This Sustainable Fashion Organization Is Shifting Conscious Conversations Through Their Work As An Incubator Program For Low-Income and Immigrant Women
The conversations around sustainable fashion is more than just boasting about the latest ethical designer with a minimalist bamboo collection or applauding the next women-owned brand working with impoverished communities in Delhi.
Sustainable fashion, more importantly, is about recognizing women who are on the ground doing the socio-economic work on behalf of systemically oppressed communities. The real work is about agency and stakeholdership. It’s about providing resources to the most targeted communities in order to sustain some level of cultural autonomy.
We have been so honored to connect with Ngozi Okaro, executive director of Custom Collaborative; a vanguard in the sustainable fashion space. She founded Custom Collaborative, which is a Harlem-based not for profit that serves women from low-income and immigrant communities by training and supporting their development in the fashion industry as designers, entrepreneurs, pattern makers, and seamstresses who can create and sell well-made garments and accessories. This extraordinary organization teaches and promotes environmental sustainability and ethical business practices of the industry, alongside design and manufacturing, allowing participants to professionalize their skills, overcome barriers to employment, and ultimately bring greater equity and inclusivity to the business of fashion.
Among the women they currently serve:
97% are ethnic/racial minorities
80% are primary caretakers of young children
90% have income below the US poverty guideline
80% are immigrants/first generation
45% are without permanent housing
35% have survived domestic violence
This past February, Custom Collaborative celebrated their 5th institute graduation with 8 students who completed the rigorous 14-week training program. These women proudly shared one completed outfit, in which each student modeled another student’s design.
We were elated to chat with Ngozi after the graduation ceremony:
How do you feel now that you’ve successfully completed your 5th graduation?
Everybody was a little anxious including me but I’m so happy we’re at this point where we can say … we’re doing this. We’re doing this for people of color. We all look different. We can work together. And we can be a force to help change this industry.
Custom Collaborative is such an incredible organization and everyone in the sustainable fashion (and industry at large) space needs to be supporting this work! What is the biggest ways in which people can support you?
We need support to help market what we’re doing so that women can find out about us. We need support so that the industry knows what we’re doing so that those who really are trying to be green, sustainable, equitable and inclusive they can partner with us. We have tested snd chartered a path - we can clearly see how we can get out of the fast fashion model and do something different that impacts people and plant in positive ways … and really raises up the people at the bottom who are doing all of the work, which are women, low-income women in order to elevate their profile and pay them fairly.
We definitely need marketing and we need money! The amount of money we need is so miniscual compared to a fashion companies budget. For us, a hundred thousand dollars would completely turn things around and we could do so much more. And so it’s really about people who are in the community, working with the community and sharing the mic and not just passing it. We can all do this, we just need to be open to voices and ideas.
Daniel ( the lead designer) had the idea to reach out to Mara Hoffman because he wanted the students to have the opportunity to work with different fabrics (organic cotton and hemp). So this was the first time a luxury brand donated for a specific project. It was amazing for the students to be able to have this access and to feel and learn about these fabrics.
Why serve lower income and immigrant communities?:
Lower income / immigrant communities are the people who have the least and receive the least amount of opportunities. So if you think about who has done the most with the least, it is the Blacks and the Browns and the low incomes and the immigrants and the marginalized and we’ve made its and we’re here. And in my mind we’ve invented sustainability like all of the things we’ve made because we didn’t have anything. We know how to make something out of nothing and we also like to look good. So that’s why I thought, well why not work with the people who have the least but also have the most strength. It takes a lot of resilience to figure out how to take this two dimensional piece of fabric and make it into something that will fit a body and look good.
Also, in sustainable fashion I hear so much about sustainable fashion brands saying [so and so has their clothes made in Rwanda or where ever] that’s great that folks are helping, them but in my backyard there are people who need opportunity also.
Share some thoughts on women empowerment and sustainability:
It’s really about making the most with what you have. That’s the people resources - I believe that everybody has a talent. This tends to be a throw away society and we’re fine with throwing people in prison or throwing people in shelter. The reality is that everybody has something they can do. Sustainability means that we pay people a living wage so instead of paying people in prison - cents on the dollar - we can pay people fair wages.
This inspired my journey to create this worker owned cooperative so that the people actually doing the work can make the decisions and make the money and save the Earth. There’s no need to spend money and fuel and time trying to get the lowest dollar production in China or in prison when you can do that here and do it in a good quality way and uplift people. Sustainability is about not ruining the Earth, not oppressing people and lifting up people.
