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This past weekend Custom Collaborative saw its eighth cohort graduate from its training institute, acquiring new skills in the business and art of garment-making all while facing the trials of virtual learning and communities under duress.

With a formal start in 2015, the New York City-based workforce development nonprofit and social enterprise has trained and supported scores of women from low-income and immigrant communities, helping them realize dreams of entrepreneurship and careers in fashion.

Custom Collaborative creates impact through its three core programs: the selective 14-week training program, running five days a week; a business incubator, now pivoted fully to the production of nonmedical PPE, and its worker-owned cooperative, comprising several international women entrepreneurs, each hailing from a different country. In the case of the latter, work is being done in East Harlem, with fashion companies already partnering in production.

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 the students are mothers, with many living below the federal poverty level. Their investment with the organization helps to bridge the needs of local independent designers while increasing their economic positions.

For the first virtual graduation, the graduates each presented sketched designs for classmates as a capstone, in place of physical designs, and welcomed designer Mara Hoffman as a guest speaker. Her partnership with Custom Collaborative is longstanding, with studio visits a repeat affair for past cohorts.

It was not the same experience for this latest one.

Although the group began their lessons in person, the March outbreak of the coronavirus in New York City upended how the typical classes were to be conducted. Overall, the repeated assault on Black and brown communities — which comes in the form of the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus, police brutality, and ongoing systemic racism — is immensely damaging.

“One of the biggest issues is the experience of loss. We have 11 women [in this recent cohort] and between them all, there are about 30 deaths [of loved ones from the virus]. Even the loss of being able to mourn. Those losses align with what we know about Black and brown communities — coronavirus hits harder,” reiterated Okaro.

At the virtual meetings, Okaro instituted a strict instruction for students: “To get up, get dressed and be prepared.” Dress became not just self-expression but survival. Each woman shared what her outfit was that day to help “push us along.”

Aside from remedying the varying access to the Internet and sewing machines, self-care was another key component, with psychologists brought in for mindfulness exercises as well as an additional $100 per cohort member for “whatever self-care they wanted,” as Okaro put it.

To enact its mission, Custom Collaborative brings on funding and volunteer partners including the New York Women’s Foundation, Nest and Common Impact, a national nonprofit leveraging skills-based volunteering through corporate partners like S&P Global. Last January, Custom Collaborative was a recipient of the 2020 Gucci Changemakers Impact Fund.

Under the business incubator, the nonprofit Nest helps fund a one-for-one donation for frontline workers for each fabric mask purchased. And while the entire premise of Custom Collaborative drives social sustainability, at least 90 percent of the organization’s creations — including these fabric masks — are made from repurposed and upcycled textiles.

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Ngozi Okaro, executive director of Custom Collaborative, sporting one of their upcycled masks.  Courtesy

With Common Impact and S&P, Custom Collaborative hopes to continue to “streamline” its data management. In late July, Common Impact will be helping to facilitate another virtual skills-based volunteering project, in what Tessa Vithayathil, a consultant at Common Impact, said will be a “volunteer engagement strategy.”

“I always look at the horizons and thinking about what we planned, and what our capabilities are and the creativity we bring, so that doing the day-to-day [work] is palatable because I know I’m looking at our long-term vision — our long-term plan,” said Okaro, reflecting on the recent challenges.

Over a week prior, another 1.5 million workers filed for unemployment insurance, as per the Department of Labor’s weekly claims.

Excluding the retail sector, the majority of fashion jobs obviously lie in production occupations, as per 2018 data on cut and sew apparel manufacturing from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A rather broad category, textile, apparel and furnishings workers represented the bulk of total employment at 56 percent, while earning a mean hourly wage of $12.94. Sewing operators — despite being the next most meaningful slice of labor in the sector — made just $12.20 an hour.

Notoriously hard to break-into, fashion designers find themselves up against few opportunities and steep competition, with just 2.1 percent of total employment reportedly in the profession.

On top of that, low-income and immigrant communities often find the wind knocked out of their sails early. As Okaro put it: “They lose out on opportunities and things are taken.”

Custom Collaborative designers have been granted access like never before in the fashion industry.

Success stories come from designers like Ifunanya Onyekwere, a 2017 graduate who gained early exposure by designing for the Wakanda-themed fashion show held at a movie screening of “Black Panther” by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, 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 goods cooperative that Custom Collaborative is incubating.

Jennifer Gutierrez, a graduate of the fifth cohort, is another success story. Along with Onyekwere, she presented sustainable designs in Fashion Institute of Technology’s Seventh Avenue display.

Okaro stressed: “These are people who did not have access before, but they have ideas and creativity,” adding: “White people aren’t the only ones with creative ideas.”

Fashion is having a reckoning of just how little diversity exists in its upper confines.

Much of Custom Collaborative’s work is “spotlighting and uncovering talent that was to this point unknown,” said Okaro. She calls for the industry to uplift and see renewed value in these women, providing fair pay and opportunities for advancement, “considering the importance of the work they do.”

Aside from consistent funding, internship placements and corporate volunteering efforts, Okaro describes growing ways in which brands and community members will be able to engage with their work.

“It’s important to do the work externally — but also internally,” stressed Okaro, a guiding thought that speaks to the new initiatives at Custom Collaborative, like its Corporate Executive Council and anti-racism training.

The Corporate Executive Council, which launches later this summer, already counts Mara Hoffman, Hanky Panky, Lafayette 148 and Another Tomorrow as members. In the meantime, Custom Collaborative will be developing its own version of anti-racism training catered to industry organizations.

“I’m a pragmatist, sometimes an optimist and I hold out a lot of hope that we can make a significant change,” she added.

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Custom Collaborative’s 8th cohort began in person and pivoted to virtual learning amid the pandemic.  Courtesy