New Albany fashion show raises awareness of human trafficking
She will wear dark makeup — black lipstick, heavy eyeliner, smoky eyes — and messily teased curls; and move across the stage at the McCoy Community Center for the Arts in a full textured skirt and velvet strapless top, accompanied by a neck-and-shoulder piece of intertwined ropes.
“It’s very powerful to get to embrace this character and personify the story behind the dress,” Rezabek said.
That tale that her outfit weaves, in fact, is a disturbing one. It reinforces how a human-trafficking victim feels “tied” to the streets, as reflected by the struggles of victims, even when rescued, to break free from the grip of pimps and prostitution.
The 18-year-old Rezabek is among 30 students who will serve as models for the Unchained Fashion Show — a different sort of runway event whose message runs far deeper than the latest prints and hottest summer colors.
The show tells a trafficking survivor’s story — from early childhood abuse and trafficking target to rescue and restoration — via the garments designed by Momolu, who has shown collections during New York Fashion Week and was runner-up in 2008 on the TV reality show “Project Runway.”
It is accompanied by powerful narration and statistics, said Felicia Kalan, co-founder of the nonprofit organization also known as Unchained.
Since 2013, Kalan and Stephanie Catani have produced more than 20 such shows, pairing with community partners to raise awareness of a problem not often discussed and to aid survivors in their recovery.
“Every person is born with value and worth; every person deserves to be free,” said Kalan, 26, of the Clintonville neighborhood. “Just the fact that there are people in bondage keeps us going. We are here to expose this darkness and show that there is hope that this slavery can be eradicated.”
Like many people with whom they share their show, Kalan and Catani knew little about trafficking until they began researching the topic — Kalan while living in India and Catani while studying at Ohio State University. Both were stunned to learn how prevalent the crime is in the United States.
Among the 20.9 million people trafficked annually worldwide for labor and sex, hundreds of thousands are Americans, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“I had traveled to 25 different countries and I knew it was probably happening overseas, but when I found out it was happening in the U.S., and then in Columbus, I couldn’t believe it,” said Catani, 31, of Dublin. “I was in quite a bit of denial.”
In Ohio each year, more than 1,000 children (with an average age of 12) fall victim to human sex trafficking, and many others are at risk, according to a study released in 2010 by the Ohio attorney general’s office.
The idea of melding fashion with the issue originated while Catani was working in Liberia for a human-rights organization. There, she hosted a fashion show (with the help of Liberia native Momolu) to encourage women to put their lives back together after the civil war.
Upon her return, she met Kalan, who with husband Andy wondered whether Catani might modify the Liberian show to focus on human trafficking in the United States while still using Momolu’s garments. They planned a show in 2013 at Ohio State.
“Then people started asking, ‘When is the next show?’” Catani said.
To host a show, community members or an organization typically raise the $5,000-$10,000cost of the show, some of which can be offset by ticket sales or sponsorships. (For those that can’t, Unchained relies on grant money.)
She Has a Name, a Columbus-area group committed to anti-trafficking efforts, used Unchained for the entertainment at its annual benefit in 2014 and 2015.
“Obviously, one of the hurdles of the nonprofit is it’s not easy to just walk up and say, ‘Let’s talk about human trafficking,’” said Courtney Schmackers, communications manager for She Has a Name. “It makes the topic approachable and creates a call to action.”
The models, who are volunteers from the sponsoring agency, become “abolitionists” while Kalan and Catani educate the volunteers on statistics, warning signs and sources of help. They’ve also created an app (Unchained #itendswithme) featuring a training curriculum on human trafficking.
The couture is what originally drew Mackenzie Lunde to Unchained.
Asked to create a special-events plan for a school project at Kent State University, she chose Unchained to research.
“I didn’t know much about human trafficking, but I wanted to do something with fashion,” said Lunde, who graduated over the weekend. She chose to execute the plan.
In April, 550 people watched the Unchained show performed by Kent State students.
“How they combine fashion and human trafficking, it’s very life-like,” Lunde said. “A lot of people think that it’s a poor upbringing that leads people tonow doing drugs for a pimp, but there’s a lot more to it.”
The show today marks the third for New Albany High in as many years, with students set to showcase a new collection from Momolu, the second she has created for Unchained.
This year’s student director, Anitra Karthic, said the show message is important for students to hear frequently.
“The whole age connection got me, and we’re sitting in this classroom in a very secure location with security guards in the hallways — girls around the world don’t always have that comfort,” Karthic said.
Plus, trafficking can infiltrate even a community as privileged as New Albany.
Any extra funds raised by ticket sales or donations at the show go back to Unchained to fund scholarships for victims. With help from other fundraising streams for the organization, Kalan and Catani awarded their first two scholarships in the spring.
“In this country, we still haven’t reached the tipping point in awareness,” Catani said. “But to be a part of the saturation point is what inspires us.”
©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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