Abi Ferrin started doing social enterprise long before most people knew the term — but all along she harbored a painful secret that would eventually spark something beautiful.
Most people never stop to think about the buttons on their clothes, but for designer Abi Ferrin, buttons tell an important story about women and power and freedom.
It started in 2004, when Abi’s sister returned from a humanitarian trip to Cambodia with horrific tales of women sold into sweat shops and sex work by their impoverished families. She also returned with bracelets crafted in polished bone by survivors of trafficking. That’s when Abi — who had recently made her name as a designer for LA’s red-carpet events — got the idea to merge fashion and humanity.
She reached out to Sak Saum, a Cambodian rescue organization, to order hundreds of the local hand-polished buttons, first in bone and then in coconut shell. She began attaching a button to every one of her designs, along with a tag describing the bonded servitude that so many women were forced to endure.
Launched officially in 2005 (a year before Tom’s Shoes would popularize the idea of commerce for the greater good), Abi called her humanitarian effort “The Freedom Project.” The project gained momentum as sales grew, including Abi’s first national distribution deal with Nordstrom, which was inked in 2011. Expanding beyond Cambodia, the Abi Ferrin line started working with ethical supply chains in Nepal and Peru, helping to provide more and more women in the developing world with safety, education, and a living wage.
The Half-Life of a Fashion Designer
Yet despite all the success she was enjoying and all the good she was doing, Abi still felt she was “living my life in halves” because she knew that women were being exploited and abused much closer to home.
She knew because she had lived it. Early in her professional life — the heady days in Los Angeles when she was creating one-of-a-kind dresses for movie premieres and award shows — she fell in love with “a charming sociopath” who offered to “help build her credit” by maxing out her credit cards and then paying them off. To “help her focus on career,” he isolated her from family friends. Meanwhile, the abuse was starting — verbal at first, then punching, choking, even a gun to the head.
By the time the police got involved following a violent confrontation on the street, Abi had lost almost everything — confidence, autonomy, relationships, and of course, money. The man had emptied her bank account and left her $250,000 in debt.
Launching The Freedom Project on behalf women half a world away was therapeutic, but Abi never felt it was enough. Around 2012 she began speaking out about her personal ordeal, and by 2015 she was the face of Mary Kay’s “1 in 4” campaign to end domestic abuse. She knew that her story was making a difference; what she couldn’t quite figure out was how to integrate that message into her fashion business.
That changed on a birthday trip to Spain, when she and her friend Rania Batrice stumbled across handwoven scarves in a street market. Abi had long wanted to run a “zero-waste shop,” but using every scrap of cloth is a notoriously difficult goal in the fashion industry. Examining the loop scarf woven together with various pieces of fabric, Abi knew she had the answer to both her environmental and her social challenge.
Back in Dallas, she sorted fabric remnants by color and material, then started to experiment: mixing and matching, braiding fabrics, adding materials like lace, sewing on the Cambodian button, and generally “just making it my own.” The result was something unique, distinctive and versatile, and demand quickly outstripped supply. More help was needed for production, so Abi conducted a two-day training for several women referred to her by New Friends New Life, a local nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual trauma. Everything just clicked — product, process, mission, and business model. “I felt like this is what I was put on the earth to do,” Abi says.
Designing for Love & Freedom
Along with Rania Beatrice and another friend, Elle Lewis, Abi launched Love & Freedom, a vocational training and employment program for survivors of trafficking and domestic abuse. As an entrée into the world of fashion, the women create handmade scarves that are sold to help support the venture. But with 14 hours of paid class time each week, participants quickly pick up additional skills like cutting, sewing, marketing, and management.
On the day that I visit the Abi Ferrin design studio, there’s a happy buzz in the cavernous, two-story loft space. As music blares from an iPhone, three women take their turn parading down the staircase in various permutations of the 5-way Nikki dress that is Abi’s signature design. “I made it myself,” says Nadia, explaining how she mastered complex stitches on five different sewing machines. “A few months ago, I started out with Christmas stockings!”
Abi offers encouragement from the sidelines as the women show off their progress and talk about what’s next. “You’re crushing it!” is something she says over and over again — perhaps a subconscious reference to the dark days of her own life when she felt “crushed” by her own circumstances.
Judging from the joy on Abi’s face, I probably should have guessed that more change was coming. Two weeks after my visit, she emailed me with the news that she was closing down her fashion line to focus more fully on the social enterprise. Using the studio as a design lab, she can expand the fashion output of Love & Freedom, helping even more women to recover from an abusive past.
“The Abi Ferrin brand got me here,” she says, “but Love & Freedom stole my heart, and the machine of retail and collection development is not where my passion lies anymore.”
Without the pressures of retail distribution and production, Abi believes she can better pursue her true passion of helping women who feel powerless — a passion that’s based on her own experience. “I had to be that woman in order to serve her.”
Spend for Good: To purchase a handmade scarf created by a victim of abuse, please click here. Better yet, learn to make your own scarf with this $50 materials kit and a free live stream class by Abi. It’s a great way to make the most of your self-quarantine time! Finally, Abi’s entire fashion line is now available at 50% off as she shifts full-time to the Love & Freedom social enterprise.