space for brunch, a montage of images from Ms. Parson’s past success was being shown. And soon enough, we were presented with a unique video that allowed Ms. Parsons to reminisce over a book of photos. The room was silent as the celebrants leaned in and raptly listened to Ms. Parsons as she spoke about her life and fond memories. We saw her as that bon-vivant model, but we also heard about her transition into the business side of fashion when working at Burdines (now Macy’s). By her side, as he always has been, was Van Parsons, her husband of 58 years, who is just as charming as his wife. A highlight of the video was the last set of pictures that showed the couple on the day they married and a sweet photo of the two that was taken only a few months ago. Their love and support for each other have not dimmed one iota in the years since they married, it was a privilege to see them together basking in the love of the community of their friends.
Of course, as we all know, the call of teaching and nurturing talent ultimately called Ms. Parsons into greatness. Ms. 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, starting out in the same building we were having brunch in. 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.
Nestor Camacho, a coworker and personal friend, told me with great sincerity, “She is an approachable icon. Students and staff respect her but also knew she was there for them. She makes people feel heard and special, creating relationships that transcend work policies into friendships to cherish for life.” This sentiment was only echoed by Alumni, “Julian Chang,” told me, “Ms. Parsons welcomed me as if I was family; that was what was special to me; I thrived under her tutelage and warmth.” Ms. Parsons has told us how incredible she found her relationships with students, and she continues to hear from them, still keeping in touch with so many of them. We wonder if she knows there are active fan pages of her on Facebook, all reflecting the deep admiration and, frankly, the love her alumni bear for her.
Others talked of her generosity and intelligence, but one never heard a jealous or envious word. In a world of divisive beliefs and torn friendships, everyone in that room was united by their relationships with Ms. Parsons. Ashley Land Wakefield, Gemma Jordan Menendez, and Aliette Wolf sat together in gorgeous dresses, which only reemphasized how they learned their lessons from Ms. Parsons. This trio of lovely women all respectively supported Ms. Parsons as her assistant in the past. They were practically gushing in their admiration for Ms. Parsons. But one could see the absolute sincerity of these women and the honest warmth of their words and energy. Accolades continued from her fellow professionals in the fashion world, culminating with Maryanne Grisz, the President & CEO at Fashion Group International, who provided a beautiful tribute that reflected all of our feelings in the audience, “Leaders, visionaries, disrupters – they created a community, shared resources, and banded together to be an industry force, leading new conversations and embracing innovation. No one exemplifies this more than Ms. Parsons, and she has carried the Founders’ mission forward as one the most important women who have built out FGI legacy and will forever be part of our 90-year history and story.”
The public sector, represented by the Miami Downtown Authority, also wanted their voices heard as they happily gave a certificate of recognition to Ms. Parsons for all that she had done for the town. Although the crowd was energized by the words of praise from city hall, the following comments from Miami-Dade County elicited open gasps of surprise and wonder. March 5th was to be declared “Charlene Parsons’ Day” in Miami-Dade County. No one in fashion and as a leader could have deserved this honor more than Ms. Parsons.
What is remarkable about Ms. Parsons is not merely her past success. Instead, it is how vital she still is to everyone today. The celebration was not to look back at history. Instead, it is a point in time that allowed us to recognize what Ms. Parsons has done for all of us, but now she can look ahead to continue inspiring others and start new projects. Ms. Parsons continues to be important to the fashion world, and if you’re lucky enough to meet her, you can sense how present and in the moment she is. She is highly aware of current issues, controversial and beneficial, in the fashion industry. More importantly, she knows what is on the horizon for fashion’s future as well as her own.