Custom Collaborative is providing the necessary life skills and job training needed to enter and stay in the workforce and really putting the people at the heart of every initiative!
Here are quotes from previous graduates who successfully finished the program:
Zipora, graduate in cohort 4, American. Now working at Jussara Lee:
“My experience with Custom Collaborative was amazing. It was a rigorous 14 week program, Monday through Friday. The accountability of going everyday definitely increased my discipline and focus. Our teacher Daniel taught us with great patience, meeting all of us where we were individually, without leaving anyone behind. We went through everything from how to turn on and thread our machines, to sewing full garments with our own drafted patterns. Outside of the various sewing and drafting techniques, the business aspect helped to make fashion seem real to all of us personally. It wasn’t just a dream with pretty dresses and clothing, but we could step by step practically see how fashion and being a designer could be applicable to our lives, especially as minorities and woman. We created vision boards, we created a business plan, and even just learned how to communicate and resolve problems as woman. All of those skills really prepared me for this industry, and just improved me as person. My greatest lesson was understanding that working hard toward my dream is an attainable goal, and step by step, day by day I will improve and reach it.
Also, knowing that I still have the resource of people helping me well after the program is priceless. I was able to work for Custom Collab. assisting in production sewing for different brands they work with. I was also given a great opportunity to have a internship which I am currently doing for a sustainable luxury designer, Jussara Lee. This program has truly been a milestone in a career, and I am so grateful for it.”
As a black designer I always think about how I can create more opportunities. I remember visiting a black fashion exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology and marveling at the fact that so many black designers careers we cut short due to death, disease, lack of financial literacy or business acumen. I want to be able to employ talented black designers and teach them about the business, of course by learning the ins and outs first myself. Through internships, I’ve been able to see the full production cycle, and observe some of what it takes to run your own business. I had the amazing opportunity to intern at Tracy Reese, who has one of the longest careers as a black female designer. That alone was so encouraging because for us minorities, seeing that it is possible is half the battle. I wish to continue being that example, showing more woman and people of color how to navigate a field that was inspired by us but wasn’t necessarily made to cater to us.
I also have a longer term dream to have a factory producing clothes, to employee some of the many talented black seamstresses. My family is from Jamaica, and it would be amazing to set up some sort of manufacturing there, while also giving back and enriching that community.
How do you define sustainability and what was the most important concept you learned about sustainable fashion from this program
I think I define sustainability as a conscious effort to be mindful of what you use and how your using it, in relation to our planet. It includes resourcefulness, and trying to eliminate or reduce waste. Also, for me it is being mindful of how our practices effect people throughout the supply chain.
From Custom Collaborative, I definitely learned sustainability doesn’t have to be expensive or a burden. It’s actually an avenue for creativity and using what we already have to inspire us. I think when the word first started floating around, to me it was intimidating. I felt as a brand new designer I have so much to worry about, and I don’t even have a brand to call my own yet. I can be sustainable when I have more money, or more fabric waste, etc.
The program showed me however to not let it be a burden but make it fun. In my personal brand I want to incorporate multi functional, or adjustable elements. I learned even that is sustainable, I can promote that my garments life span is now increased because of it's different wearability. If I make a dress that can zip apart and turn into a top and skirt, that can now extend the life of your closet.
It also broadened my scope of sustainability to different industries. This is not just issue in fashion, and more solutions can be found in coming together. Using resources more efficiently, such as people developing fabric from mushrooms and other foods, or re using refurbished technology in clothes. In the coming years I think we will see concepts like theses develop more and more. In the future i see sustainability really being a connector of our world. One thing we definitely all share is this planet, so its well being affects us all.
Kulwant, graduate-to-be cohort 5, Indian.
Custom Collaborative is a great organization where minority group women come to learn how to create a vision and set their mission of how to achieve their goals mentally in the fashion industry. Custom Collaborative trained women how to create beautiful garments and run their own business. Our director Ngozi is a great women; strong and skilled. Custom Collaborative teaches pattern making and different techniques of stitching and design. She knows how to handle any kind of problem. These women come from different backgrounds and cultures. There is lot of difference but with one mission how to create a beautiful and fashionable garment and setup their business. Most of the women are new, but at the end they are able to create beautiful garments.
About sustainability - I want to use my clothes long term, mix and match to wear it. After that if they are still in good condition, I will donate them. I want to encourage others to do so.
For INTERNATIONAL WOMAN’S DAY, Custom Collaborative is having a Crowd Fundraiser so that they can continue to do this important work!