Bright lights pulse to thumping beats, illuminating stylish men and women who strut confidently down an elevated runway. Hundreds of guests take in the people, the chic fashion, and the moment. There’s electricity in the air.

The show’s brimming with glamour and beauty, but the most striking thing about the evening is that these are not professional models. These are students at the University of Michigan.

This is NOiR Runway Fashion.

But first, let’s go back. Sixteen years ago, LSA student Maryam Basir Derouet (’00) was looking for a way to merge her love for fashion with her commitment to diversity and community building. She yearned for a creative outlet on campus that would also encourage people of different backgrounds to come together for a cause. So she founded NOiR, named after the French word for “black,” as a lifestyle and fashion magazine. From its infancy, NOiR also held fashion shows on campus, aimed at making a difference in the community while highlighting talented designers and models, particularly those of color. The magazine folded, but over the years the fashion show has flourished.

Since then, NOiR’s become well known at Michigan for its annual fashion show, which has become something of a legend. Each year, it showcases dozens of models who represent a broad array of beauty types. NOiR takes pride in featuring models of different ethnicities, shapes, and sizes. In addition, designers from the University and beyond delight in showing their newest creations in this fun and experimental setting.

Molly Ma, wearing clothing designed by fellow student Kyle D'Arcangelo, walks the runway at last year's "Shameless" show. The shameless theme encouraged the NOiR community to reject shame about one's interests and racial identity. Photo courtesy of NOiR.

It seems that the campus community also approves. NOiR’s runway shows have consistently packed the house at the Michigan Union. It has gotten so big, actually, that this year’s sweet-sixteen show on April 18 will be held at Crisler Arena in order to accommodate an anticipated 800 guests.

More Than a Pretty Face

NOiR may be best known for its cutting-edge runway shows, but they do not take their parallel mission of community service lightly. This year, the group’s focus is on improving the lives of underprivileged children. They hope to raise at least $5,000 from the show’s proceeds for the Children’s Literacy Network in Ann Arbor. Additionally, models and other NOiR members engage in community service throughout the year, supporting organizations like the Boys & Girls Club of Ypsilanti through tutoring and mentorship.

After a successful 2014 show, NOiR executive board members present a check for $2,500 to Alternatives for Girls, an organization that supports homeless and at-risk young women. Photo courtesy of NOiR

Karen Doh, an LSA senior who climbed the ranks from recruited model to president of the organization, credits NOiR with exposing her to the many facets of the fashion industry, as well as building lasting friendships and a sense of community.

“It has been touching to be a part of something so powerful—to see how far NOiR has come in terms of community, and to see all of these students from different walks of life come together, support, and care for one another,” says Doh.

Similarly, Canon Thomas, an LSA senior and the philanthropy director of NOiR, joined the group during his second year at Michigan because he’d heard interesting things about it. He’s ending his undergraduate career as one of the group’s leaders and plans to use the experience he’s gained from producing events for NOiR in his career after college.

For Doh, this year’s fashion show will be the culmination of a lot of hard work by many talented, diverse young people.

“NOiR strives to learn more about others, and find ways to build community involvement, diversity, and support for other organizations,” she says. “It’s a space that allows students to use the runway to express their individual uniqueness, beauty, and excellence.”

Who said fashion was shallow?