Last weekend, Custom Collaborative saw its eighth cohort graduating from its training institute, acquire new skills in business and the art of tailoring while facing the challenges of virtual learning and communities under the constraint.
With an official start in 2015, the non-profit and social workforce development company based in New York trained and supported dozens of women from low-income and immigrant communities, helping them to realize their dreams of entrepreneurship and career in fashion.
Custom Collaborative makes an impact with its three core programs: the 14-week selective training program, which takes place five days a week; a business incubator, now entirely focused on the production of non-medical PPE, and its worker-owned cooperative, comprising several women international entrepreneurs, each from a different country. In the latter case, work is in progress at East Harlem, fashion companies already being production partners.
On the latest feat, Ngozi Okaro, the organization’s executive director said, “We wanted to give these women the chance to finish what they sacrificed to do.”
The majority of students are mothers, many of whom live below the federal poverty line. Their investment in the organization makes it possible to meet the needs of local independent designers while increasing their economic positions.
For the first virtual graduation, the graduates each presented sketched drawings to their classmates as a cornerstone, instead of physical drawings, and welcomed designer Mara Hoffman as a guest speaker. Its partnership with Custom Collaborative has a long history, with studio visits a repeat affair for past cohorts.
It was not the same experience for the latter.
Although the group started their lessons in person, the March outbreak of the coronavirus in New York changed the way typical courses were to be delivered. Overall, the repeated aggression against black and brown communities – which takes the form of the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus, police violence and ongoing systemic racism – is extremely damaging.
“One of the biggest problems is the experience of loss. We have 11 wives [in this recent cohort] and among all of them, there are about 30 dead [of loved ones from the virus]. Even the loss of power to cry. These losses correspond to what we know of black and brown communities – the coronavirus strikes harder, ”reiterated Okaro.
During the virtual meetings, Okaro instituted a strict instruction for the students: “Get up, dress and prepare”. The dress has become not only self-expression but survival. Each woman shared what her outfit was that day to help “push us”.
In addition to addressing variable access to the Internet and sewing machines, personal care was another key element, with psychologists brought in for mindfulness exercises as well as an additional $ 100 per cohort member for “The personal care they wanted,” as Okaro said. he.
To realize its mission, Custom Collaborative uses financial and volunteer partners, including the New York Women’s Foundation, Nest and Common Impact, a national non-profit organization that exploits skills-based volunteering through partners. like S&P Global. Last January, Custom Collaborative was the recipient of the 2020 Gucci Changemakers Impact Fund.
Under the business incubator, the non-profit Nest helps fund a one-for-one donation to front-line workers for each fabric mask purchased. And while the whole premise of Custom Collaborative promotes social sustainability, at least 90 percent of the organization’s creations – including these fabric masks – are made from recycled and recycled textiles.
With Common Impact and S&P, Custom Collaborative hopes to continue to “streamline” its data management. In late July, Common Impact will help facilitate another skills-based virtual volunteering project, in what Tessa Vithayathil, consultant at Common Impact, said was a “volunteer engagement strategy”.
“I always look at the horizons and I think about what we have planned, our capacities and the creativity that we bring, so that doing everyday [work] is acceptable because I know I am looking at our long term vision – our long term plan, ”said Okaro, reflecting on recent challenges.
More than a week earlier, 1.5 million additional workers applied for unemployment insurance, in accordance with weekly claims from the Ministry of Labor.
Excluding the retail sector, the majority of jobs in fashion are evidently in production occupations, according to 2018 data on cut and sewn garment manufacturing from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A fairly broad category, textile, clothing and furniture workers accounted for the majority of total employment at 56%, while earning an average hourly wage of $ 12.94. Sewing operators – although they are the second largest labor force in the sector – only earned $ 12.20 an hour.
Notoriously difficult to break into, fashion designers find themselves facing few opportunities and fierce competition, with only 2.1% of total employment in the profession.
In addition to this, low-income communities and immigrants often find their wind chipped early. As Okaro said, “They lose opportunities and things are taken.”
Personalized collaborative designers have gained access like never before in the fashion industry.
Success stories come from designers like Ifunanya Onyekwere, a 2017 graduate who got early exposure by designing for the Wakanda-themed fashion show hosted by the Department of Parks’ Black Panther movie screening and leisure in New York two years ago. Today, she has her own New Jersey-based label called Aify’s Clothing and is a founding member of Fashion That Works, the worker-owned sewn product cooperative that Custom Collaborative is incubating.
Another success story is Jennifer Gutierrez, a graduate of the fifth cohort. With Onyekwere, she presented sustainable designs in the Seventh Avenue exhibition of the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Okaro said, “These are people who had no access before, but they have ideas and creativity,” adding, “White people are not the only ones with creative ideas.”
Fashion takes into account the little diversity that exists in its upper reaches.
Much of Custom Collaborative’s work is to “highlight and discover talents that were previously unknown,” said Okaro. She calls on the industry to elevate and see renewed value in these women, by providing fair wages and opportunities for advancement, “given the importance of the work they do.”
In addition to constant funding, internships and corporate volunteer efforts, Okaro describes the growing ways in which brands and community members can engage in their work.
“It’s important to do the work outside – but also inside,” said Okaro, a thought leader who talks about new initiatives in Custom Collaborative, such as its corporate executive board and its anti-racism training. .
The Corporate Executive Council, which will be launched later this summer, already has Mara Hoffman, Hanky Panky, Lafayette 148 and Another Tomorrow as members. In the meantime, Custom Collaborative will develop its own anti-racism training version for industry organizations.
“I am pragmatic, sometimes optimistic and I very much hope that we can make a significant change,” she added.
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