More Than Just Measuring And Stitching

 Eileen O’Garro, valedictorian of the September 2018 graduating class at Custom Collaborative’s Training Institute.

Eileen O’Garro, valedictorian of the September 2018 graduating class at Custom Collaborative’s Training Institute.

by Auden Barbour

“This is a great place to start getting out of your comfort zone,” says Eileen O’Garro, valedictorian of the September 2018 graduating class at Custom Collaborative’s Training Institute. Eileen’s story exemplifies the commitment, hard work, and creativity the Training Institute requires of its students. When she first enrolled, she recalls, “I was thinking it was going to be something very cutesy, but you quickly realize that it’s pretty intense.”

Since childhood, Eileen has enjoyed handicrafts. “Not having the finances to buy a lot of clothes, I figured it would be more economical to make my own. I used to make my brother these little hand warmers that you can fill with rice and then put it in the microwave. Super handy!” Working as a nanny, she developed a special interest in children’s clothing and wanted to learn more. “There was no amount of YouTube that could help me at home. I definitely needed a hands-on teacher,” she explained. The Training Institute offered her a new opportunity.

Three times each year, the Training Institute admits a new class of nine to 12 students to its concentrated 14-week program in the art, craft, and business of fashion, which runs Monday through Friday, 9 am to 3 pm. The work is hard, but the reward is high. On a typical day, Lead Instructor Daniel Concepcion starts with a specific step-by-step lesson and hands-on instruction. Students are given time to attempt each task on their own, often with Daniel’s much-needed guidance. Lessons are progressive, encouraging students to build upon what they’ve already learned.  

As Eileen advanced her design and production skills, she found that the Training Institute offered far more than just measuring and stitching. The relationships she built in the classroom were also very important. “My classmates referred to me as the class lawyer,” she joked. “Learning how to be diplomatic in class helped me be diplomatic outside of class. It was an exercise in patience and in listening to other people instead of imposing my own opinions.”

The Training Institute supports students holistically, with resources that help them improve their communications skills, work habits, and personal financial management; high levels of dedication and commitment are evident in many ways. When sickness kept Eileen bedridden a week before graduation, she was just about ready to quit. But staff and students decided that Daniel would go to Eileen’s house, where they spent two days together finishing her final project. “I definitely cried,” she recalled. “I just could not believe the kindness that people had shared with me. You never know who’s for you until you’re in that space of need, and they were definitely there for me. That was the highlight of my whole experience.”

 Eileen and her Sew Sisters, September 2018 graduating class at Custom Collaborative’s Training Institute, wearing their final looks designed and made by them using upcycled materials.

Eileen and her Sew Sisters, September 2018 graduating class at Custom Collaborative’s Training Institute, wearing their final looks designed and made by them using upcycled materials.

As graduation neared, Eileen’s classmates elected her their valedictorian. And they were thrilled by what they agreed was her “incredibly eloquent and passionate” speech at the ceremony. “Actually, I can’t take credit for that,” Eileen demurs. “On the day before graduation, when we were here until 3 am, everyone contributed something to that speech, which made it all the more special for me to deliver it. It was everyone's voice.” Be that as it may, her loved ones took pride in her being at the podium: “My family was just hooting and hollering,” she recalls. “It's definitely something I’ll never forget.”

Eileen continues her work in fashion, implementing important practices that Custom Collaborative values. “One of the really big things I enjoyed about the class was the sustainability aspect, learning how to properly source materials and about the damage that some fashion practices are causing to the environment and also to people…. That’s helped me develop ideas on what I want to do with my own business and how I want to do so responsibly.”

Custom Collaborative works hard to support its students long after they graduate. Eileen recently reached out to Daniel for help with a jacket she’s making, and she emphasizes his willingness to help. “I appreciate all the opportunities provided by the staff, all the emails about events and stuff. It’s nice to know that we’re still being reached out to.” The network that students create among themselves is also strong, as they continue to stay in touch after graduation, offering mutual support along with news about work and advanced learning opportunities.

During October 2018, the Training Institute hosted open houses where students had the opportunity to learn about the program and meet the staff. A new class commenced on November 6th and we can’t wait to see what our newest cohort will create!

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Jennifer, a new student in our current Training Institute, is a first generation Latina-American from The Bronx. She’s always been interested in fashion, but was unable to pursue it until now. Her mother, who died when Jennifer was young, loved fashion and made her own clothes. She remembers being beautifully dressed as a little girl and hopes to follow in her mother’s footstep. Jennifer’s excited by the possibility of helping to build a strong community: “I want to feel that I am collaborating with an incredible group of people and that I can hone a beautiful relationship with them,” she says. “I hope to grow together with everyone.”

As Eileen reflects on her experience at the Training Institute, she offers advice for new students like Jennifer: “Stay positive! It’s a process. When you’re learning something new there are frustrations that come with it.” She encourages students to value their work and see the bigger picture. “Think beyond what the product will look like,” she urges. “Think about the longevity of the product and how you want to express your creativity.” She also emphasizes the importance of community, without which she might not have made it through. “It's important to make friends,” she advises. “Make yourself available to new opportunities and new experiences.” Lastly, Eileen comments on Custom Collaborative as a whole: “This is a very loving and understanding space. Give yourself the opportunity to experience something new and rewarding.”

Auden Barbour is Custom Collaborative’s communications intern and a first-year student at Columbia University’s Barnard College.