This Fashion Designer Uses Her Platform to Uplift All Women

Making clothes is more than just dressing models for the catwalk.

by Rania Batrice
Jul 17 2017, 5:15pm

Photo by Jason Acton

This piece is by political and nonprofit strategist, Rania Batrice. Rania interviewed Abi Ferrin who is a fashion designer, committed to ethical and conscientious practices in the fashion industry.

Full disclosure—I have never been into fashion, I'm terrible at putting looks together, and I would rather wear jeans and a t-shirt any day of any week, always and forever. And since I'm telling on myself, I'll go ahead and reveal understanding the connection between manufacturing, fashion, and being a conscientious consumer wasn't something I fully understood until I found myself thrown into the insane world of a Dallas fashionista.

When I met Abi Ferrin in 2009, her goal was to get me out of my jeans and into her dresses—little did we know she would become my fairy godmother, and we would become sisters, joined by the bonds of passion, purpose and survival.

Rania Batrice: When people think about fashion designers and people in the fashion industry, I think most of our minds go to someone's fancy life in New York or Los Angeles. But that's not exactly where you started and certainly isn't where your roots are. Tell us how this all got started.
Abi Ferrin: Well, I grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and sewing was something I always loved to do.

You weren't always in the fashion industry. How did your career get started?
That's right. After interning for our local congressman in high school, I decided I needed to be involved and double-majored in broadcast journalism and political science in college. But I really wanted to be somewhere that allowed me to be more creative, and that's when I moved to Los Angeles.

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LA is where you started working in film and were exposed to the glamorous life but not so glamorous paycheck.
Exactly. I was getting invited to cool events and fashion shows and parties, but I couldn't afford the wardrobe. So I started sewing my own clothes. And after a little bit of time, people started commenting and asking where I got my outfit. One night, Dayna Devon asked where I got my outfit, and I just blurted out, "I'm a designer!" And that's where it started—Dayna wore the outfit I was wearing, literally the outfit I was wearing was dry cleaned at the hour cleaners and on the red carpet the next day.

At this point, you're still working at a movie studio in Hollywood by day and sewing individual looks and outfits for Hollywood women by night. But there's a part of your story that not everyone knows and some might find surprising.
I thought I was going to become an overnight success—it turns out there are a lot of overnights between start and success! But I was making ends meet because I was still working at the studio.

Then enters Prince Charming. He convinced me to quit my job and focus all of my efforts on being a designer. I started to go from boutique door to boutique door trying to sell my clothes. I was getting orders, Mr. Perfect was wining and dining me, and things seemed to be moving in a great direction. So when he said, "You hate finances, I'll be your business manager and help you run things," I thought it sounded like a great idea.

Little did I know, at the time, he was maxing out my credit cards, booking flights and the most expensive hotels, and eating at the most expensive restaurants, all on my dime. He was constantly convincing me I needed things—like a whole photo studio or my own server—I would ride right past my gut and say, "What do I know; I'm just a simple 23 year old from Wyoming."

Photo courtesy of the author.

But it didn't stop with controlling your business, did it?

No, it didn't. Prince Charming convinced me to move to San Francisco with him, and that's where everything got worse. I became a prisoner in my own life. And he had broken me down to a point where I believed him when he said I was worthless and would be nothing without him. The emotional abuse turned to physical abuse, and I was ashamed and embarrassed.

I got to the end of my rope several times, but I just couldn't leave on my own—I called my dad and asked to come help me move out. When you are in a situation like this, and you tell your parents, that's it. There's no turning back if you have a close relationship with them. As badly as they wanted me to move back home, I couldn't do it. I had to keep following this dream, and I went back to Hollywood.

As oftentimes happens, that wasn't the end of the abuse or the trauma. He found you again.
He did—it was New Year's Eve 2005, and somehow he found out where I lived and showed up at my place. I was walking up to my place, and he just appeared. I threw my keys at him and tried to run. He sucker punched me. As this was all happening, a celebrity actress was driving by in her limo. Her driver stopped, and the actress asked if she could help me.

She told me she was too high profile to get involved in the matter and told her driver they needed to get out of there. As terrifying as it all was, I'm so grateful for that specific situation because two very important things happened—1. The actress' limo driver slipped me his card and said he would be my witness, and 2. Something inside me clicked. I knew I had to make it, if for no other reason than to help the women like me that were laying on the ground.

