‘Introspection’ Is Key to Equitable Partnerships

With the impact of the coronavirus still being felt, one thing is certain: humanity and connection are taking precedence over simple business.

But there is more than just the pandemic weighing on communities, in what Ngozi Okaro, executive director of Custom Collaborative, called “a trifecta of crises,” referring to the crises of COVID-19, the economic recession and the racial injustices disproportionately laying siege to Black and Brown communities.

“All three of these are related and the women in our program are hard hit by each of them,” said Okaro, referring to Custom Collaborative’s recent eighth cohort of graduates coming from its training program. The program provides women from low-income and immigrant communities in the New York City area the opportunity to break into careers in fashion with paid and sustained work.

During a panel discussion, designer Mara Hoffman spoke of the trials of having to cut the size of her business by furloughing 40 percent of her employees. In a recent e-mail to customers, she highlighted the company’s 20 years in business while announcing a bombshell decision “not to produce our fall 2020 collection.”

The company will utilize existing inventory in lieu of the original designs to preserve capital and aid the propulsion of the company to a direct-to-consumer model.

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Similarly, moderator Lauren Shields of nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility’s HerProject, a division committed to gender equality, added context to the crisis happening in countries like Bangladesh, where garment manufacturing accounts for a majority of the economy.

With so much disruption happening, how does a sustainable partnership begin?

Hoffman looks to the pathfinders who came before and current partners for inspiration, saying: “They have influenced us immensely to shift our understanding of sustainability and redefine it through a much more holistic approach that holds social, racial and environmental justice at the core of this framework.”

“We see sustainability as something that has to happen from the roots up, as opposed to the leaves down and sort of starting from this top level. We need to get to the root which starts with grassroots and community level work, and that’s happening in tandem with the top level,” added Hoffman.

It’s not seeking out collaborations that are driven from traditional needs, Hoffman reiterated: “Making new product isn’t the driving force for this.”

BSR’s Lauren Shields, Custom Collaborative’s Ngozi Okaro and designer Mara Hoffman. Courtesy

In this light, collaborative impact means paying everyone fairly and re-centering the people crafting the garments, while sharing resources like sustainable materials and manufacturing know-how to create a new “sustainable paradigm.” While the companies partnered for the production of personal protective equipment, they also celebrated Custom Collaborative’s first virtual graduation together, where Hoffman was a guest speaker. As they have shown, partners are there for the long haul.

Okaro highlighted the importance of introspective leadership, asking, “How does one lead and partner all the time? That’s what Mara and her team have done all the time. Even thinking about the clothes that I’m wearing today it was silk donated by another woman-owned company, Hanky Panky.”

“Leadership is, again, once you’ve done the introspective work, you’ve assessed yourself and acknowledged where there might be failings, next is to figure out how you fix it,” added Okaro.

Last January, Custom Collaborative was a recipient of the 2020 Gucci Changemakers Impact Fund and has seen brands like Eileen Fisher and Lafayette 148, and textile and clothing waste solutions like Wearable Collections and Fabscrap, as partners.

“At Custom Collaborative, we work with a lot of brands and we place women in internships and jobs, and so starting this spring we decided that it’s really not fair to place someone in a place where the people ‘seem nice’ — we want the people to be equitable and inclusive, so we ourselves have started anti-racist training for brands.”

Okaro continued: “We want to make sure everyone who comes to work with us has done the work and can have a work environment for Black and Brown women, and really for everybody, who is welcoming and affirming and accepting and where they can do their best work.”

What underlying elements are key in effective partnerships?

For Okaro, good partnerships play up partners’ strengths, she said, adding, “I think it’s knowing what skills and resources other people have and making sure we’re bringing the right things to the table and honoring people’s experience and being open to asking questions.”

“For us, it’s knowing when to speak and knowing when to be quiet,” said Hoffman, highlighting Okaro’s notice of the value of introspection. “If you’re an unconscious human being, it’s impossible to be a partner that actually shows up in a meaningful way.”

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