Week in, week out, Carl McLaurin coordinates continuing-education programs at Durham Tech. But at least once each year, he lives every fashion lover’s dream: working backstage at the biannual New York Fashion Week. 

“The main thing I do working Fashion Week is backstage production,” McLaurin says in his sinuous, precise Southern accent. “Sourcing the clothes, organizing them, dressing and undressing the models, and lining them up to go on the runway so that Michael Kors and his team can come around and say, ‘She’s ready to walk.’” 

Not that Fashion Week is McLaurin’s sole industry foothold. The forty-one-year-old “fashion production agent,” as he describes his diverse skillset, has also worked on Victoria’s Secret runways and helped dress Lil Kim for the cover of her 2019 album, 9. In the all-or-nothing industry of high fashion, McLaurin has found a middle way between the comfort and stability of Durham and the career energy of New York.

And, thanks to a mandate from fashion icon André Leon Talley, he’s got big plans for the Bull City. 

McLaurin moved to Durham in 2005 to get a master’s degree in sociology at N.C. Central. But by 2013, he’d gotten one in textiles and apparel instead.

“One day, I walked by the fashion building at Central, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, let’s do something different this time around,’” McLaurin says. 

He started in Central’s fashion program in 2008. By the fall, he had an internship in New York with The Ground Crew, where he’s freelanced as a dresser and stylist assistant ever since. 

“I listed all the fashion classes I was going to be taking on my résumé,” McLaurin says with a laugh. “I guess they were impressed this guy in North Carolina has all this fashion knowledge. I since have made my résumé very true.” 

McLaurin’s biggest brush with glamor started with an unexpected phone call. A stylist friend had an interesting job lined up but was with a client in Thailand. 

“She said, ‘Hey, Carl, what are you doing this weekend? I need a huge favor,’” says McLaurin, who agreed before hearing the details. “She said, ‘OK, you’re working with Lil Kim,’ and I nearly dropped the phone.”  

There were only two or three days between the call and the photoshoot, which found the rap legend bedecked in jewels in homage to Canadian supermodel Linda Evangelista. McLaurin drove to New York to meet a schedule that got even more hectic when he arrived.  

“I ended up also dressing her for Marc Jacobs’s wedding, which wasn’t even in the plan,” McLaurin says. “They sent me off on some errands to Neiman Marcus to pick up shoes and bags; I’m texting photos back and forth. I did have a country-boy-in-New-York moment, like, help! But we got what we needed and got her out the door of the hotel room.”

By the time of the album-cover shoot the next day, during which McLaurin spent an hour wiring jewels to Lil Kim, he was drained.

“I honestly was like, ‘Get me back to North Carolina,’” he says. “But she thanked me and hugged me at the end, and I found out her grandmother was from Durham. It was a great experience to be around a celebrity like that, someone I listened to growing up, and to be working beside her and physically touching her.”

McLaurin spreads plenty of fashion love at home, too. A graduate assistantship at Central instilled a love of teaching fashion that has included stints at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School and Longleaf School of the Arts. He’s produced small local shows for area designers and styled up-and-coming musicians like the N.C.-to-LA expat Sam Harmonix. He’s made a Miss Spider costume for an E.K. Powe Elementary production of James and the Giant Peach and runs student design competitions at Central. 

And if things go according to plan, he’s going to give Durham a Fashion Week of its own—one with a powerful creation myth.

In February, André Leon Talley, the legendary American Vogue editor, returned to his alma mater, Durham’s Hillside High, to speak at a screening of a documentary about him. 

McLaurin says that, during a Q&A, Talley brought him and two other local fashion workers on stage and proclaimed that they should start a Durham Fashion Week. McLaurin hopes to do so in 2020.

“If André Leon Talley tells you to start a fashion week, you start a fashion week,” he says. “I already have eight designers lined up to show collections who are local to North Carolina.” 

A lot of people ask McLaurin the question you’re probably thinking: Why doesn’t he move to New York?

“I’ve always wanted to bring New York here,” he says. “Even though I’ve had some great opportunities there, I would be a small fish in a big pond. I know we have culture here and can use a fashion platform.” 

It would be a long-deferred dream come true for someone who, before he went to school for sociology, wanted to be a cosmetologist as a child. 

“I’m from a different generation than the climate we’re in now,” McLaurin says, “and I stifled my creativity for fashion because I didn’t want to be doing a stereotypical job for someone who’s LGBT. When I went to school for fashion, it came out of a place of me finally doing what I want to do. I often tell people I feel like I became a man in Durham.” 

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com.

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