The story of how I went from being a fashion stylist in New York to being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar is one that I rarely recount these days. It seems impossible (to me and everyone else) that there was a time when I was dressing movie stars and attending press events in glamorous venues. But as I get ready to launch my line of Zoona Nova PDF sewing patterns, I find myself reflecting on the strange path that led me to become a fashion designer in rural Malawi-Africa.
If you tell someone you worked for a famous fashion magazine you get a reaction. If you tell someone you gave up a dream NYC job to be a volunteer in a remote African village, you get an even greater reaction. I enjoyed the attention to some extent, partly because no one in my family had ever considered it very noteworthy that I steamed and ironed clothes for a living. Moreover, my mother found it rather improbable that someone like me was working for such a prestigious publication. “Don’t you have to be tall and beautiful to work there?” she asked.
The truth is, I didn’t get my first job in fashion because I looked the part. What got me noticed was my pretty handwriting, and what landed me the job was my ability to speak German. Upon arriving in New York, I faxed my handwritten resume to a few employment agencies. That caused quite a stir at one agency who wrote me back to let me know that this was New York City, not some town in a cornfield (something like that), and if I wanted to be taken seriously I had better get my act together. But my lack of big city sophistication paid off. Just after my fax rolled into the employment agency, another one from a consulting firm in the Twin Towers did the same. They were looking for someone “with pretty handwriting” to write their Christmas cards. I got the gig. After that, the employment agency got past my cursive and had a look at my qualifications. I was sent off to an interview at a famous German fashion magazine and was hired the next day.
Of course, I wasn’t hired on as an editor. My title was editorial assistant, which meant long hours, lots of work, and very little pay. Out of desperation, I had taken a micro studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a rent I could in no way afford. My take home pay after taxes, combined with utility bills and subway tokens left me with almost nothing to live on. To survive (and by survive I mean eat) I had to take a second job at a fabric store on the weekends. I had no phone. I had no furniture. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. My living conditions were desperate, but I worked in the glamorous fashion industry and had a fancy Manhattan address. I kept my pathetic situation a safe-guarded secret. I made do with very little, and learned to be industrious with any bounty that came my way.
The turn-around moment happened during my third year at the magazine. The usual free-lance stylist cancelled last-minute for a shoot that weekend. The editor asked if I would be willing to stand in for the stylist. I jumped at the chance. It was a jewelry shoot with a British actress, and it sounded like a lot more fun than my usual weekend at the fabric store.
That was my first time at a photo shoot. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. But everything somehow made sense, and I understood what was expected of me. To my great delight, I was asked to work on another shoot, and then another, until I had to quit my weekend job at the fabric store. And it wasn’t long before I left my job at the magazine for full-time styling.
Over the next 3 years I assisted on international editorial shoots and top advertising campaigns. My days were spent in designer showrooms picking out clothes, shopping for accessories, and dressing beautiful models in Chanel, Hermes, Prada and Gucci. I was living my dream. The money was good, the days exciting, and my future as a stylist was looking very bright.
But something wasn’t right.
As a girl I had covered my bedroom wall with clipping from Vogue magazine. I had wanted to be a part of that world since I was 12 years old. Why wasn’t I happy? I was there. I was making a name for myself. But for some reason, I still felt like an outsider. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was an impostor, a fake who would soon be revealed to the world and shamed off the golden stage.
One day, on a shoot in Brooklyn, I had an epiphany. I would become a doctor. That was it, I decided. I had traveled down the wrong path, but could turn around and do something important, something meaningful, with my life. I came home, packed my bags, and left for Oregon where I began taking the required science classes for admission into medical school. After a painful year bending my brain in new directions, I was ready to start the application process. I was advised that some field experience would give me a competitive edge, something my unconventional resume needed. This led me to the Peace Corps recruitment office, which resulted in a 2 year health assignment in Madagascar. My epiphany was short-lived, however. After arriving in Madagascar, I quickly understood that being a health professional was not my calling.
I was living in the village for not more than a week when an event would change the course of my career plans. Unable to sleep through the night for fear of all things real and imagined, I had trained my body to nap during daylight hours. My mid-day siesta was interrupted by a frantic knocking and shouting at my door. I found a man outside waving his hands and shouting something which I couldn’t understand. I knew very little French and barely a word of the Malagasy. But it was clear there was a crisis situation and that I was needed somewhere.
