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Fashioning a Way Forward

Photo by Laura Fuchs

Custom Collaborative’s solution for an ethical fashion industry

Ethical labor and fair treatment for workers may not always be a part of the conversation when brands talk about sustainability. For Custom Collaborative Executive Director Ngozi Okaro, though, it’s where the conversation needs to begin.

“The only reason we can produce so many lost-cost clothes is because we’re not paying people well or fairly,” she said. “I think the environmental and the economic are connected.”

While Okaro is far from the first person to make this argument, she is one of the few people actively working on a solution. Custom Collaborative, which launched its first program in 2016, is a Harlem-based cooperative, training facility and fashion business incubator for low-income women of color.

The program currently works with women from 22 different countries and has graduated about 60 students overall. The co-op, which launched officially in June, is owned by seven women representing seven different countries.

“Creating this cooperative is one of the most exciting things for me in the last several months because … they’re creating something that they own themselves,” Okaro said. “They’ll be their own bosses, which for all but one of them … they’ve never had the opportunity to make those decisions that they know how to make.”

The diversity of the program and the co-op is by design. Even in the United States, much of the fashion industry’s production is done by immigrants for low wages. According to the California Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71% of Los Angles’ “cut-and-sew” labor force are immigrants — many undocumented, with limited options for work.

Another big advantage of the co-op: it’s much easier for business owners to live and work legally in the U.S. long-term.

“We’re trying to cope with and put together all of the pieces for women to have access and economic opportunity,” Okaro said. “I felt like if women were working together, they could make more money and wouldn’t have to do everything themselves. It seemed like cooperative ownership would be the fairest way to do it.”

The training program was the first section of Custom Collaborative, predating both the co-op and the incubator, which launched in May 2017. For the training program, Okaro, her team and several volunteers recruit students from around New York City through flyers in libraries, laundromats, dollar stores and houses of worship — wherever they think women who fit their profile might see them. They also hold open houses and a series of interviews before accepting 10 to 12 students for each 14-week instructional term.

Besides teaching the basics of production and design, the instructional program includes lessons in entrepreneurship, marketing and career coaching, among other business-centric skills. The Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union is a partner that teaches personal finance. The broad offerings of the program give students more options to consider as they think about their futures in fashion.

“Many women come to us, and they have the idea of being a designer or working in fashion, so they don’t really know all of the available options,” Okaro said.

To ensure that graduates have a path forward, Custom Collaborative partners with established brands and fashion companies to find internships, jobs or contract work, like the New York Women’s Foundation, Eileen Fisher and Mara Hoffman. Many of the more than 100 instructors also come from top-tier fashion organizations, such as the Parsons School for Design.

A recent partnership with S&P Global also helped Custom Collaborative organize and collect data. The collaboration was organized through Common Impact, a Brooklyn-based non-profit that helps arrange corporate support for other non-profits.

“We look for a proven model of social impact,” explained Danielle Holly, CEO of Common Impact. “It needs to have a model that has clear outcomes for its constituents and strong executive leadership, which Custom Collaborative had in spades.”

In return, Custom Collaborative also offers a corporate anti-racism training program to help existing companies foster welcoming cultures for immigrants and people of color.

“When I say anti-racist, I also mean anti-agist, anti-ableist, anti-transphobic, all of those things. They’re all connected,” Okaro said.

Diversity and inclusion training is especially important now, Okaro said, since we’ve seen a resurfacing of overtly racist language and behavior in the U.S. It is important for companies to actually invest in anti-racist action, she continued, rather than stop at making public statements.

“You don’t have to do crappy things,” she said, referencing a number of fashion companies who have made race-related blunders in the past few years. “We can teach you not to be crappy. Why risk your reputation on being careless?”

Like many organizations, Custom Collaborative also had to rapidly adjust to a market crippled by the coronavirus pandemic. With so many talented sewers, they were able to pivot to making masks, but as a non-profit that primarily serves low-income women, the economic dimension hit particularly hard.

“It was really important that we helped provide for this group,” Okaro said. “It was in some ways scary because I was like, ‘If we don’t get these masks out, that’s our reputation,’ but we really came together and figured it all out.”

Teaching the training program cohort remotely proved to be a challenge as well, especially since no one on the team expected the shutdown to last for so long. Fabric, technology and, in some cases, sewing machines, had to be distributed to each student.

“Thank god the instructor, Angelique, had so much experience, and she was able to teach remotely how to sew these different things,” Okaro said. “But it required a lot more from all of us, not just the instructional staff.”

The COVID-19 outbreak made Okaro aware of some of the program’s limitations, most of which stem from underfunding. Custom Collaborative should be able to provide health benefits, for example, she said, or offer alternate schedules, classrooms with more space and more instructors, especially ones who can teach in Spanish.

“The community has needs that we are unable to meet, and I want to be able to meet those needs,” she said.

But she knows that the pandemic has also made large fashion companies think about sourcing. With so much manufacturing happening overseas, Okaro hopes that fashion leaders will consider sourcing locally, especially after seeing the effects that international shutdowns had on the supply chain.

“We’re here not to tear anything down but to build the industry up in a way that works for everyone,” she said.

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