As much as you hate when I say it, you saved my life. I was laying on the ground when you found me, and I definitely couldn't have picked myself up at the time.
You were the first person, the first situation, where I directly intervened. It took me a while to connect all the dots because, to be honest, I had been charmed by your then-boyfriend. But then all of these red flags started not only flying up but looking really familiar—like I had seen and felt these things before. You were out of town, but the lightbulb went off early in the morning. It was so intense that it woke me up.

Photo courtesy of the author.

I'll never forget it. You called me and said, "I know exactly what's going on, and he's never going to lay another hand on you again."
I just knew. And sometimes it's scary to intervene in someone's life like that, but I knew I had to help you. I remember you telling me your thoughts and feelings and pain and sharing my journal entries with you from my time of survival and healing because I had felt almost the exact same things. That was one of the very first times I started talking about my own past too. I had a lightbulb moment for myself too. I was like, 'Oh my gosh—she is me.'

There was something validating in that moment. You weren't a girl living in a third world country that had been trafficked by your family. You and I were so similar—strong, independent, vivacious, full of life, and yet somehow trapped in this psychotic relationship like I had been. As much work as I had been doing to help girls and women abroad, this moment opened my eyes even more to just how great the need is right here too. You had a lot of great ideas and were a strategic thinker, so that is when we became joined at the hips.

What was it like to get your big break at the Super Bowl back in 2009?

The timing happened to be perfect for both of us. You needed the distraction, and I needed someone that understood my mission and cared about it as much as I did. The Super Bowl was going to be in Dallas. Every year, Off the Field (the NFL Players Wives Association) chooses a designer to partner with at the Super Bowl and hosts a series of events together throughout the year, including a fashion show benefitting various organizations and efforts over Super Bowl weekend.

While they usually go with big brand or store names that are required to make a hefty financial contribution, they waved that standard fee and decided they would raise the money through ticket sales and a silent auction instead. With the honor of being named Off the Field's featured designer of the year also came the opportunity to pitch a big name, high end retailer on a fun Super Bowl concept—my signature 5-way dress made in custom colors to match the teams that would be playing in the Super Bowl. The retailer really got behind my made in America brand and my commitment to ensuring fair trade and fair labor practices.

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At that time, all of your pieces were still being sewn in house by your team of designers and sewers. How did you manage that big increase in volume and a big need for more output than what your team could possibly do?

It would have been easy to increase my bottom line and turn a blind eye to the way people are treated and the slave labor that is and has been a part of the fashion industry. But I refused to do that—I still refuse! There were some sewing houses in Dallas that had to shut their doors because of outsourcing. I was able to get in contact with some of them and get lights turned back on. The great thing about that was it was in my backyard. So not only could I go inspect the work conditions on a regular basis, my team and I could also make sure that every garment was the quality we needed and expected.

After the success of the Super Bowl, how did you fight back against the pressure to outsource production of your clothes to appease big name retailers?

Sometimes doing the right thing isn't easy, but it's always worth it. That big retailer, as others before them, told me I needed to outsource in order to drop my price point—translation: send your production out to a place where people are paid pennies a day, if at all, in order for people over here to make more money. No thank you! I have felt strongly about this from the beginning, and I still do today. If I am going to be about restoring dignity and empowering people, especially women, then I'm going to do it. And to be honest, I hope others in the industry will do the same.

So what is your advice for up and coming designers or even established designers that are looking to be more mindful about how they do business?

Persistence beyond what seems reasonable—keep that in your mind every single day. This is not an easy industry, and in order to "make it," you have to be ready to put in a lot of time and tears and energy, and you have to do it without compromising your principles. That goes from quality to consistency to the value of your word. You have to remember that you wouldn't get anywhere without your team—take care of them. And don't make promises you can't keep.

No one is perfect. Mistakes will be made. But apologize when you're wrong, learn from the mistakes, and do your best not to repeat them. And finally, I would say remember your integrity. Cutting corners is easy. Forgetting about the humanity of another person because they are not right in front of you every single day is easy. But human beings make the fashion industry work, and it is up to all of us to make sure they are treated fairly and honorably.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Ferrin is from Jacksonville, Wyoming when she is in fact from Jackson Hole, Wyoming.