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May 1, 2018, Flint, Michigan – A fashion runway in Queens, New York, recently proved that creativity and hope can arise from disaster. Models in the Flint Fit fashion show wore rainwear and swimwear made by members of the sewing co-op at Flint’s St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center.
Sister Carol Weber, OP – co-founder of St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center with Sister Judy Blake, CSJ – said the sewing co-op was approached about two years ago by artist Mel Chin with the idea of sewing the garments. “He chose us because of our mission,” Sister Carol said. “That was pretty profound.”
Mel Chin and others from the New York fashion world met with Sister Carol and two others from N.E.W. Life Center to discuss the project. “He wanted to know how Flint felt about it,” she recalled. “He really listened.”
Since 2015, when Flint’s municipal water system was found to be poisoned with lead, residents have been using bottled water for their everyday needs, causing a new issue – an overabundance of plastic bottles. The fashion project was a response to the question of what to do with all those bottles.
The project began with members of the N.E.W. Life Center gathering more than 90,000 water bottles over a period of six weeks. The bottles were taken by truck to Unifi, a textile manufacturer in Greensboro, North Carolina, which turned the discarded plastic into fabric. A clothing line was designed by Michigan native Tracy Reese and constructed by workers in the N.E.W. Life Center sewing co-op.
Sister Carol said members of the N.E.W. Life Center sewing co-op became more involved in February, when the fabric made from the water bottles arrived at the center. The women worked from patterns to cut the material and sewed two copies of each item that was to be featured in the fashion show. “It was a work in progress,” Sister Carol said. “It was something our women had never done. They really paved the way.”
But the project did more than transform water bottles into fashion statements. It also transformed the lives of the 13 women in the co-op – and in a particular way, three women who attended the fashion show in New York. The project boosted the women’s confidence “by leaps and bounds,” Sister Carol said. “One of the women even said, ‘Now we know that we can do more than we have been asked to do.’ It’s a good thing for them to understand.”
The women flew to New York on Saturday, April 7, took part in the runway walk during the debut on Sunday, April 8, and returned home the next day.
“It was a stretch for [the women] in many ways,” Sister Carol said. “This was the first time they’d been in New York.” The women in New York were also affected by the responses of other people to their work. “People there asked them about their sewing,” Sister Carol said. “They became professionals to the people gathered there.”
The project did not add extra jobs to the sewing co-op, Sister Carol said. “If there are extra jobs, it depends on if somebody picks up on the design and runs with it, if somebody wants to create and sell the items.” Whether that happens, she added, the women gained a wonderful experience. “It stretched them immensely and they know that they can do more.”
And St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center will still follow up on the experience. The women who attended the fashion show have been asked to give a presentation about the trip – and a mini-fashion show will be staged in Flint.
In the meantime, the swimwear and rainwear is on exhibit through Sunday, August 12, 2018, as part of Mel Chin’s exhibit, “All Over the Place,” in the Watershed Gallery at the Queens Museum.
Feature photo: One of the garments made by the sewing co-op of St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center is featured in a special fashion show at Queens Museum. Photos by Philippe Rohdewald