Nathan Braun, a 2009 Pius XI graduate, poses with a version of a freehand gown design at his Brookfield home in June. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)

BROOKFIELD — Like your average teenage boy, Nathan Braun spent his senior year juggling academics, multiple sports and college decisions. And sewing kits.

“Yeah, that was the funny thing. After football practice, I would carry a sewing machine with me in my gym bag,” said Braun, an 18-year-old 2009 Pius XI High School graduate and Brookfield resident.

Last school year Braun used his sewing machine to create designs in Pius’ AP portfolio class, offered by the art department for college-bound artists. This very machine and rigorous workload landed Braun the Fashion Designer of Tomorrow award, presented by the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.

FIDM, one of the world’s most prestigious fashion design institutions, the West Coast location for the show, “Project Runway” which runs on Lifetime Television and alma mater to many of the red carpet’s biggest designer names, selected Braun’s work from hundreds of applications to receive the award and a full scholarship.

“When I found out, I was in bed,” said Braun, who described his designs as unexpectedly elegant. “I literally jumped off my bed and fell onto the floor.”

The award was also unexpected in the Braun house, according to Nathan’s mother, Eda.

From an early age Braun struggled with speaking and schoolwork. Eda said he used drawing to overcome his speech impairments and had to work hard to maintain a B average. 

“He found the drawing and sketching to be his passion. It just came so easy for him,” she said.

Braun remembers first loving to draw around age 4.

“My first fashion picture was when I was really little,” he said. “It was a woman with humongous high heels. I drew it with crayons on a big wooden board.”

Pictures of people, especially his mother, were staples during his youth.  Yet, continuous athletic endeavors – football, track, wrestling – overrode the talent. There was never enough time to fully pursue it, said Braun.

“He would always do what he had to do, and then he’d start sketching in his own book with a headset on,” said Eda.

Braun said the process is completely random. Something will pop into his head and he will start doodling, often not finishing the piece, but coming back to it later on. Sketchpads at 3 a.m. are not uncommon.

But unlike drawing, Braun’s interest in fashion design only came recently – earlier this year, according to Eda.

“I got really into fashion drawing my freshman year, but decided not to tell anyone about it,” said Braun, who grew up around females, including his three sisters and various neighbors. “Junior year, one of my buddies in homeroom opened the sketchbook and saw the drawings of fashion and models and he thought it was good. So I was like, ‘Yeah. I mean, it’s not a big deal. I like it!’”

During this time, Braun dove even further into Pius’ art department, an area with which he was already familiar.

“When I looked through his sketchbook, his raw talent was obvious,” said Pat Frederick, art department chairperson at Pius. “But, he was very dependent on copying from magazines.”

Frederick said Braun’s creative and conceptual thinking skills needed to be fine tuned in order to achieve his goals.

“Honest to God, I was definitely winging it,” Braun said.

He said Frederick and Catherine Burnett, another art department staff member, worked with him.

”It’s what he thought about, paid attention to, doodled and dreamt about,” Burnett said.

During portfolio, Braun became serious about his drawing and began creating three-dimensional forms out of his sketches. His forte was creating clothing out of “weird” materials – a seashell dress, a paper bag suit and an umbrella dress to name a few.

“I thought, ‘If I can do this with cans, I can probably use a simpler material,” Braun said. “The first time I actually learned how to sew, the machine started steaming. Everyone was like, ‘Nate, no!’”

Although there were times of doubt concerning Braun’s seriousness and lack of organization, Frederick said that “he stopped settling for ‘close’ or ‘OK’” when it came to college deadlines.

“He really stepped up his game for FIDM,” said Frederick. “He had been listening hard all along!”

For the scholarship competition Braun entered three sketches-turned-three-dimensional figures. His “out-of-the-box” thinking was what captured the judges’ attention said Steve Aaron, an assistant director of admissions at FIDM.

“Every mouth just dropped,” said Aaron, who once worked with Pamela Skaist-Levy, the founder of the Juicy Couture fashion line. “And these are people who don’t get impressed very easily. His sketches are just so far beyond what someone of his age should be capable of doing. They are just so sophisticated.”

Aaron praised Braun’s attention to detail, specifically the accessories of each outfit: shoes, jewelry, makeup. He believes Braun was born with the talent and said he had never seen anything this advanced without formal training.

“My husband (Dennis) once asked Nate how he could do this (bounce from drawing an eye to drawing another part of the picture and link it all together),” Eda said. “Nate just looked at him and said, ‘I guess it’s a gift from God, Dad.’”

A gift that Braun is grateful for everyday, according to Eda. After a childhood full of academic struggles he doesn’t take his talent for granted.

She recalled a FIDM student Braun met while visiting the school. Braun began conversing with the physically handicapped girl via e-mail after their introduction. When the girl asked him if they would still be friends upon their return to California, Braun’s reaction was, “Are you kidding? I don’t care what you have or what is wrong with you.”

“People love Nate because he is just a good kid,” Eda said. “He would never cut anyone down because he’s also had all of these challenges.”

Challenges abound at FIDM, but Eda said Braun’s passion for sketching will sustain him during all of the tough times. Although she was leery of letting him go so far from home, Braun left for school at the beginning of July and said he has been enjoying it.

According to Eda, “He is doing fantastic. He struggled academically through his whole life — except for art and gym classes. This past semester, he got all A’s.”

She said he recently designed and sewed his first dress for sewing class, using Miss Teen USA 2006, Katie Blair, as his model.

His sketches for a men’s clothing line have been sent to Japan, and while his mom noted he won’t get credit for his work, “he will be able to add it to his resumé. He’s pretty much their number one guy in the internship right now,” she said, adding “his is also debating names for his label. He’s thinking far ahead; he is motivated and passionate about design. He’s preparing to go far.”

Aaron, too, predicted FIDM’s first-year student has a bright future.

“He is so talented beyond most students that I’ve had the opportunity to come in contact with,” said Aaron, a FIDM employee of 24 years. “He will be very successful in his career. I do not doubt it.”