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VOL. 40 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 11, 2016

Changing lives through shopping

FashionABLE allows marginalized women a way out of poverty

By Hollie Deese

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When shopping this holiday season, it is possible to do good, too, even if there is no time to volunteer.

Nashville-based FashionABLE, with its luxe leather totes and on-trend jewelry and accessories, makes it possible for savvy shoppers to make a socially-conscious purchase in just moments.

Founder Barrett Ward moved to Nashville in 2001 when he was 31, and just weeks after buying a brand-new Lexus, he took a break from his job as a district sales leader at Southwestern to go on a mission trip to Peru.

It was a decision that changed his life in every way.

The poverty Ward was exposed to there was a sharp contrast to his life growing up in Indiana, and he realized the cost of his new car back home could build 300 homes in Peru.

So Ward quit his corporate gig, spent two months in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya and South Africa, and then began working as a project coordinator for African Leadership, a Brentwood-based nonprofit that provides relief and development for African communities.

The Ward family and owners of FashionAble. Barrett and his wife Rachel with their children, from left,  Marion, 3, Rose, 5 months, Howie, 12 and Lena, 5.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Eventually, he wanted to do more than volunteer. He wanted to inspire real change, especially among his peers who felt helpless that they could make an actual difference.

“I had taken a group of friends to South Africa and Kenya,” says Ward, now 45. “We were all pretty young, and the comment that I kept hearing was that they felt like the problems were so significant in Africa that there’s nothing they could do about it.

“But the reality was that $7 a month would give you clean water for seven people for an entire year. It would put two children in Zimbabwe in school for an entire term.”

So he began Mocha Club to help with clean water and HIV/Aids, calling for $7 contributions each month — the cost of two mochas.

Actress Minka Kelly will host the FashionABLE Flagship grand opening on Dec. 3, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., at Stocking 51, 5022 Centennial Boulevard in Nashville.
Guests can take advantage of discounts, giveaways, a photo booth, food and drinks.
Kelly is best known for her roles in TV shows Friday Night Lights, Charlie’s Angels, Almost Human and Parenthood.

And when he left his director role with the organization last year, there were more than 10,000 members giving various amounts.

“I think the reason Mocha Club caught fire was it encouraged the younger generation [to understand] that not only can you have an impact for just the cost of two mochas, but you can use your voice and share it with your friends virally,” he says.

“Back then we created Mocha Club to be an online community where people could invite their friends to give $7 a month.”

Empowering women through work

While he was running Mocha Club, Ward met his now-wife Rachel. When her job with an adoption agency took them to Ethiopia in 2008, Ward was exposed to the widespread commercial sex trade, and to women who were forced into it as a last resort to help their families, like the woman he met who became a prostitute to help care for her sister with breast cancer.

“I started asking these women what we could do for them, and while it was critical that there was a non-profit response to their financial needs, to their emotional health, to their childcare, and often their own health care, because 75 percent of them had HIV,” Ward explains.

“While all that was important, the biggest thing we heard from them was, ‘Look, you can rehabilitate me, but if I don’t have a job when I leave this, I’m going to have to go back to prostitution.’”

That information made Ward question what the value of his engagement was over there, and he decided it was important to loop these women into the economic trade.

So the concept for FashionABLE was born, an accessories collection crafted by marginalized women who have suffered as a result of the sex trafficking trade, a platform to empower women through training and employment as a means to provide for themselves and their families.

FashionABLE started producing scarves in 2010, and within a couple of months they had sold just about 4,123 scarves, and he realized what was resonating with people was creating jobs for women.

“We started working in Ethiopia with three women. Within a couple of years we had over thirty women working there,” Ward says.

“Then we decided to expand our product categories into leather goods, other woven goods, and jewelry. As we did that, obviously the impact grew.”

In 2015, FashionABLE joined forces with Nashville’s Miriam Designs, adding jewelry handmade by women escaping the sex trafficking industry.

To accommodate the new product line, they now have 26 full-time employees working at the Nashville office, all women either coming out of addiction from the Hope Center, and women leaving prostitution from the Magdalene House.

Jen Milam, left, director of merchandising and finance, and Megan Proctor, global designer, look at new leather swatches from Mexico.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“There’s two sides of it,” Ward explains. “There’s the rehabilitative side, where we work with the women coming out of local non-profits. Then, our job is to teach them those job skills and to bring them up to a level of dispensable skills, something that could transfer somewhere else, not just be valid in our workplace.”

The line retails online and in boutiques throughout the United States, growing from the collection of hand-woven scarves from Ethiopia that launched the business in 2008 to include the Nashville-made jewelry and leather goods.

In preparation for Christmas this year, Ward has ramped up operations in Nashville to meet the wave of demand he anticipates is coming.

“It’s been growing like wildfire,” he says of demand for FashionABLE products.

“We’ve got three more hires coming this fall, but we’re already fully ramped up for the storm that is about to hit us. We get fifty percent of our business from Black Friday on. But we project to be hiring another 12 people in the next six months.”

Family grows with business

Ward got so much more than a career and an outlet to help others when he launched FashionABLE.

In addition to their two biological children, he and his wife have adopted two girls from Ethiopia. Together their four girls range in age from 12 to 5 months.

“We met our first daughter when we were living over there with one of the orphanages Rachel worked with,” Ward adds.

“We always knew we were going to adopt when we got married, so that was just the fruition of that dream.”

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