Photo by Jessi Banks

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” asked Dr. Seuss. One of soon-to-be alumna Anna Henry’s favorite quotes, it forms the backbone of her design philosophy. Her attractive and functional designs help the wearer do what they do best: shine. She debuted her latest collection, SO Leisure, at the Wilson College of Textiles Threads Senior Collection Fashion Show this December; the co-ed athleisure collection was made for and modeled by the athletes of Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC).

“The initial inspiration for my collection came from traveling with my family to cheer on my brother Bryan and Team USA in the Special Olympics World Games 2019 in Abu Dhabi,” said Henry. “Bryan was selected to compete for his favorite sport — swimming — in the National Games in the summer of 2018 in Seattle, Washington. The country finally got to see Bryan’s natural talent, and since he won multiple gold medals in his events, he qualified for the World Games that following year, which happened to align with my spring break, so I just had to go.”

Her brother Bryan started swimming in middle school. Now 26, he swam his way to two gold medals and one silver at this year’s World Games in March.

“Seeing the camaraderie between the athletes from around the world really sparked inspiration for my line,” said Henry. “I got to watch athletes from around the globe dance together to whatever music was playing, cheer on any athlete that was competing at the time, and meet other families and friends of athletes who were all there just to support their family members.  We have some friends now in Southern California, Israel and Malta, just to name a few.”

Instead of beginning with a sketch, Henry chose her clients first. She designed with purpose, making sure her garments were comfortable and fun and allowed the wearer to shine.

“The ideas behind my choice of clothing fell into place once I knew for whom I wanted to design my line,” she said. “I chose to have actual SONC athletes as my models, so I had the privilege to work with six of them throughout the entire fall semester, one being my brother. For the types of clothes, I was inspired by Team USA’s outfit, and I wanted to create athleisure wear that was bold, vibrant and colorful so each person could stand out from any crowd.”

Henry designed the clothes with ease of care in mind, so the athletes could take care of the clothing themselves. To make the garments more comfortable and easier to wear, she omitted zippers, buttons and ties. She frequently sought feedback from the athletes, which informed the final designs.

“It is always a great time getting to hang out with Special Olympic athletes, so working with the athletes and their families these past months has been such a blessing,” she said. “Each time they would come in for a fitting, they had big smiles and wide eyes, and were so excited to have an outfit made for them, whatever it may have looked like in the end. Everyone was so willing to work with me, and I even had some of them come in and wear their outfit for my studio critiques with the other student designers. I would make sure to always ask if they felt comfortable and ready to move when wearing their outfits, and they would always respond with a resounding ‘yes.’”

Anna Henry works on a design on a mannequin
Henry works on one of her SO Leisure designs

Henry’s favorite part of designing her line was the moment the athletes walked down the runway in the designs she made for them.

“I couldn’t see my models walking in the show since I was backstage, but their joy was radiating through the audience’s cheers and applause,” she said. “The moment was so surreal walking out behind them, I couldn’t stop smiling. The feeling was more than I could have ever expected, and I will never forget it.” 

When she was a child, Henry wanted to become a veterinarian, but she was also drawn to the arts, from crafts to the trumpet to photography. When the time came to choose her post-high school path, she didn’t know what she wanted to major in, but she did know she wanted to attend NC State. She was accepted into the NC State Animal Science program, but then transferred to the Studio Arts program at Virginia Tech for the fall semester of her sophomore year.

“I missed NC State after leaving, and found my way to the Textiles website, where I [discovered the FTM major and reapplied],” she said. “Eventually all of my dots connected, and I have never looked back.”

At Wilson College, Henry found a course of study that challenged her and gave her a creative outlet.

“My concentration sums up everything that I enjoyed learning while in grade school, and now I get to use my creativity for my job and any other projects I may complete; it’s the perfect pairing,” she said. “I call my program the “melting pot” of majors. I have been fortunate enough to learn from renowned professors about the wide scope of textiles, [including] polymer and color chemistry, yarn production, management and marketing, and my favorite, fashion and textile design and product development. I truly believe it is one of the best programs here at NC State.”

Anna Henry's SO Leisure models backstage at Threads
Athletes and SO Leisure models backstage at Threads

Henry graduates this December with her B.S. in Fashion and Textile Management (FTM), with a concentration in Fashion Development and Product Management. She has accepted a position as an associate designer with LT Apparel, assisting the adidas design team. She began working there as a design temp in November, and will begin full time in January. As she looks forward to her bright future, she reflects on her past at NC State. 

“I have given several graduation photo sessions for friends of mine while here, and I just loved exploring all of what NC State has to offer,” she said. “I’ve been able to see the wind tunnel for aerospace engineering students, Jordan Hall for meteorology students, and, of course, the inside of the bell tower thanks to Dr. Stafford — things that I would never have seen if I had not made those friends who allowed me to take their grad photos…NC State has treated me so well. I have found life-long friends and the best education someone could ask for. I hate to leave NC State upon graduation, but they can’t keep me from visiting.”

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