I had no idea where we were going, but followed the small crowd that had gathered at my front door through the village. We ended up at a derelict building with broken glass windows. “Hospital!” they said. Was this the village hospital? It seemed impossible.
“Allons! Allons!” I was ushered inside the crumbling structure where I found 4 people standing around a pregnant woman laying on wire bed frame with no mattress. It was hot inside, and dark. There was a sickly, human stench of sweat and blood in the air. It was overpowering and filled me with fear. I knew I was expected to do something, to help in some way, but I could do nothing except stand there with a look of terror on my face. The next few moments stretched out like a movie in slow motion. The doctor, a tiny man in a white lab coat, pointed at a clothesline draped across the room. There were plastic dish-washing gloves hanging from the line. “Take!” he shouted at me. I didn’t move. Someone went over to the clothesline and pulled down a pair of gloves. I knew then that they wanted me to assist in some sort of medical procedure. I began pleading in broken French, “Non, non, je ne suis pas une doctoresse!” But no one seemed to care what I was saying. When I failed to do anything but stand and mumble they finally gave up on me and concentrated on the woman on the bed. She made no sound, and was totally still. Then suddenly, she let out a gasp of air and a deep moan. I stumbled backwards as the group began shouting and the woman twisted in pain. Without warning, the tiny doctor clamored on top of the wire frame. He placed his hands on her belly and started pushing, pushing, pushing…
I came to on a patch of grass outside the hospital. I had never fainted before. The sun was blazing down, blinding me, and a ring of people hovered above me. My body was limp and heavy, but someone was pulling on my arm telling me to go back inside. When my senses returned, I understood that I had passed out while the doctor was pushing the baby out of that poor woman. I picked myself up and stumbled back to my house, vowing to never return to the hospital.
When I tell this story to friends in the medical profession, they remind me that my reaction was normal, especially under those circumstances. They say I would have overcome my fears if I had spent more time at the village hospital. But I learned something very important that day; I didn’t feel comfortable or happy or at peace in that environment, and there wasn’t enough will to make me go back. In my heart I didn’t want to be a doctor. What I wanted was to feel like I mattered, that I was making the world a better place. Back in New York, at that Brooklyn fashion shoot, my brain had latched onto the idea of making a difference through medicine; it made sense, it was respectable, and I understood the steps I would have to take to get there. This gave me direction and purpose, something else I realized I needed in my life in order to be happy. But being a doctor wasn’t who I was. It wasn’t something for which I was ready to fight – because I didn’t have the passion.
Peace Corps let us choose our projects, so I didn’t have to work at the hospital to fulfill my duties as a health volunteer. I eventually gravitated towards income-generating activities in my village that would empower women with economic freedom. That was the idea, anyway. I would discover that turning ideas into projects, let alone achieving some success, isn’t easy. It’s a bumpy ride without a road map. Two years went by fast and it wasn’t enough time to make any sort of impact in my village, but it was enough time to have a profound impact on me.
After two years living without running water and electricity in a small coastal village in Madagascar, I had changed. It had been a battle, with many weeks, even months, of my swearing that I was getting on the next plane and resuming my old life, but I knew I wouldn’t give up. I recognized that I was having the experience of a lifetime, and leaving early would mean never knowing the end of the story. By the end, village life had become normal, and as strange as it sounds, I felt more at home in that remote corner of Madagascar than I ever had in New York City.
But the question still remained, what was I going to do next? I watched as my Peace Corps friends applied for grad school, took expat jobs in the capital, or went back to their old careers. None of those things were right for me. Instead of finding answers about my future, I was now even more confused about the way forward. But for the first time, I was okay with being confused. I didn’t want to make any rash decisions or commitments. Something magical happened to me in Madagascar. My existence was stripped of all the extras, leaving me to concentrate on the core essence of life – living. To my surprise, and despite the many challenges, I discovered that living with almost nothing was easier than living in the big city with all its layers of stress and expectations. I had found happiness in simplicity, and I wanted to hold on to that feeling of peace in whatever I did next.
With no better plan, I booked a one-way ticket to Paris. I ended up staying in France for 4 months. I made friends, did some house-sitting, and even got a job teaching English in a castle. But the whole time I wanted to get back to village life. I started applying for jobs back in Africa, the place where I now felt most at home.
