In 2015, a 30-year-old seamstress named Hawa Fnu walked into Les Fabriques fabric shop looking for a job. She and her husband — who had been working for a U.S. agency during the war in Afghanistan — had been forced to flee their home country after receiving death threats.
Fnu left the store with a part-time job — and the thread for a new career.
Two years later, Les Fabriques shut down, the victim of declining interest in sewing and pressure from online fabric sales. But with the help and business acumen of two partners, Les Fabriques’ former owner, Carla Quenneville, is launching the Charlottesville Dress Company in the coming weeks — and is aiming to employ recently resettled refugees like Fnu.
“The business model is really more of a passion,” Quenneville said. It’s “about allowing immigrants to have jobs in this country and to enjoy Americans’ freedom.”
Quenneville cofounded the dress company along with Beth Pizzichemi and Susan Stimart. Pizzichemi is a project information coordinator for Albemarle County Economic Development, and Stimart recently left her economic development position in the county to focus on the company.
Charlottesville Dress Company’s “launch show,” which will be held at King Family Vineyards on April 18, will raise funds for the International Rescue Committee’s Charlottesville office. (The show originally was planned for last week but was postponed due to snowfall.)
The IRC resettled Fnu and her husband in Charlottesville in 2014, and through that connection, Fnu was able to introduce Quenneville to other refugees with sewing talent.
“Here in the U.S., it’s a bit challenging to find folks who know how to make the clothing, because home [economics] classes haven’t been taught for many years now in the American school system,” Stimart said.
The dress company’s tailors — who will work from home for now — will be refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where tailoring is more of a norm.
The IRC resettles 250 refugees in and around Charlottesville per year, on average. Since 1998, Charlottesville has welcomed more than 3,000 refugees from 32 countries.
One of the most pressing issues is helping those refugees get their first job.
I’ve had to respect a lot of her culture and her religion, which I think has enlightened me. It has opened my eyes and my heart to her. And I think in doing so, it opened her heart to me, as well.
Carla Quenneville, Charlottesville Dress Company co-founder
English fluency is the most significant barrier for most refugees, but doctors and engineers also have to go through a series of exams and recertifications, according to Kiri Van Lengen-Welty, IRC’s volunteer coordinator.
“The first jobs we refer to as ‘survival jobs.’ It may not be a job that’s in their career or whatever they were doing in their home country,” Van Lengen-Welty said. But, she said, “Our hope is that when people get up to speed on English and are in a more stable place, they will come back to us and we can help with their career advancement.”
The IRC has a dedicated employment team, which frequently maintains a relationship with the employer. This helps to protect the refugees against unfair labor practices.
“One of the nice things about the Charlottesville Dress Company is ... it’s a great way for people to use skills that they were already successful at,” Van Lengen-Welty said. For example, “we had a client who had run his own tailoring shop in Afghanistan.”
So far, the suggested donations for the fashion show have exceeded the company’s goal of raising $2,000 for the IRC.
On a small scale, the refugee artisans are reviving a historically important part of Charlottesville industry. From 1829 to 1962, factories in Woolen Mills produced cloth for various items, including Confederate uniforms during the Civil War. And from 1928 to 1999, the Frank Ix and Sons mill just south of downtown was the city’s second-largest employer while producing silk and synthetic fibers — including silk for Allied forces’ parachutes during World War II.
Labor costs killed off the Ix textile company. These days, the site of the mill that once employed more than 1,400 people serves as a restaurant, retail and nonprofit hub.
To keep its own costs down, the Charlottesville Dress Company will sell its individually tailored products through its website, which eventually will let users mix and match fabrics and designs, and will help the company minimize unsold inventory.
Working from home also will help the refugee employees avoid transportation and child care costs, Stimart said.
The April fashion show will showcase the company’s 40 designs. Employees, friends and family of the Charlottesville Dress Company will model the dresses bedazzled with vivid colors and intricate patterns.
“I hope it’s spectacular,” Pizzichemi said, while pulling out a dress with green and yellow circles. “Lots and lots and lots of color. That’s something that we push online a lot, that we want to help people live in color.”
Pizzichemi initially was hesitant about the bright patterns and colors Stimart and Quenneville showed her. But, she said, “Once I tried it on, I was hooked.”
Working with Fnu has changed Quenneville in some ways. “I’ve had to respect a lot of her culture and her religion, which I think has enlightened me. It has opened my eyes and my heart to her. And I think in doing so, it opened her heart to me, as well,” Quenneville said. “She’s just a wonderful human being.”