Ngozi Okaro wanted a custom dress. Then she met Mariama from Guinea, who could make her not only a dress, but any garment she asked for. Suddenly, an idea hit her, “What if we give people like Mariama one or more tools for their toolkit?" she tells BAZAAR. “And we train her and support her, so she's making a lot more money than she is now? There are so many women who would pay to have clothes like that, that fit their body and make them feel good about themselves.”
In 2016, these questions led her to start Custom Collaborative, a New York-based non-profit social enterprise, after leading initiatives at National Urban League, INSEAD, and Yale. The mission is simple, according to Okaro: “Provide earned income opportunity for women, so they can participate in the fashion industry, at a wage and contribution that's comparable to what they bring to it.” Now the nonprofit offers a 15-week training institute on East 124th Street in Harlem, New York, where women learn to design, sew, and sell sustainable fashion. Through its business incubator, different mentors will come on to guest speak or teach a singular class.
The most surprising part of the journey so far, says Okaro, is people’s misunderstanding of what these women want. Somebody recently approached her after a panel to say they didn’t realize that people from the global south would want to design clothes. That’s just not the case, but Okaro doesn’t blame anyone for misunderstanding. She wants to uplift these artisans so more people realize that they exist and that their work matters. Over 75 women have been trained in the six years since Custom Collaborative began. The goal for each participant varies; some go on to establish their own brands and others work in-house at established labels.
In Okaro’s eyes, the human element often goes missing from the sustainability discourse, which tends to focuses on environmental impact. “I have always felt that when we're talking about sustainability, unless we're talking about sustainable and fair wages for people, then it's not a whole conversation,” she says. “We can't just talk about the planet if we're not talking about the people on the planet who are making these clothes.”
So often the women making the clothes remain behind the scenes, and Okaro wants to change that too. When model, activist, and Custom Collaborative advisor Cameron Russell, was approached by a creative agency about doing a pro bono project, she instantly called up Okaro. “We started having conversations and trying to figure out what to do. Are we going to do a showcase?" Okaro said. “At one point Cameron had this idea that we would do the biggest photoshoot ever.”
While the biggest photoshoot ever didn’t end up happening, they bring on photographer Camila Falquez, who has shot everyone from Zendaya to Rosalía to Kamala Harris. Then Falquez asked Russell and Okaro the same question they kept asking themselves, “What do you guys actually want to do?”
Okaro said that although they always knew they wanted to showcase their participants' designs on actual models, they couldn’t figure out how. When Camila got involved, everything clicked. Around twenty of the residents got to model, and relish in the glamorous side of the world they work in.
“So many people cried that day,” Okaro recalls. “For the residents themselves, they were really excited. They didn't know what to expect. They were treated like any other model. They got their hair done, and their makeup and their nails. They got to lounge around in robes! And they got to see what a professional photo shoot is like, but also be celebrated for their skills.”
Okaro wants to open the door to show what is possible when you give more people opportunities. As for the future? She wants to open actual doors—to luxury stores. “2023 is about finding more opportunities for the ladies' work to be shown so they can sell it. The whole point is for women to have good livelihoods. We want to talk to as many retailers as possible, so that it might be like museum shops or even high-end stores like Saks, or Bergdorfs.”
At this point, anything feels possible for Custom Collaborative. “That shoot, for me, represents a change,” she says. “It shows we're fully transitioning into our next phase of being.”
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