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Kaya Henderson used to run D.C. public schools. Now she’s a fashion model.

By Robin Givhan,

Out of all the glossy photographs from a fashion shoot for the plus-size retailer Eloquii, the one that stands out shows a model in a black bejeweled cocktail dress with sheer sleeves and strappy silver sandals. Her head is thrown back in laughter; her lips are painted cherry red. Her hair is a cloud of curls.

The model is Kaya Henderson. Yes, that Kaya Henderson. The former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. The education administrator who was typically seen wearing low-key business attire — restrained, neat. Henderson stepped down in September and hasn’t been working since then but, rather, reclaiming her life and “enjoying not being responsible for a school district,” she said.

She’s also looking quite glamorous.

Kaya Henderson in a fashion shoot for Eloquii. (Eloquii)

Henderson stars in an Eloquii fashion spread that will debut Dec. 3 on the brand’s website and will be featured in its February print catalogue.

Almost a year ago, Henderson, an Eloquii customer, saw a colleague from the education trenches, Kenya Bradshaw, pictured on the company’s website — part of its “Spotlight Series,” which focuses on the style and accomplishments of customers. In one photograph, Bradshaw was wearing a sequined, polka-dot T-shirt dress; in another, she has on a black tulle maxi skirt. Henderson was impressed, bought several of the pieces that Bradshaw was modeling and mused aloud to her, “Wow, if I could ever do that, it would be super cool.”

Calls were made; conversations followed. And several weeks ago, Eloquii flew Henderson from the District to New York for a fashion shoot in a converted warehouse in Long Island City.

The experience was not entirely foreign. “When I was 6 or 7 or so, I did modeling, mostly print and TV work,” Henderson says. “I had a little experience as a child actor.”

In New York, Henderson worked with a stylist who surveyed her about her likes and dislikes and the kind of outfits she wanted to wear. Henderson wanted to focus on work and cocktail attire. “A lot of times, my look is fairly conservative,” she says. “I wanted something a little funkier.” She wanted something for the holidays.

Eloquii has a history of being especially attuned to the desires of its customers. Founded by the Limited in 2011 as a way of tapping into the plus-size market, Eloquii was shut down about a year after its launch when its corporate parent revamped its business strategy. Loyal shoppers raised their voices in disappointment, and a group of its former executives revived it as an independent company. With a sequin dress priced at about $150 and trousers at about $100, Eloquii is known for its accessible prices and attention to fashion trends.

For the shoot, Henderson had veto power over the clothes that had been pulled for her to wear. “My only parameter is I don’t really wear yellow.” Otherwise, she was willing to try anything. “I’m not really a gold girl, but the gold lamé wrap dress — I was shocked,” Henderson says. “I also wouldn’t have chosen the Beyoncé bodysuit with the sequins and the leather skirt.” There was also a plaid skirt and lace top that she dubbed “the naughty-schoolgirl look.”

“That’s not functional for my lifestyle,” she says. But it was fun to wear.

The perks of modeling, as well as no longer being a government employee, included being able to keep whatever she liked from the shoot. But she also did some Black Friday shopping on the website. “It’s important to support businesses that are responsive to customers,” Henderson says.

Although her appearance in the fashion shoot might surprise those who know her only as a bureaucrat, “I try really hard to be authentic across all my spheres. For some people, it’ll be ‘Why is the chancellor doing that?’ And for others, it’ll be ‘Why wouldn’t she?’ ”

And if there is any broader message — beyond taking pleasure in fashion — Henderson says, it is that “professional women don’t have to be locked into a particular look.” And neither do plus-size shoppers.


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