Fashioning a Future for Displaced People

Fashioning a Future for Displaced People

December 28, 2020 • by Mai Zahrat


Fashioning a Future for Displaced People

Fashioning a Future for Displaced People 1670 939 Mai Zahrat

This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.

Atia with her baby daughter

Seated across from her interviewers, Atia fought back a sense of discouragement. Threads by Nomad, a startup fashion brand out of Houston, had circulated a call for seamstresses throughout the area’s tight-knit refugee community, and Atia jumped at the opportunity. She’d operated a sewing machine in an assembly-line setting back home in Afghanistan, but since resettling in Texas, work had been all but impossible to find.

Her situation is hardly unique. Combined with a lack of language skills, reduced job availability is a common problem for the refugee community. According to one study comparing refugees to other immigrants, refugees are twice as likely to be unemployed, regardless of education level. Often refugees who were professionals in their home countries are unable to find work that’s a match for their skills, so they’re left with the choice of taking a minimum-wage job or depending on state assistance to feed their families.

Threads was envisioned as a boutique fashion brand that would “create opportunities to thrive for those who are displaced or in danger of displacement.” Founded by the mother-daughter team of Nell Green and Christen Kinard, Threads sources its fabric abroad, then hires refugees stateside to produce dresses, separates, and more. They also offer accessories and home goods made possible by partnerships with micro-entrepreneurs around the world.

“Threads is the entrepreneurial manifestation of who I am as a person,” Christen tells us – a means of fusing a deep love of humanity with unique, made-to-order fashion.

One of the mottos at Threads is “Celebrating Diversity with Design.” Besides offering a paycheck, Christen wants her team to feel accepted and appreciated.

Employers, she says, can take an active role in helping new arrivals feel comfortable being their whole selves while living in a new place. That can be rare in the refugee experience, where many feel pressured to shed parts of their identities in order to fit in.

A Sense of Place

Christen knows a thing or two about feeling out of place. She spent her childhood between France, Senegal, and Belgium, where, much like Threads’ refugee partners, she had to acclimate to unfamiliar surroundings.

“My parents worked their entire careers with displaced people of all kinds, so we were very, very familiar with the work they did growing up.”

Coming face to face with what she terms “real poverty” while she was very young left a deep imprint on her character: Since her earliest days in Senegal, Christen recalls feeling a sense of responsibility to care for her neighbor, and “my neighbor is everyone.”

The mother-daughter team behind Threads by Nomad

That’s not to paint a dreary picture of her life in Africa, however. Growing up abroad refined her sartorial tastes as she accompanied her mother, Nell, on weekly visits to the local fabric market and tailor. Christen remembers making specific requests to the tailor, effectively designing her own clothes from the age of 7 or 8.

Those experiences led to a career in fashion and retail, but Christen says the absence of a humanitarian element left her longing for a way to support others through the work she loved.

A return trip to Senegal in December of 2015 was a natural setting for tangibly connecting the two strongest themes of her life.  While there, she and Nell developed Threads in concept – a way to tie their respective experience and connections into a coherent impact plan, with fabric at its heart.

Calculating the Ripple Effect

Hayder the master tailor poses with his sewing machine

It took nine months to equip a studio and connect with the initial staff; and the following September, a month-long Kickstarter campaign brought Threads to life. The studio was “strategically placed” in an area accessible to Houston’s refugee community by public transit.

One of the earliest hires was Hayder, a master tailor newly arrived from Iraq, where he’d been kidnapped by Al Qaeda on three different occasions. In Houston, he was working at a car wash for minimum wage, but with the help of Threads, he was able to put his talents to work – and put two children in college.

“To say that this man is talented is a dramatic understatement,” Christen notes. “I’ve never come across anything Hayder couldn’t do, and some of my designs were not straightforward.”

Until the pandemic, Threads released between 3 and 5 curated collections per year. Working with fabrics sourced from every corner of the world, Christen tries to be intentional about honoring the cultures where her materials originate, even taking inspiration from their out-of-the-box approaches to sustainability.

The Custom Patchwork Jacket, for instance, is adapted from a method the Wolof people, a large ethnic group in Senegal, use to mend their clothes. A local religious sect known as the Baay-Faal traditionally value hard work so highly that they patch their clothes instead of taking time to buy or make new. Literally tailoring the custom to Western needs, Threads’ bomber jacket is created out of meaningful items from a client’s old wardrobe, or from fabric scraps available at the studio.

The company’s mission to engage with refugees dictates both design cues and business decisions, as evidenced by the interview with Atia. While the sewing position that brought Threads to her attention wasn’t a perfect fit, her embroidery skills and desire to collaborate led Nell in particular to think of an alternative role.

“At the time, we were still trying to figure out if we wanted our labels printed, but obviously, we wanted to be as sustainable as possible,” Christen relates. “It was a challenge to find a sustainable option, so we came up with the idea of paying Atia per label, to hand-embroider every label we put into our clothing and accessories.”

As Atia, Hayder, and other refugees find dignified employment and put their expertise to use, Christen sees a ripple effect at work. Though she can’t assign a concrete number to Threads’ impact, refugee artisans often send money back to family members still living in their home countries, thereby multiplying the good one job can do.

Bringing out the Best

As fabrics play a central role in the business, import restrictions resulting from the pandemic have made it impossible for Threads to operate in the same way as before. Hayder continued coming into the studio and made up every bit of spare fabric into masks, but a lack of new materials leaves no way to design, photograph and sell fresh collections under lockdown.

“We’ve had to look at our business model in creative ways and I really think we’ll be better off for it. In moving to a primarily online-based business, we’ll be able to streamline a lot of our expenses, which will enable us to invest more in the people who work with us,” Christen relates.

With the move to a new studio in Charlotte, NC, Christen and Nell are coordinating remote work for those among the original Houston refugee artisan group who wish to continue collaborating on a contract basis. 

Atia, for one, still handles Threads by Nomad’s embroidery needs, and she’s become autonomous to the point that she takes an equal role in supporting the household she shares with two of her grown sons. 

She’s now far more comfortable speaking English and interacting with the other staff, as well. During the filming for their brand video, Christen was astounded by the transformation, as Atia came running and caught her in an unmistakably confident, enthusiastic hug.

“When you see someone for who they are, and not just what you might need from them, that really brings out the best in them,” observes Christen. “I think that’s what we were able to do for Atia – recognizing who she is, and what she might want to contribute.”

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Cause: Hope • Format: Small Wonders
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