A MUSES classroom for sewing students. • Photo by Tamiko Nimura
A MUSES classroom for sewing students. • Photo by Tamiko Nimura

“You wear clothes every day, and there is someone behind your clothes,” Sandrine Espie reminds me, standing in the middle of a classroom in SoDo that’s full of sewing machines and fabric. Though a roomful of sewing machines might evoke images of sweatshop labor for the uninitiated, Espie is explaining “slow fashion” values to me: “There is a human face behind everything we are wearing—at the end of the day there is a human face, a person behind the machine.”

Espie is taking me through a tour of MUSES, a unique nonprofit startup fashion studio. Together with her business partner, Esther Hong, Espie created MUSES, which offers free training and certification for small classes of screened applicants from refugee and immigrant communities in Seattle.

The two co-founders, along with seven volunteer instructors, are offering eight-week courses on apparel making and job preparation. They hope to provide ways to diversify job opportunities for immigrants and refugees. The curriculum includes an English language component with fashion industry terminology as well as job readiness classes (resume review, interview preparation, training to speak about themselves and their work), for a total of 96 hours.

In early 2012, Hong and Espie had been meeting at Vivace in Capitol Hill. Hong had recently moved from Ohio for a job opportunity as an engineer. Espie had moved to the United States from France to pursue her Masters in Public Administration (MPA) from Seattle University. They connected through their passion for working with and serving refugee communities in Seattle.

“The first thing I realized was how personal all of this was for me,” Hong told me over e-mail. “Coming from an immigrant background myself [as an American Korean growing up in Austria], I really connected with some of their struggles around adjusting to a new, foreign country.  I too had felt the slew of emotions: loneliness, confusion, shame, frustration.”

As an immigrant, Espie could also relate to other immigrants. “I struggled with the language adjustment,” she said. “[But] when you enter a new country, you have to reinvent yourself. Professionally, I was thinking, what am I going to do in this country? What is my social value?”

Both of them were inspired by the resilience of their nonprofit clients at the Seattle branch of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a refugee resettlement agency.

While walking on Pine Street, Espie saw a store that was renting out sewing equipment for people who wanted to use it. Through her work at the IRC, Hong had noticed that “refugees arriving in the United States had many great skills that would benefit employers, especially in working with their hands.  A number came with sewing experience.”

After a number of months working on a plan, MUSES was born, named for their students who are the inspiration behind their work. The studio began offering classes last year, and its second cohort started classes in early 2015. Many students from the first cohort obtained job interviews shortly after they completed their MUSES certification.

“The fashion industry is changing,” Espie tells me, as we walk around the room together, looking at the classroom equipment and materials. She cites the Bangladeshi factory fires of 2012 and 2013 as examples of tragic incidents that brought the world’s attention to the working conditions in garment factories. Through MUSES, she and Hong have worked on matching the needs of a slow fashion industry (sustainably made, locally sourced apparel) with the needs of their students: qualified seamstresses seeking job opportunities. In the short term, they are hoping for other offers of assistance, following a modestly successful 2015 GiveBig campaign. Among other things, interested individuals might sponsor a student’s coursework, donate bulk fabrics for the students to practice, or even help the studio with grant writing. In the long term, Espie says, corporate sponsorship may be a sustainable route for their work.

Whichever path the studio takes, MUSES intends to keep its namesake— its students—at the heart of its mission. “Whenever I think of the many refugees I’ve met over the years,” writes Hong, “I consider it a huge privilege.  In this world so full of problems globally, I’ve gotten a glimpse at the depths of human resilience and kindness.”

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