Stitching a Fashion Future for 'Invisible' Women
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she's offering a new path to financial stability.
By Carly Stern
As the clock ticked toward 3 am, Ngozi Okaro could be found bent over her sewing machine. During her father’s recovery from a stroke and heart failure, Okaro had flown him back from Nigeria to the U.S. in 2014 to be his primary caretaker — a role full of stressors. She hadn’t touched the machine in 25 years, but it became Okaro’s outlet to decompress during still nighttime hours.
The lawyer turned nonprofit fundraiser would tinker with custom designs that a Guinean seamstress, Mariama, had constructed for her. One morning, Okaro’s father asked her what she’d stayed up late engineering. She wasn’t engineering anything, she said — just sewing her own clothes — but he insisted she start a business.
The idea stuck, and left her wondering if she couldn’t help talented seamstresses like Mariama professionalize their skills, scale home businesses and connect to larger markets for their custom designs.
The 50-year-old Maryland native was always searching for a way to orient work with her sense of purpose — but practicing law, working as a gifts fundraiser in higher education and nonprofit consulting hadn’t quite satisfied her itch. In 2015, Okaro launched Custom Collaborative, a workforce development and incubator program that trains women from low-income and immigrant communities to launch careers and businesses as designers, fashion entrepreneurs, pattern-makers and seamstresses. Based in Manhattan, the nonprofit is made up of a three-legged stool: a 14-week training institute where women design clothing and develop an entrepreneurial business plan, a business skills incubator and an employee-owned cooperative. Meanwhile, repurposed and upcycled textiles make up 90 percent of Custom Collaborative’s pieces, which are customized and designed to last so they can follow people over their lifetimes.
Clothing is our most intimate form of shelter.
Custom Collaborative’s students have hailed from 20 countries, while 85 percent are mothers and 80 percent live below the federal poverty level. They’ve found the program through word-of-mouth or fliers posted in taxis and laundromats — what Okaro describes as a “grassroots guerrilla” approach as she sits in a Midtown hotel coffee shop on a crisp December afternoon. Although mothers, aunts and grandmothers have been sewing to earn extra money for centuries, making clothing can be relegated to a pragmatic life skill rather than a commodifiable one, she explains in a voice at once soft-spoken and brimming with urgency. Her red bracelet perfectly matches her red eyeglasses and red handbag.
“Clothing is our most intimate form of shelter,” Okaro says. “Before we had caves to live in, we had elk skins.” The way she sees it, Custom Collaborative can help re-skill New York’s fashion workforce while investing in the livelihoods of hands who’ve long labored at the craft.
Okaro radiates a good-natured intensity, and she has treated her professional trajectory with laser focus — though the path she carved is winding. Studious and achievement-driven from the start, she won a “readathon” in fourth grade by reading more books than all other elementary school students in her county.
Okaro studied political science at Morgan State University in Baltimore before heading off to Georgetown Law to later work at a law firm. But wanting to make more of an impact for women and girls, Okaro went on to several philanthropic and fundraising roles in the nonprofit world, including at Yale University. When her dad fell ill, her center of gravity shifted again — and she reconnected with the sewing machine her mother had gifted her in college.
She wouldn’t be the first to cultivate creative roots in Manhattan, a historical global fashion hub and immigrant haven. Fueled by female and immigrant labor, New York City produced roughly 70 percent of U.S. women’s and 40 percent of men’s clothing by 1910. Sweatshops were notorious for meager salaries, long hours and few protections against dangerous manual labor — exploitative conditions reinforced and publicly revealed by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 people.
Injustice still permeates fashion and retail, says Ruth Conner, a writer who works for Custom Collaborative. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that conditions in garment industry sweatshops are as bad as they were in the 1920s, and sometimes worse,” Conner says. While people complain about not having a skilled workforce in the fashion industry, nobody sufficiently trains and invests in people for those jobs, argues Okaro.
Her quest bears resonance in New York, among “the financial meccas of the world,” yet a place where many of the communities Okaro serves remain unseen, says Rev. Dr. Alfonso Wyatt, retired vice president of the Fund for the City of New York. Custom Collaborative provides viable tools, a structured path upward and equity in their outcomes to low-income women — including those who don’t have U.S. work authorizations. Because it’s a cooperative, women participating in Custom Collaborative’s training institute can legally own and control the business even if they’re undocumented, Okaro says.
At the same time, Okaro’s lifting up a model that diverges from “fast fashion” in a moment when consumers pay attention to companies’ carbon footprints, materials and waste. The fashion industry has doubled production over the last 15 years, according to the World Economic Forum. Meanwhile, the time consumers wear an item before discarding it has dropped by roughly 40 percent — and once clothing is tossed, nearly three-quarters of it becomes burned or buried in landfills. “Custom Collaborative is looking to revive this kind of handicraft — and also environmental sensibility — by and for ordinary women,” Conner says.
She’s raised $750,000 so far and last month announced a partnership with Swarovski and Slow Factory Foundation, but Okaro is well aware that consistent funding will be hard to come by. It remains to be seen whether the foundations she’s been hammering at can endure — and become a model for other places with large immigrant populations.
“Everybody’s got somebody that’s opening a door for them,” Wyatt says. Okaro is one of those people, he says. “And she’s opening a door for people who are largely … invisible.”