Meet Michael Gardner, a West Philly dad who designs and sews all the clothes for his daughter, Ava, and documents their journey on Instagram and his blog, Daddy Dressed Me.

• Sew it goes: “I’d probably say 90% of my online supporters are women. A lot of them call me ‘Sew Bro.’”

• Dream design: “Making Ava’s prom dress would definitely be at the top of my list. I hope she’ll be open to me doing so one day.”

When Michael Gardner and his 9-year-old daughter, Ava, go out in Philly in the matching outfits he creates for them, Ava handles all of their public relations, often fielding compliments and questions from curious passersby.

“I usually don’t have to say anything,” Gardner said. “She literally sells it and completes the whole interaction on her own while I’m just standing there smiling.”

Since he taught himself how to sew six years ago, Gardner has created more than 200 outfits for his daughter. Today, when Ava Gardner of West Philly (not Hollywood — yet) leaves the house, it’s in an outfit her dad made just for her.

“I love the clothes daddy makes because they’re more than just regular clothes. They’re original, they’re fun, and they’re beautiful,” said Ava, who is in third grade. “I just like it so much I feel awesome about it.”

Ava Gardner, 9, models an outfit made for her by her dad, Michael, as he takes a photo to post on his Instagram page and his blog, Daddy Dressed Me.
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Ava Gardner, 9, models an outfit made for her by her dad, Michael, as he takes a photo to post on his Instagram page and his blog, Daddy Dressed Me.

Making Ava feel awesome has always been Gardner’s No. 1 goal as her dad.

“I wanted to make sure she felt confident, that she loved herself, and that she could believe in her abilities, which are all the things I struggled with as a kid,” he said.

Gardner, 36, was raised mainly by his grandmother in East Germantown. His mother, a nurse, lived with them but worked often. His father, whose own mother lived three houses down, refused to acknowledge Gardner as his son.

“I would be physically standing in front of him saying ‘hi’ and he’d ignore me,” Gardner said. “He would cross the street to go up the block and avoid me.”

The pain was crushing for Gardner, who took solace in creative outlets like drawing, painting, and poetry as a child. As an adult, he often dove head first into DIY projects around the house.

“I didn’t know how to process that but I needed something to make myself feel OK,” he said. “That’s where the outlet for creativity came from.”

Because of the lack of relationship he had with his own father, Gardner said he always knew he wanted to be a dad. Gardner and his ex married in 2009; in 2011, Ava was born.

“Once she was here, I was overwhelmed with joy to finally see her,” he said. “And we’ve literally been inseparable ever since.”

When Ava was 3, Gardner wanted to take on a new creative endeavor that would also help him bond with his daughter. So he picked up a sewing machine at Walmart and spent countless hours watching online tutorials about sewing on YouTube and Pinterest.

He began by buying women’s clothing at thrift stores and “upcycling” it to make new outfits for Ava in her size. The first thing he made was a pair of pants he fashioned out of a wool plaid skirt.

“She put them on and we were in her room and she just started posing, she even put her hand on her hip,” Gardner said. “I don’t know where she got all these different things from but it came out of her through this experience.”

Gardner and his daughter began documenting the outfits he’d create for her through his Instagram page (where he now has more than 18,000 followers), and his blog, Daddy Dressed Me. As he encouraged Ava to be confident and believe in herself, something he never expected happened — he started believing in himself, too.

“I realized in teaching her I was more so teaching myself to feel those same ways about myself. I didn’t realize that until she started reciprocating the love I was giving to her,” Gardner said. “She’s always encouraging and she’s always complimenting me, everything I do for her she sends it right back to me.”

Ava Gardner, 9, coaches and encourages her dad, Michael, as she shoots photos of him for their Instagram page and blog.
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Ava Gardner, 9, coaches and encourages her dad, Michael, as she shoots photos of him for their Instagram page and blog.

Not only does Gardner make all of Ava’s outfits (aside from some T-shirts and leggings), he also taught himself how to braid Ava’s hair and paint her nails.

“I knew it would be another way for us to bond. But also, when me and her mom separated, I didn’t want there to be something she needed from me and I had to say ‘no,’” said Gardner, who shares custody of Ava with his ex.

In March, as COVID-19 hit the region, Gardner was laid off from his accounting job of 10 years at a local hotel.

“The first thought that came to my mind, go to the sewing machine,” he said. “For me, my creativity is literally what’s held me together over these last several months.”

And the world started to take notice. In October, Gardner and Ava were profiled in Simply Sewing magazine and in November, the daddy-daughter duo was featured on Today, in the segment “Dad’s Got This.”

Gardner also proposed to his girlfriend this year, too.

“The timing has been insane,” he said. “I saw a quote recently that said ‘Creativity saved my life.’ That’s how I feel, especially this year.”

Gardner’s still figuring out where he wants to take his sewing. He doesn’t want to sew clothes for other people, but he’d be open to designing a line. His ultimate goal though is to create a sewing pattern “to put out into the world.”

“I want to celebrate our journey,” he said. “And I think it’s important to other Black girls to see a representation of themselves and maybe start sewing as well.”

Michael Gardner, pictured here with daughter, Ava, likes using bright colors and bold prints in his work.
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Michael Gardner, pictured here with daughter, Ava, likes using bright colors and bold prints in his work.

As a dad, Gardner knows that someday his little girl will become a teenager and may not want to wear the clothes he makes for her anymore.

“We had that talk a couple times. If she said tomorrow she wanted to stop, that would be completely OK. Of course, I’ll go off and cry to myself,” he said. “I told her not long ago, if we weren’t doing this, there would be something else we would do to bond.”

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you'd like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at sfarr@inquirer.com or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

Want more We the People?

• The lawn displays at Susan Triggiani’s Delco business are so legendary she’s gone to court for them.

• When you text the Squidmobile, Fishtown scientist Sarah McAnulty texts back.

• Check out the full We the People archive here.