“My own clothes have been custom made for a while because I’m tall and a lot of clothes don’t fit me without alterations. I always got such good responses when I was like wearing something custom and realized it was just really exciting and empowering to have something that fits you and makes you feel good. And for a lot of women, off the rack clothing doesn’t fit them either.”
After discovering a hole in the fashion market, Ngozi Okaro founded Custom Collaborative, a New York City-based development program that trains and supports women from low-income and immigrant communities through fashion.
The program nurtures and supports women as they develop sewing skills and tools to overcome employment barriers, turning the tables on marginalized women by lifting them up to economic independence. We got to sit down to Ngozi and go behind her mission to serve an otherwise under-served population of powerful and capable women:
why did you choose this population of women for your fashion impact?
I decided to go with this group of women after being inspired by the woman who was making my custom clothes–a woman from Guinea living in an under-invested community here in NY. It just made sense to me that women like her should be the ones we invest in.
When I first came up with the idea, some people would ask, “are you going to do it in Africa or Asia?” And my response was that I wanted to focus on the low-income women right here at home.
If women have access to commerce they will be able to support themselves and support their families and there will be more economic impact for the community and pathways for them to be civically engaged.
The women who come to the training institute have some skills but not necessarily the commercial skills like how to sell their products. I’ve decided to focus on low income and immigrant women because those are the people who have the least opportunity but that doesn’t mean that they have the least to add–it’s just that we haven’t tapped into them.
How did you get support for your mission?
Getting our first $150,000 was a really big challenge and harder than I thought it would have been especially because I have a background in fundraising. I think that people want to see if the idea will work and if there are others who have invested in it first. It’s almost like they need to see you be really successful before they’ll invest in your idea but you need that extra investment beyond your own money to get started and be successful.
Frankly, being a black woman makes it that much harder for people to see you as a business leader.
What made you use fashion as the medium for the women’s work?
Fashion can be very accessible–everyone needs clothing and shelter and it’s also a way for people to express their individuality. But even more, it’s something that’s culturally appropriate when you think about the different programs being used to get women into the workforce. I just wanted to do something that would be culturally acceptable across many cultures and could connect with many people.
How do you think about sustainability?
I think about it in two ways: environmental, which is the importance of making sure we have a planet that is safe for animals, humans, and plant life. Second, I would say that just as equally important is labor and how are we treating people. For me, fairness and equity have been part of my DNA for as long as I can remember.
What is the journey of your students as designers and sustainable fashion advocates?
The training institute is 30 hours a week for 14 weeks and they learn everything from illustration, pattern design, and sewing. We set them up so that they can be entrepreneurs in their own right. The materials we use in the training process are repurposed and we use donated fabric to produce.
We push our students to think about what their career choices will be when they graduate. When leaving us they have a completed business plan which incorporates sustainability. We help them map out their career and recently held our first career day where the women went to a local factory and received some career counseling.
After they graduate they continue to work with us in the Business Incubator whether it’s through work that we get from independent designers or producing items for Custom Collaborative’s own line that we pay them for. One of our graduates has been doing custom products and she started creating a ready-to-wear line that debuted in June at our Wakanda Fashion Show. We’re a community rooting for you and cheering for your success and helping you navigate.
What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
That I must “Bring the Heat” said by Alfonso Wyatt, a thoughtful genius. Meaning that with everything that happens, I have to be the energy behind it and stay vigilant!
If you weren’t in fashion, what would you do instead?
I would do something that elevates marginalized people and under invested communities–another medium for my original mission.
What brands do you look up to?
Who would you love to see in your brand?
Serena Williams just because she’s totally great she has a great body and is really about empowering women.
Danielle Brooks from Orange is the New Black because she’s like got a great curvy figure as well and we embrace body positivity.
We embrace body positivity and self-expression, so everyone who wants to look good should wear our clothes and accessories!
What is your most favorite thing to wear?
One of the really cool things is to make quality clothes that people can continue to wear for a while so I think about my favorite pieces of clothing and one of them is a suit I have that was my late grandmother’s. I saw a picture of her wearing it from the 1950’s but I still wear it now! I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it and I never even saw her wear it. She was able to pass it along to me which shows the importance of quality clothes that we could have for longer and which help to sustain the environment.
How do you wear your values?
I wear my values by wearing clothes that are good quality so I can wear them a lot. Also clothes that make me smile and that fit me.
Photos: Custom Collaborative