100% Ambitious. Creating Opportunities to Match Their Ambitions
Ngozi Okaro founded Custom Collaborative in 2015 to offer professional training and opportunity to poor women and women of color interested in the fashion and clothing industries. Pursuing a holistic model for a sustainable, equitable fashion industry, Custom Collaborative now runs a Fashion Training Institute, a small business incubator, and a development program for cooperative enterprises.
The fashion industry is notoriously exploitative and insular. Sweatshops are not a relic of the past – they still operate in this country and many others. Many, many toil at the bottom of the employment ladder for dismal wages and with few hopes of advancement. At the same time, powerful barriers exist to good jobs in the industry, particularly on the creative side. People interested in a career in the fashion industry often have to serve in unpaid internships or have personal connections. In other words, they must already possess wealth or the right social capital to have a chance at making a career in fashion.
These facts have informed Custom Collaborative’s vision of sustainable practices in fashion – a vision which combines the care and stewardship of natural and human resources. The former means uplifting the principles of refashion, recycle, and upcycle and the replacement of fast fashion with well-made and durable pieces. The latter means that sustainability must include, “by definition, living wages.” I don’t care “if your linen is organic,” Ngozi says. “If it is not living-wage then it is not sustainable.”
Custom Collaborative’s first initiative, the Training Institute, remains a cornerstone of the organization’s work. For several months, students attend classes full time, where they learn the skills to design and manufacture high-quality clothing. They enter the program in cohorts, which builds a thriving and supportive community of learners. A business plan consultation is also part of the Training Institute’s curriculum in order to prepare those who will go on to launch their own businesses. Most significantly, Institute trainees are paid a stipend- an arrangement that provides essential income for the participants and, crucially, models that “your time and work is valuable,” Ngozi says.
Custom Collaborative sees that message as a particularly crucial one to send to their students. Institute graduates come from a host of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but are predominantly women of color with limited economic means, outside familial responsibilities, and exposure to violence and educational disinvestment. Some are immigrants and refugees who have faced additional linguistic barriers in this country. In short, they are women who have long struggled against racism, sexism, exploitation, and prejudice. Mindful of the many challenges facing their students, Custom Collaborative has sought to build a robust support system, partnering with other organizations to bring their students more opportunity and community.
Ngozi believes that Custom Collaborative’s successes “demonstrate what can happen when society invests in” these women. She insists that, whatever the challenges or discriminations they have faced, these students are, to a person, “changemakers” – they are “100% ambitious.” She has witnessed Custom Collaborative’s “whole person” and dignity-forward approach reap enormous dividends in bringing their confidence and opportunities in line with their ambitions and dreams. They learn sewing and construction skills, but they also learn that “you have something to say.”
The Institute is designed to prepare their students either for jobs with established companies or for entrepreneurship, and Ngozi sees Custom Collaborative’s cooperative infrastructure as an important part of that. Because their infrastructure offers administrative and business development support, cooperative organization under their umbrella lowers the barriers of entry for women’s entrepreneurship.
Custom Collaborative also recognizes that workforce development and fashion education efforts alone cannot hope to solve what ails the industry. To get at the organization’s broader mission of fashion sustainability, practices in the industry must also be confronted on a broader scale. When Custom Collaborative arranges internships for its students, it works only with companies that agree to pay a living wage. They also work to “prepare industry” for Institute graduates and others like them by advocating fair wages and promoting their expansive definition of sustainability.
Looking towards the future, Custom Collaborative are hoping to obtain a large, central workspace in New York City fit for an expanded program. They are hoping to extend enrollment in the Institute, as well as launch a Spanish-language Institute and an evening-based program. “We know that there is a desire and a need for our work,” Ngozi says. Just look at “what can happen when people invest in women who are low income and low opportunity.” They might not have much, but they are, after all, “100% ambitious.”