Cancer Survivor Receives VIP Treatment

By Jamesetta M. Walker

The Virginian-Pilot
© September 25, 2012

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[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”left” alt=”Keilah shows off the autographed handbag given to her by designer Michael Kors, at right. She is wearing the winning dress, a gift from designer Nanette Lepore, that “Project Runway All Stars” champ Mondo Guerra designed. It is sold under Lepore’s brand. (Jamesetta M. Walker | The Virginian-Pilot) ” title=”Keilah shows off the autographed handbag given to her by designer Michael Kors, at right. She is wearing the winning dress, a gift from designer Nanette Lepore, that “Project Runway All Stars” champ Mondo Guerra designed. It is sold under Lepore’s brand. (Jamesetta M. Walker | The Virginian-Pilot) ” height=”488″ width=”300″]/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/933541000.jpg[/image_frame]
Who, other than fashion’s elite, could possibly get access to Vogue’s office, especially as the staff zeroed in on production of its coveted September issue?

And to whom other than a cast member would “Project Runway All Stars” judge Isaac Mizrahi give backstage advice?

That would be 14-year-old Keilah Hieb, who received VIP treatment during a five-day trip to New York’s Fashion District, the epicenter of American style.

Toby’s Dream Foundation made the wish come true for the Fort Eustis teen, who survived a battle against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Friday marked the one-year anniversary of her being in remission.

“I want to be a fashion designer when I grow up,”Keilah said on a recent morning as she took a break from her home schooling. “I wanted to see all the fashion stuff there.”

To make this wish happen, it took the Virginia Beach-based nonprofit’s connections with a couple of people, beginning with the owners of Phillip Michael Fashion for Men, who knew somebody who knew a lot of other people.

The result: Keilah got to hobnob during her summer break with the style scene’s pace-setters, hanging out not only at Vogue, but at the offices of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, too. And in addition to advice from Mizrahi, she received one-on-one direction from menswear mogul Ronny Wurtzburgerand designers Nanette Lepore, Elie Tahari and Michael Kors. Plus, Kors autographed one of his handbags and gave it to Keilah.

“I love my bag,” Keilah said. “It’s really fun to carry. Now when I’m out and I see a woman carrying a Michael Kors bag, I’m like, ‘Oh she has one, too.’ It’s, like, really cool.”

At Vogue, she missed the kind of high drama depicted in “The September Issue,” the documentary that chronicles the magazine’s preparations for its fall fashion issue.

“They actually look pretty normal,” she said about the staff, except for a lot of high heels.

Preparation for the issue was still the focus, though. There were “racks and racks” of clothing that had to be evaluated to determine which garments would make the magazine, Keilah said.

“Vogue’s closet was really impressive,” she said. “Actually, everybody’s closet was really impressive.”

The sample closet at Tommy Hilfiger was as big as this whole room, Keilah’s mother, Michelle, said in comparing it to the family’s living room.

Hilfiger’s designers also took a look at Keilah’ssketchbook and showed her what her creations would look like if designed for Hilfiger’s line. She got a T-shirt emblazoned with the tweaked sketches.

And then there was the visit to Calvin Klein’s headquarters, where the decor was all black and white, down to the paper clips. Even the staff was attired in black and white, Michelle said.

“You could feel the designer’s presence.”

Klein’s sample closet of exotic skins for footwear especially stood out. In it, Keilah said, she could find anything from frog skin to goat to python, alligator and ostrich.

But it wasn’t just the fashion houses’ grandiose environments that impressed the Hiebs. The designers’ humility kept things down to earth, Michelle said.

“Nanette is in the same building she started out in – but probably owns it now,” she said.

In a surprising gesture of generosity, the designer gave Keilah a dress designed by Mondo Guerra during his time on this year’s “Project Runway All Stars.” Guerra’s dress is being sold through the Nanette Lepore line.

The bright, multi-patterned minidress is perfect on her. With her short, curly mane and blushing cheeks, she looks like an American Girl doll.

“It’s really fun to wear, and it has pockets,” she said.

Menswear mogul Wurtzburger seemed to have a special fondness for Keilah, her mother said. He treated her to a photo shoot, and she got to pose with a model.

“He’d had cancer before, so they were like kindred spirits,” Michelle said.

Wurtzburger is president of Peerless Clothing, the powerhouse supplier of some of the most noted brands in tailored menswear, including Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass, Sean Jean, Calvin Klein and Michael Kors. He told Michelle he had to outdo Kors’ gifts to Keilah.

“He said, ‘Get this girl an iPad.’ All the girls in the office were oohing.”

On the final day of her trip, Keilah got to meet with Mizrahi, and he critiqued her sketchbook. He also signed one of his sketches for her and set aside the bluntness “Runway” viewers have come to expect.

“He would say, ‘Oh, I like this or a little less of that.’ “Keilah said. “I found it really great because I like getting feedback.”

Keilah asked every designer she met during the trip the same questions, and they all had some differences, she said.

“Some would say you don’t need to learn to sew, others would say learn a little about everything.”

She sketches well, but hasn’t done much sewing. So far, she’s only made a pair of pajama pants in an introductory sewing class.

“I think they were impressed with the number of sketches,” her mom said. “Obviously she’ll need to grow in it, but she has a foundation. As we go through high school, we’ll get her into more classes.”

The trip was more than a fairy tale come true; it was illuminating, mother and daughter agreed. Keilah made some valuable contacts, perhaps starting withChelsey Hall, Peerless Clothing’s assistant creative coordinator, who had the connections to set up the experiences with all the style setters.

Keilah’s goal is to get a fashion degree from Liberty University, then become a designer based out of Louisville, Ky., the family’s hometown.

However, “it was comforting to see how many different roles you can have in fashion,” she said.

“I’m inspired.”

To learn more about Toby’s Dream Foundation, visit or email director Joan Steele at

Jamesetta M. Walker, 757-446-2211, jamesetta.