March 30, 2020

This nonprofit empowers low-income and immigrant women as they start careers in sustainable fashion

Meet Custom Collaborative, one of the finalists for the 2020 Renewal Awards. Five winners each will receive $40,000 from The Atlantic and Allstate.

Designing women: The New York City-based nonprofit Custom Collaborative empowers women through fashion.

Editor's Note

Meet the finalists for the 2020 Renewal Awards. The annual program from The Atlantic and Allstate honors nonprofits that are creatively solving problems in their communities. This year, five winners each will receive a $40,000 prize from The Atlantic and Allstate. Subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to find out who the winners are and follow the hashtag #RenewalAwards.

Fashion can accomplish many things. It can tell the world you’re ready to work, or want to be noticed. But it’s not just a mode of self expression. Custom Collaborative uses fashion to support and empower women from low-income and immigrant communities. The New York City-based nonprofit offers education and entrepreneurship programs, where women can learn new skills, hone their craft, and secure a career in the fashion industry.

The idea for Custom Collaborative came when now-executive director Ngozi Okaro hired a woman from Guinea to sew her wedding dress. Through that experience, Okaro began thinking about the lack of opportunities for many women, and the need for fair-wages for workers in the fashion industry.

“Work that has traditionally been women’s work is not necessarily well paid, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be,” Okaro said. “And so by saying to women ‘this work that you’re doing as artists and artisans and designers is very important. We value it, we value you, and we’re going to pay you properly for what you’re bringing to the world.’”

Custom Collaborative opened its first training class in October 2016. Now, the nonprofit’s Training Institute offers 14 different classes, from art to business. They also have a business incubator to support graduates, providing them with resources and access to a business network. The organization also has a worker-owned cooperative dubbed “Fashion That Works.” Through FTW, participants can pool their resources and labor in order to better work with clients. This work in empowering women is why Custom Collaborative is one of the 15 finalists for the Renewal Awards, a program for The Atlantic and Allstate.

Okaro also intended the organization to provide consumers with easier access to sustainable clothing that fits and flatters all body types. The nonprofit estimates that 90 percent of garments created in its programs are made using upcycled textiles that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

“I think in this country we’re very disconnected from the clothes that we wear. Because it just doesn’t make sense to throw away clothes,” said Okaro. “But it’s so meaningful to connect with something that someone made and there’s intention and love in it.”

You can follow Custom Collaborative on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can donate to the nonprofit here.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project