A few months later, I found myself in Malawi with a short-term Peace Corps assignment. My job was to help turn around a women’s income generating group. I didn’t know much about the project before I arrived, except that they were making soap and recycled paper. When I finally got to my site, I was shocked to find a community of Italian missionaries and volunteers living in the same village. It turned out that the women’s group was funded by the Italian mission. But there was no one to look after the soap and paper making activities, and it was about to be closed. I was brought in as the last chance at saving the project.
A few days into the job, I met an Italian volunteer named Andrea. He was helping the mission with their building projects, and he was available to help me restructure the women’s group project into a paper-making studio after I made my case against soap making. (The chemicals were dangerous, the materials hard to find, and the final product was lower quality and more expensive than the soap found in the shops.)
We worked together over the next few months, turning a dark old building into a light-filled space. I quickly understood the paper-making technique and developed faster and better ways of making the sheets. We found a local market for our products, started paying wages to the workers (instead of the charity bag of maize) and hired on a few more people. For the first time, things were happening fast, and they were working. I hadn’t experienced any feeling of success with my projects in Madagascar, and seeing that I was actually achieving my goals was a huge thrill. When my 6 month assignment was up, I didn’t want to leave. I was determined continue the project we had started.
The structure of the project changed, and so did its name. It was now called Chifundo Artisans’ Network, and it grew in size until over 40 artisans were working at the project. We opened an on-site store and began making hand-painted textiles in addition to the recycled paper cards. As the director, I had total creative freedom. I experimented with all sorts of different crafts. We made beaded jewelry, African dolls, handbags, chandeliers, and clothing from “African Wax” fabric. It was a never-ending journey of creativity and resourcefulness.
During these years of artistic abandon, I always felt fulfilled. I looked forward to Monday mornings, when everything started fresh and a full week was before me. I wasn’t paid and I didn’t care. As a volunteer with the mission I had a roof over my head and food on my plate, which was enough. Passion is like that. You are blinded by your one light and everything else fades away. For years I lived that way. And then I started to burn out.
The creative part of my job continued to shine bright, but I was exhausted and often frustrated with the logistics of managing and training so many people. There were cultural aspects that I failed to understand, work politics I overlooked, and unrealistic expectations from all sides. On top of this we had frequent power blackouts leaving the whole staff unable to work, and we were never free from the constant problem of needing to import all of our materials. I was tired and for the first time I started worrying about my financial future and what I was going to do after the (aging) Italian missionaries were no longer around to support the project – and me.
Late in the game I decided to sell the things we were making through Etsy. I had no connections with retailers, no social media presence, and I had never tried to market our products. If this wasn’t a big enough red flag, we also had the problem of exorbitant shipping costs and customs duties. In one year, we had one sale. I admitted defeat and closed that chapter. Shortly after I went to the Italian missionaries and told them I could no longer continue running the project as a volunteer. They understood. The project managed to stay alive for several months after I left, but without the freshness of new designs, constant quality control, and staff management the studio eventually unraveled. After 12 years the doors were finally shut and Chifundo Artisans’ Network was a memory.
A couple of the artisans, who had school certificates and spoke English, moved on to better jobs. A few continued their education. One young man got married and moved to Australia. But the majority ended up with nothing. Most of the artisans at the project were unschooled people from the village who spoke no English. To work at the project, they moved from the village and rented houses in town, leaving the traditional farming life behind. I worry that some of them took loans to pay for smartphones and other temptations of town life. It’s common for people to live beyond their means, and loan sharks are everywhere. The good paying, but ultimately temporary jobs we created may have created lasting financial problems instead of the economic freedom I had hoped for. These are things I never thought about when I started the project. I think about them now.
For years I had been fixated on the idea of job creation. Economic freedom had been my battle cry since my days in Peace Corps. My determination to create opportunities through employment had been the drive behind all of my projects. It was true that jobs were changing lives, but seeing things with a new perspective, I realized that the people who benefited from jobs were the ones who had been to school and were qualified for employment. My idea had always been to “create” jobs for people who hadn’t had the chance to go to school or learn skills. I wanted to train people in craft making and give them jobs, pulling them out of poverty with my own hands. But the ultimate failure of Chifundo Artisans’ Network had shown me that this wasn’t sustainable. The studio had been built around my ideas, and we made what people like me wanted to buy. I wasn’t contributing to an already established idea, providing opportunities for career advancement, or creating a new product that was valued by the local population. Things were never going to work without me at the center – because I was the project.
