Freedom and Fashion

Stephanie Mikamo | Photography Intern

It’s Saturday, Nov. 6, and Newsong Church’s parking lot is full of cars and crowds of people. The temperature drops with the sun, which has begun to set, and people are beginning to get a little restless. The doors were supposed to open at 6 p.m. but it is now 15 minutes past the hour and the entrance line is still a confused jumble. When it has all been sorted out, I file into the large foyer.

Welcome to the 2nd annual Freedom and Fashion Showcase and Trade Show. It is a night dedicated to using the beauty of fashion to raise awareness about the ugly truth of human trafficking. The main event is a fashion show, featuring designers here to show and sell their designs to raise money to advocate for victims of human trafficking.
There are booths all around the foyer, some with displays of jewelry, others with scarves or hats. Guests are invited to peruse the booths and encouraged to buy the products offered for sale, many of which are handmade and all of which are fair-trade and eco-friendly.

The night begins with two workshops, each discussing different aspects of what human trafficking encompasses, whether domestic or international. One workshop discusses the exploitation of migrant workers in China. The other deals with trafficking in Southern California.

“This is such a dark subject, but I just want to tell you that there is hope,” Sharon Ngai, an expert in human trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border, says.

The information she reveals is astonishing: Mexico is one of the largest providers of prostitutes to America. U.S. clients can place “orders” for children from sex-traffickers who will kidnap the child and traffic her into the United States, “where she disappears.”

Then, Sandra Morgan, from the Global Center for Women and Justice, steps to the front of the room and speaks.

“The difference between smuggling and trafficking is that smuggling is a crime against a border. But trafficking is a crime against human rights.”

Human trafficking occurs here in Southern California, not just in the far-reaches of the world. Right here, in our own backyards, men, women and children have been forced or coerced into slavery and live in conditions of constant fear and uncertainty.

The workshop ends, and the main event of the night – the fashion show – is about to begin. Guests crowd into the foyer to wait for the doors to the main sanctuary, where the show will be. It becomes so packed that movement is virtually impossible until everyone is allowed to stream into the sanctuary to find their seats.

The runway in the sanctuary is v-shaped; two white catwalks meet at a circular stage in the center of the room.

The music fades as the night’s host, Style Network’s Jeannie Mai, tells the audience how she became involved in the cause.

“Four years ago, I didn’t know very much about human trafficking at all. It was kind of a scary word to even think about,” she says.
But an experience with her cousin in Vietnam drove her to learn more about human trafficking.

“I discovered what a monstrosity human trafficking is. I had no idea – I was scared, you guys … I didn’t want anything to do with it. [I thought] these people are different from me, and I had nothing to relate with them,” Mai says.

While in Vietnam with a non-profit organization, she was able to talk with and learn from the women living in brothels.

“After talking with them about their hair and their clothes … I actually realized that I had two major things in common with every single woman and child I spoke with … They all have a dream to have a future … and they all wanted to be loved. Even if it comes from a wallet, they needed to be loved,” Mai says.

Then the show kicks off with two musical performances, one by Esna Yoon – a singer-songwriter of Youtube fame – and one by “Dr. E” – a professor from Ohio and survivor of sex-trafficking.

“It is such an honor to be a part of Freedom and Fashion, to know that all you beautiful young people are working together to transform lives,” Dr. E says, smiling warmly at the crowd. “The first song [I am going to sing tonight] is called ‘You can’t keep a good girl down … and I would like to dedicate this song to all the people out there who are oppressed. Hope will return.”

Her voice resonates through the room and the audience of about 1,900 listens raptly to the gospel-infused song. When she finishes singing, she bows deeply and walks off-stage, her head held high.
Projection screens around the room show videos of each featured designer as they talk about their inspiration for the line and their commitment to the cause. Some designers, like Raven Lily, use fair-trade items to make their products themselves. Other groups, like Punjammies and Krochet Kids, employ trafficking survivors as a way to help them become self-sustainable, giving them a means of steady income.

The clothes featured range from cocktail dresses to pajamas made by rescued women in India. Both male and female models stride confidently down the runway, pausing at the center stage to pose. One male model hikes up his shirt to reveal taut muscle, and there are several appreciative shouts from the female members of the audience.
The theme for the 2010 Freedom and Fashion Collection is “redemption.” Designer Nancy Wei explains that the red and black color palette of the collection is to signify the horrors that trafficking victims must endure, as well as the juxtaposition of such ugliness against the beauty of fashion.

The red that is so prominent on the catwalk and in the fashion collections is a symbol of pain, blood, the suffering of the victims and “the life-and-death situations that each and every one of the victims endures.” Meanwhile, the fashions that are featured and the models walking down the runway symbolize the journey to stomp down human trafficking.

Ultimately, the night is about redemption. It is about bringing freedom and fashion together, about uniting passions and God-given talents with the desire for justice and human rights around the world. It is about style making a statement.

“Tonight, we’re about Freedom and Fashion speaking loud and proud about what redemption is and what it can do,” Mai says.