Newcomers to St. John’s stitch together futures in fashion

Newcomers to St. John's stitch together futures in fashion 1

Members of the Creative Sewing Atelier in St. John’s are learning new skills in a new country

Newcomers to St. John's stitch together futures in fashion 1Dorcas Kayembe, a refugee and aspiring fashion designer, works at the Creative Sewing Atelier’s studio on Harbour Drive in St. John’s. (CBC)

It began, for Dorcas Kayembe, with a few darned socks — modest garments Kayembe’s friends asked her to mend in her spare time.

“I started to do it small,” Kayembe said, folding and measuring floral-print cloth as she speaks.

As she progressed from simple fixes to making bandanas, tote bags and even dresses from scratch, she explained, “I started to develop my idea.”

Kayembe works as a home-care nurse in St. John’s — picking up evening shifts at Dollarama — but eventually intends to open a bespoke clothing business, selling outfits inspired by the esthetic of her home country.

She was forced to flee the Democratic Republic of Congo, first to Namibia and then Montreal, eventually settling in Newfoundland last year, where she first began to sew.

But rather than wrestle with complicated patterns and techniques by herself, she joined a burgeoning local collective: the Creative Sewing Atelier, a class and club offered for free to newcomers and locals alike.

‘I can’t limit myself’

Alongside 40 or so other students, Kayembe has learned to quilt and mastered the serger.

“I’m here now to be strong, to develop everything,” she said. In the near future, Kayembe wants to sell her bold, Congo-inspired dresses at a weekly farmers’ market.

Newcomers to St. John's stitch together futures in fashion 2Constanza Safatle, the Atelier’s co-ordinator, shows Kayembe how to slice through cloth with a rotary cutter. (CBC)

Eventually, she’d like to generate enough income to quit her two jobs and sew full-time. “That’s why I’m here. I can’t limit myself, that I know.”

Constanza Safatle, a Chilean lawyer who immigrated to Newfoundland and Labrador two years ago, had no connections when she landed in St. John’s. Even learning English was hard, she said, let alone making friends or finding a job.

Newcomers to St. John's stitch together futures in fashion 3Kayembe points to the clothing she’s been experimenting with. She’s sold the red dress. (CBC)

So when a local seamstress died and left eight sewing machines for new Canadians, Safatle, who by then worked as a co-ordinator with the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council, hatched a plan for others making St. John’s their home.

The Atelier launched in January. Six months and two dozen new students later, Safatle is planning a fashion show to promote the Atelier’s designers. Each student will produce an outfit from their home country — a men’s suit from Venezuela, an embroidered Mexican blouse and skirt, and a Congolese dress are all in the works.

Students like Kayembe, who want to hinge a business on bespoke fashion, sell items on consignment at the Atelier’s farmers market booth, a system that also makes a bit of cash for the program’s supplies.

Kayembe offers her tote bags for $20 each, and says can churn out a couple every week between shifts and other projects. She’s optimistic about her future on the craft-loving north Atlantic coast: one-of-a-kind dresses and handcrafted handbags will do well here, she thinks.

Newcomers to St. John's stitch together futures in fashion 4Without the Atelier, Kayembe says, she would have given up on her dreams of owning a clothing business. (CBC)

“This place has helped me too much. I have a power to do what I’m doing because of this place,” said Kayembe.

“Otherwise I would have given up. That’s why I’m here.”

Kayembe’s time in Montreal was spent struggling to fit in — the native French speaker said she couldn’t speak her own language without feeling like an outsider.

But this city, for Kayembe, is different.

“The people here, they receive me and I’m in their family,” she said. “I’d like to stay in St. John’s.”

Afrotimes Newspaper


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