It was time to start thinking about what I could do next, and do better, now that I had learned so much from previous experience. I spent my time sewing clothes and taking long walks into the villages. Free of my responsibilities at the studio, I also had the energy to teach myself computer pattern drafting. This soon became an obsession. Drafting at my desk instead of standing bent over my table for hours at time was liberating. This new way of pattern drafting helped clear my head and make room for new ideas. It was around this time that I also stumbled upon the world of indie pattern designers.
From there it didn’t take long to make the connection between drafting PDF patterns and a new business idea. There were no materials to import and no shipping costs. People all over the world could have access to the designs, and I would be promoting what is true to my heart and the source of so much joy in my life – the art of creating.
There was something important missing from my plan, however. I hadn’t found the link that would tie my project to the community. I absolutely did not want to have a huge project again, and I didn’t want to train people in some new skill that wouldn’t mean anything once I was gone. I addition, I was enjoying being alone in the studio, finally feeling like an artist, having time to develop my ideas and learn new things. But at the same time I didn’t want to isolate myself from my community. I still felt a very real need to share knowledge and be a contributing member of my society.
Each time I returned from one of my long village walks I would tell stories of trees being chopped down. The terrain would change from walk to walk, with entire fields being cleared of huge mango trees, a main source of food for the villagers during the hungry season. I could see that the trees were being felled for firewood and brick-making. I understood that these were necessary things, but the fact that no trees were being replanted for the future left me very concerned. What would people eat during the next hungry season? Where would they find firewood or fuel to burn their bricks? The population is exploding in Malawi, set to double in 35 years. If things continue this way it’s easy to see that there will be major consequences as people compete for dwindling resources.
One night, while drinking a few beers with friends at the local watering hole, I mentioned the tree-cutting issue and what it would mean for future generations. It turned out that I wasn’t the only person thinking about this. A lively discussion soon broke out. One middle-aged man told a story about a friend who had planted a field of hardwood trees, which were now worth millions of Malawian Kwacha (thousands of US dollars). He admired the man’s foresight, saying his children would be financially secure simply because their father had spent one rainy season planting seedlings in his garden. I was listening. And an idea was brewing.
As everywhere else in the world, people in Malawi worry about money. For most, there is little chance of saving for the future. The majority of people are living hand to mouth. When it comes time to pay school fees, this becomes a serious problem. If the family can’t pay, the child doesn’t go to school. I decided to look at this problem as a motivator. If people planted trees to celebrate a child’s birth, those trees would provide cash, either through fruit sales or timber sales, to pay for the child’s education once he or she reached secondary school age. It was a simple idea but it addressed a big problem; money. I called the idea “School Fees and Trees”.
The discussion that night had legs and soon people were asking about the project, people who wanted to get involved. I began learning about different types of trees that could bring an income to the villagers. I met with extension officers at the forestry and agriculture departments; they were ready to share their knowledge and assist in our tree-planting project. I could feel that this was something important to people. There was already a foundation in place. The skills I could contribute to the project were not fundamental to its success. I could be a facilitator without being at the center. This was the type of thing everyone could be a part of because it would grow from already established roots.
I had found an idea for a project by listening to my community. It had nothing to do with my artistic ways, or my former obsession with job creation, but it addressed the need for economic empowerment. Unlike what had happened at Chifundo Artisans’ Network, this project wasn’t going to entice people to leave their villages and traditional farms for monthly salaries and town life. And my role wasn’t to be the teacher, but to bring people, knowledge, and resources together.
I was free of the chain that linked what I was good at with my desire to make a difference in the world. My creative energy was no longer drowning in the muddy waters of training people in jobs that wouldn’t last. I could now concentrate on building a healthy sustainable business of my own and work with my community to develop a project that would have a long-lasting impact on people’s futures, not just their day-to-day lives.
The need to belong is something we all share. It occurred to me that my dissatisfaction with the fashion industry was not because I didn’t have a passion for beautiful clothes, but because I felt excluded from those clothes and that world in general. I didn’t run with the elite class who shopped for the latest designer looks each new season; I didn’t have the bank account. And standing only 5’2″ meant that no sample sale I was ever invited to was worth attending. I didn’t belong in that club.
