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Charmed Life

Model Citizen

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 2/26/2003

Baltimore may not be the center of the fashion world, but it does have Travis Winkey. A fashion-show producer and modeling-studio owner, Winkey has put on runway galas in New York, Paris, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Far East, and has worked with such fashion designers as Hugo Boss, Donna Byrd, and Willie Smith. But he always looks forward to coming home to Liberty Heights. After traveling to such exotic locations, why does he insist on keeping his base of operations in a modified rancher just a block away from Mondawmin Mall?

"I love Baltimore," Winkey belts out when asked. "I always holler 'Baltimore' everywhere I go. . . . I've done more fashion in Baltimore than any black person I know anywhere. I've brought entertainers that would never have come to Baltimore. Certain sections of this city would never have seen these kinds of people, but I've brought them here."

His love of fashion goes back to when he was 10 years old. Even then, says Winkey, one of 15 children, he was "a little clothes freak." He would wrangle neighborhood kids into his McCulloh Street backyard (not far from where his studio is now) and "redesign" their clothing: He'd cut off sleeves, tie up shirts, and more, then send the "models" down a makeshift runway he'd created for his mock fashion shows. Before each backyard production would end, Winkey says he would be so excited with the activity that he couldn't settle for the role of director, watching from the sidelines--he would jump into the show himself and strut his own moves on the catwalk.

"I just had a flair about myself that was special," he says. "I walked in a special way. If I was washing dishes by myself and the front door would ring, I'd strut to the front door."

Forty-plus years later, that same confidence and fired-up attitude permeates his studio today. Winkey has been chanting the same mantra of proper posture, composure, and self-esteem for more than 30 years, and his model-training techniques have fostered the careers of such successful young women as movie actress Jada Pinkett-Smith and former Miss Maryland and Black USA Dawn Moss.

Over all the time he's spent in the fashion world, Winkey's childlike spirit and uninhibited vigor for the business have never fizzled. To some, his boldness might seem like outright boasting ("I've been a great influence on everybody in this city who is black [and] who are doing fashion shows," Winkey says, for example). However, there's no bitterness behind his bravado--just flamboyance and a trail of celebrities and successes that he has brought back to his hometown.

Since the 1970s, such big-name personalities as Muhammad Ali, Mario Van Peebles, and Will Smith have come to Baltimore to attend Winkey's fashion shows. His signature In Person Celebrity Fashion Show got its start in Baltimore and now rotates among U.S. cities. It's a fashion showcase that features the talents of Winkey-nurtured models.

The modeling techniques he teaches are renowned (Winkey often talks of incorporating his dance training at the Peabody Institute and his childhood street dancing into his routines), and he is admired as a unique entity in the business. "You can put Travis' models on the runway with a hundred people and you can see his style," says Pinnie Ross, whose Pinnie Ross Models, opened in the 1950s, was one of the first African-American modeling agencies in the Baltimore area. "I'm serious. His style is like his personality."

Ross gave Winkey his start in the 1960s. While everyone else in the business rejected him for his petite 5-foot-7-inch build, she used him as her only male model. "He would steal the show every time," she remembers.

Five years after she hired him, Winkey asked for her blessing to start his own studio. Ever since, Ross says, she eagerly awaits for news of his latest success. "I call him Mr. Baltimore," she says.

But no matter how many accolades he receives (Winkey has plenty of plaques from former mayors and honors from the House of Representatives hanging on his wall), Winkey knows Baltimore will probably never be a major fashion hub. Still, Winkey believes that his big-fish-little-pond status can do some good for young people in the city. As parts of Baltimore seem to be coming into their renaissance, he says, other parts of the city continue to rot. He says that it's not just the crumbling, old buildings that need dressing up to give the city a better image. Winkey says Baltimore has "a lost generation" of kids with talent out there, but many of them will need some honing before they can shine. Which is where Winkey's training comes in.

"I have so many kids who come to the studio who have never worn a tie before," he says. "Never have worn a tie, don't even own a pair of dress shoes. . . . I love the baggy look, but just because it's baggy it doesn't mean you should have it hanging off your butt showing all your drawers."

Though his name may not be as well-known as John Casablanca or Eileen Ford, models who work with Winkey say his training methods helped get their careers off the ground. Local model Chyna Lawrence, for example, says she was already doing some modeling in New York when she relocated to Baltimore four years ago. When she got here, she auditioned for Winkey's In Person show.

"He more or less polished me to make things work smoother," Lawrence says. Since then, she has represented Winkey in shows in Mexico and Puerto Rico. She's even enrolled her twin 16-year-olds, Taisha and Shaquetta, in his program.

"Baltimore is not the place for fashion," she says. "If he was somewhere in New York or Paris, or somewhere where fashion is big, he would be much more known."

That may be true. But Winkey enjoys working in his hometown. This May, he is working on a Mother's Day fashion show in Lexington Market. In Baltimore, Winkey knows he's guaranteed a crowd, but that's not the only reason he's here. He says Baltimore has a history and a personality that can't be found in even the most glamorous of venues.

"It's not just a walk down the runway," he says. "It's more to it than that."

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