Women Fashion Power

by Sarah Cole Kammerer Women Fashion Power

A few weeks ago, a friend shared with me a picture of the following text “Women Fashion Power: Not a multiple choice”. It was in reference to an exhibition of the same name currently at the Design Museum in London. The exhibition shows how public figures - princesses, elected officials, CEOs - have used fashion as a tool of self-expression and empowerment to build reputation, attract attention and assert authority.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend Heshima Kenya’s 2014 Fashion Challenge. The evening’s goal is to both celebrate and support refugee girls and young women in Nairobi who have been welcomed into the Heshima Family. These women - often children and youth, often victims of violence and rape, often pregnant, often abandoned by their families - have nowhere to go. The organization provides shelter, education and a loving community that shows these women that they too can have strength and health, hope and dignity.

The Fashion Challenge highlights the Maisha Collective, Heshima Kenya’s income-generating project in which the women produce beautiful hand-dyed scarves. The product, is beautiful, however, it is the process that is the real art. The Collective teaches business management and marketing skills through the design and production of scarves and textiles and, as as result, the women develop the confidence and leadership skills needed for future independence.

Fashion: used to build reputation, attract attention and assert authority.

Last night simply was a celebration. We were joined by some of Heshima’s girls, as they affectionally call themselves; women who won the refugee ‘lottery’ to come to the United States. I was amazed by these women - women who have overcome horrors we can’t begin to imagine - their quiet strength, beauty and intelligence radiating throughout the room.

The event was generously hosted at Room 1520, a loft-like event space in the West Loop. It had a high-end fashion feel; immediately it felt as if I was attending Fashion Week in New York City. A special thanks to Pure Kitchen Catering for their delicious bites, Empirical Brewery for their selection draft beers (loved that Honey Hypothesis) and Wirtz Beverage for their generous donation of red and white wine.

Five designers from Chicago participated in the Project Runway-inspired competition. The designers - Borris Powell of Borris Powell, Katelyn Pankoke of Elaya Vaughn, Lagi Nadeau of Lagi Nadeau, Meredith Banzhoff of Meredith Banzhoff and Kahindo Mateene of Modahnik - received two Maisha Collective Scarves chosen at random and then had two weeks to design a dress and accessory.

As the models strutted down the runway in the beautiful colors of Kenya transformed into designs that any woman could wear, I couldn't help but think of Fatuma, a woman who couldn’t read or write when she arrived at Heshima. Today, she is a project manager for the organization in Kenya and the co-author of a graphic novella. Or Ailene, the 18 year old artisan from DRC and mother of her beautiful 2 year old son Joshua, who, when she learned about the fashion show in Chicago said: “I am so happy. It makes me want to produce beautiful designs for people all over the world."

The winner of the Fashion Challenge was Modahnik, whose beautiful backless dress elicited ohhh’s and ahhhh’s from the entire room. But the real prize was a night celebrating women, fashion and power and I was so honored to be a part of it.

Sarah Cole Kammerer is a communications and engagement consultant and a member of the Heshima Kenya Fashion Challenge Planning Committee. —— If you missed the event and would like to purchase a scarf, please visit our Etsy Shop or follow this link to make a donation.

To see images or tweets from last night check out: #HKFashionChallenge, #FashionEmpowers, #MaishaCollective, #EveryScarfTellsAStory, and #HeshimaKenya. And while you’re there, be sure to follow Heshima on Twitter @Heshima_Kenya and Instagram @HeshimaKenya.

A special thanks to our fabulous host: Windy City LIVE's co-host, Val Warner and our judges: Dawn Bonasera, Global Store Director, Louis Vuitton - Michigan Avenue Erica Strama, Marketing Manager at The Shops at Northbridge Trevian Kutti, Style Guru

Thanks to our Host Committee: Shermin Kruse, Event Chair; Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, Honorary Chair Mimi Frankel, Scott & Chris Gordon, Jen Cullerton Johnson, Candace Jordan, Mindie Kaplan, Andrea Kramer, Ann Laatsch, Phyllis Nolan, Naomi Ollis, Daphne Ortiz, Jill Rasmussen, Erin Reichl, Anne Ream, Alisa Roadcup, Rebecca Singer, Joshua Yates, Emily Hughey Quinn, Olga Bugaeva, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, Angela Corsa, Rose Rutzen, Rosalind Raddatz, Souk Supantavong, Talyn Good, Zubin Talib, Luz Adriana Leahy and Patricia Amira.

And to our Planning Committee: Emily Knies, Event Director; Souk Supantavong, Fashion Director Shanita Akintonde, Nora Brathol, Sarah Cole Kammerer, Angela Corsa, Stephanie Juckem, Kristen Field, Elizabeth Futrell, Carly Hopps, Emily Knies, Alisa Roadcup and Souk Supantavong.

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