Had it been so different for the artisans I trained at the project? They were making beautiful crafts they could never afford; things that had little purpose or value in their own lives. Had they ever truly felt that they were a part of the project, that they were more than just hired hands? By failing to create a project that engendered a sense of ownership and belonging, there was no hope of establishing a strong foundation on which to build a future. Once the key players walked away, the energy evaporated leaving nothing but smoke.
All it takes is a spark to ignite passion. It may not show itself immediately, but it is there, smoldering, waiting for its chance to come alive. While I am not optimistic that the majority of people who worked at the studio improved their lives through the experience, I know that for some it did have a positive impact. One young woman went on to receive her diploma and is currently helping me with the organization of the School Fees and Trees project. She says she was inspired by working at the studio, and that the opportunity to have a good paying job gave her financial independence and the drive to make something with her life. It’s exciting to have her in a leadership role in this new project, and I am learning everyday from her fresh ideas about how to reach people in the villages with our message about trees.
Looking back on my years as a stylist, I know when my love of beautiful clothes collided head on with my need to belong. It created a spark that would only burn years later when I understood that my true calling was to create. It all started that weekend of the Dolce & Gabbana pants.
The magazines I worked for shared a fashion closet. This is where all the designer goods we ordered from the showrooms were stored before they were sent out to various shoots. Our closet, being shared by so many magazines, was usually a disorganized mess. It looked a bit like a spoiled teenager’s bedroom, with forgotten clothing and accessories stuffed in shelves or piled on the floor. Like so many other days, I was working in the closet, pulling together looks for an upcoming shoot. I started going through the orphaned bits and pieces looking for anything that might work for the story. And then I saw it. Between heavy garment bags marked for an Italian fashion shoot was a single pair of pants unlike anything I had ever seen before in the fashion closet. They were a light grey color, classic in cut, and made from a beautiful summer wool. But what made them so special was their size. I pulled the pants from the rack and put them against me. They would fit! I checked inside to find the label; Dolce & Gabbana. What was happening? There were no 5’2″ models. Why were these in the closet?
I packed up the clothes I needed for the shoot, and at the last-minute added the Dolce & Gabanna pants. I the told myself that they might fit the model, that I could have misjudged the size. Of course, I was lying. I felt a strong kinship to those pants, and I wanted them near me. The next day, before the rest of the crew arrived, I tried them on. I stood in front of the mirror admiring my altered reflection. The shape and cut of the pants transformed me into something new – I was suddenly taller, thinner, and had legs for days. My confidence soared. I didn’t take off the pants. I wore them that whole day, and I felt fabulous.
I had a date later that night with a photographer. I wore the pants. The magic feeling continued. On Saturday I went to a chic little get-together on Park Avenue. I wore the pants. I styled them with a fedora and a low buttoned blouse. I felt sexy and cool and very much like a glamorous young woman living the dream. My friend from the magazine commented on how great I looked. I told her about my Dolce & Gabbana find from the fashion closet. She thought about this for a minute. The she dropped the bomb. “I bet those belong to the Italian editor, she always leaves her stuff in there, and you know, she’s exactly the same size as you.”
An electric current bolted down my body. I was wearing a very famous editor’s pants. I had basically stolen them from her closet. Oh my God. What if she was looking for them? What if she found out? The following day I went to the best dry-cleaner in New York, the one we used when we mucked up a couture gown with makeup, and had the pants cleaned. I rushed the pants back to the closet, sticking them in the same location I had found them. The Cinderella story had ended. I was back to being me. But my weekend affair with the Dolce & Gabbana pants had opened my eyes to the magic of custom fit and perfect cut. I knew the right clothes had the power to transform. Sadly, at that time, although I had piles and piles of gorgeous cloth from working at the fabric store, I had no idea how to sew. Only many years later, in Africa, would I learn that skill.
It has been a crazy road from glossy magazines to Peace Corps to a design studio in Malawi, but along the way I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I can contribute to the world. I want Zoona Nova Patterns to give people an opportunity to express themselves and to experience that powerful feeling of owning their personal style. They are drafted with a shorter woman’s frame as the sample size, a nod to the petites out there who have always had trouble finding clothes that fit. Our taller sisters can easily alter the patterns by expanding them along a designated line, so we haven’t left anyone out! Part of the profits from the sale of Zoona Nova Patterns will go towards the School Fees and Trees project. In this way I can share the project across the globe, and together we can help communities come together to plant trees for a better future.