Alum spotlight: Holly Alford (BFA ’97)

Holly alford smiling

Holly Alford MFA in Costume Design ’97

Holly in the costume shop during her time as an MFA candidate

When Holly was working in New York’s fashion industry, she ended up as an extra in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. “My goal was to work with noted costume designer Ruth Carter. Spike kept trying to put me in front of camera, and I was in school and couldn’t miss class. So I never got to work with Ruth.”

Holly’s love for fashion started young, “I was always sewing stuff for my Barbie doll.” She was also good in math and science, so her parents encouraged her to major in pre-med at UVA, but by the end of her sophomore year, she was ready to leave. When an advisor suggested the theatre department, Holly explained, “I don’t want to act. I want design costumes. So, they let me work it out.”

After graduation, Holly went to the famed Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) for a one year accelerated program. She stayed in New York for four years working in the fashion industry, which is when she had her brief encounter with Spike Lee. Holly received her Associate degree at FIT, but she wanted to teach.

Holly returned to her hometown Richmond, where she met with James Parker and Liz Hopper. Liz explained, “You won’t be able to teach anywhere unless you have an MFA.” Parker took her to see Dean Murray DePillars (1976 – 1995) and he told her, “What if I can get you some money?  I thought he was joking, but he was dead serious and he got me money.”

In 1997, Holly married Interior Design major Thurmond Alford Jr.  “We both graduated at the same time.” He had a job before graduation in Virginia Beach and Holly remarks, “I was grateful that I’d started my own business.” The flexible locations worked for Holly Alford Design, where she specialized in evening wear.

Holly explains one reason for her business’ success, “Virginia is the third wealthiest state in the US and there are a lot of social organizations in the city. No man or woman wants to wear the same thing at big events, so women were either going to Potomac Mills or to New York to find something unique.” Her custom design work continued for 15 years.

In 1999, Holly met with VCU’s Chair of Fashion, and she was wearing a coat Holly had made. The Chair, “found out that I had an MFA and she was looking for someone to teach.” Holly eventually joined the department, “I didn’t realize that I’d really love it.”

Holly became involved in the Shared Governance Initiative, which wanted to assure that the VCU administration worked with the advice of the faculty before making decisions. Holly’s work with the Initiative led to her current position as VCUarts Director of Diversity and Inclusion. She’s also the Senior Director of Design at VCUarts (which includes the Interior, Fashion and Graphic Design Departments), so Holly gets to enjoy her love for fashion and VCU every day.

Compiled by Liz Hopper (professor emeritus) and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the March 2022 Theatre Alumni newsletter