Old-fashioned Singer sewing machines line the long wooden tables in the design room of the High School of Fashion Industries on West 24th Street. Along the walls hang colorful clothes designed and created by the students.
Every Tuesday and Saturday, participants in the Denim Day Design Project gather in this room to take part in a program that teaches students professional skills, educates them on sexual assault and violence, and helps them use their passion for design to raise awareness about an issue of international importance.
They are currently designing and sewing unique denim pieces under the guidance of Celestino Couture co-directors and designers, Kade Johnson and Sergio Celestino Guadarrama. Celebrities, including Wade Davis and Indya Moore, will be photogaphed and filmed in the clothes. The clothes will also be displayed at the annual Denim Day rally in Foley Square on April 24th and put up for auction.
A Notorious Legal Decision The global event began in 1992 after a rape conviction in Italy was overturned by the Supreme Court when the defense argued that the victim was wearing tight jeans, which she must have helped her attacker to remove, implying consent. The outcome gained notoriety over the years, and today people all over the world wear denim on Denim Day to protest sexual violence.
“The way to distract and make a difference and grab attention is by making something beautiful,” Johnson said. “As soon as you make something beautiful and put it out into the world it starts a dialogue when people’s guards are down.”
From Ghana, With Love Beauty for Freedom is a non-profit committed to providing art therapy to youth who have experienced trauma. Each summer, the organization travels to Ghana to provide their services to at risk youth and survivors of labor trafficking. This year, Monica Watkins, the founder of Beauty for Freedom, brought denim and paint (donated by Rialto Jean Project) with her to Ghana and hosted a three-day workshop where the Ghanian youths painted the denim. And that is the material the High School of Fashion Industries students are using to create their designs.
“Everyone who has touched this denim has a positive intent to make it mean something beyond waste,” Watkins said. “It was thrown away and then we took it back and it’s being turned into something that is the ultimate gift, which is something that could potentially save more lives in this fight to end sexual violence.”
Many Lessons to LearnA key component of the program is to mentor the next generation of designers and activists. The students learn from their design directors how to perform couture sewing on a difficult material like denim, and speakers are brought in for their Tuesday workshop. They range from survivors of sexual violence to big-time designers like Michael Costello.
“Our mentoring program is multiple pronged,” Watkins said. [The students] are learning how to conceptualize, create, and execute garments. But they’re also learning these life lessons that they will take with them. I really want the students to take away from this not things just for the moment, but why advocacy is so important.”
In addition to professional guidance, the program is designed to educate students early about sexual violence and abusive relationships. That is the priority of the Rising Ground Relationship Abuse Prevention Program, which introduces the subject to students in elementary school, according to Connie Marquez, director of Teen Services & Strategic Programming at Rising Ground.
“At any point in which youth are starting to relate and communicate and interact, that’s the time we need to talk about and teach them what respect looks like,” Márquez said.