The general mayhem surrounding the final hours before a runway show is not for the faint of heart. If you're one of those who think the fashion world is full of patsies, you're just wrong. Makeup and hair styling for models begin about five hours before lights go up for the show. They have to be dressed two hours before, and fed somewhere in between. There is the invitation list to manage-who's in, who's out, who's paid, who's comp'ed? There are the designers and sponsors to take care of-where will they sit? And there's the bar to manage, the kitchen to staff, the flowers to pick up, and the parking in midtown Manhattan to think about. Then a tech arrives to say she needs $20 to buy light bulbs.
The director of this particular show, Tara Hawks, sits over her laptop in the middle of it all, scrolling through rows of tiny names arranged by columns over a spreadsheet. Without looking up she hauls the petty cash envelope from her bag, hands over a twenty, and says, "Take someone with you. Where you parked is totally Sketchville."
Turns out a lot of planning, account-book savvy, multi-tasking, and street smarts go into the business of making people look good. For Hawks, 31, it's also about craftsmanship. She took up costume work late in college-having not done a stitch on a sewing machine-then spent a year in art school before heading off to a coveted stint in the wardrobe department at Disney World. From there she spent a year working behind the scenes at the Santa Fe Opera before finding work on Broadway, and eventually a position with the Metropolitan Opera. And though it may not look like it-sitting as she is on a Saturday morning in a nightclub cum multi-storied event space with a deejay, an emcee, models, designers, set directors, and assorted volunteers all ricocheting around her-where this now 10-year career has taken her is on a mission of mercy.
At this point, a disclaimer: I've known Hawks since she was a young girl. I remember a brief exchange in a church hallway during her college years as she excitedly told me how she'd applied for the Disney position and where she hoped it would lead. It was then a far-off dream but spun itself into the reality of working on stage and screen, from New Mexico to New York, a world that can be as glamorous as wardrobe work with top fashion designers and celebrities (Hawks is currently working on Kate Winslet's next movie)-and as tedious as hand-sewing glass beads to expensive satin into the wee hours of the morning.
Drapers, dressers, and costume designers rarely rate proper attention in the entertainment world's ranks. But the trade is old, fabled, and essential. The designers and makers of costumes and finer clothing for the stage formed some of the earliest trade guilds in London and came into their own during Shakespeare's time. Today most theater companies have a costume shop composed of designers (who work mostly by sketching) and drapers (also known as dressers or tailors who fit and sew the actual garments). Hawks spent four years as a draper for the Metropolitan Opera. In between were freelance projects that kept her Queens apartment crammed with dress forms and mannequins, yards of taffeta, crinoline, custom-made beadwork, and other trims.
More recently she found a shared studio in New York and turned to freelance work full time. She served as a draper for the award-winning HBO series John Adams, which involved travel during on-location shootings to fit and alter costumes. She worked for the TV series Gossip Girl for two years and has earned her living with other TV episode work and movies. In between, she's worked up the occasional wedding dress and formal gown for friends.
"I don't design very much. I'm definitely trained more as a tailor. I do the sewing, I make and alter clothes," Hawks said. And if someone on set doesn't like the clothes? "They should blame the designer, for sure. But if it doesn't fit right, then they should blame the tailor," she added with a laugh. It's no surprise that insiders refer to the process as "building garments," so multi-layered, high stakes, even political it can become in a large production.
Where was it all leading? For Hawks, to a longing to use her talents for something more. Four years ago she joined a short-term mission trip to Uganda where she quickly discovered new ways to apply her trade. By learning not only to sew but to apply their artistic talents toward producing beautiful and useful items, African women could support themselves, their families, and contribute to their communities. That was the beginning of Sewing Hope, an organization directed by Hawks and operating under the umbrella nonprofit Fount of Mercy, which supports vocational development across Africa.
The first year Hawks took three sewing machines-all treadle machines to avoid problems with maintenance and electricity-to one village in northern Uganda. Today the village has 20 machines. The women she has tutored-some are widows, some are from polygamist households-not only support themselves through the skills Hawks and others have taught them but also help to fund an orphanage and a school for disabled children. From sewing and tailoring, the program has expanded to include jewelry-making, baking, and other crafts. Hawks just returned from three months teaching and mentoring in the same area, and she hopes to spend more and more of her time there.
But back in New York she early on realized that her industry could add an important part to the mission. And that's how she launched Sewing Hope's annual fashion show. Hawks began talking up the needs of African women and her projects in Uganda among designers and fellow garment makers. She returned from the next trip with armloads of African-made textiles and began proffering them to colleagues.
She organized a runway show where several designer friends "built" garments using the indigenous fabric-with proceeds from the event going toward Sewing Hope. That year the show had 120 in attendance and raised $500.
The third annual show, held in May, featured 18 designers-including names like Project Runway's Emmett McCarthy-and showcased top models displaying their creations at a Saturday night event. It was attended by 300 and raised more than $20,000 for Hawks' organization. "It became entirely focused on the fashion and costume industry, and there is nothing else like it," Hawks said. "It's beyond my expectations."
While working to help African women, Hawks discovered a different kind of need within her own industry: "People are coming to me asking what they can do to help." That's how she wound up with 110 volunteers, most of whom, like Hawks, already had put in full work weeks before squeezing in time to organize the May event. Cynthia Flynt, a costume designer with 25 years in the business that includes the movies The Preacher's Wife, Eight Men Out, and Passion Fish, was one of those with a longing to do more: "Our industry is about escapism, about bringing mirth to life. Yet sometimes I question, 'Isn't there something out there more I should be doing? Something I can do to help that will last?'"
For the show, Flynt used bright-colored African cotton to fashion a dress ensemble that recalled 1940s women's baseball team uniforms reminiscent of a film she worked on, A League of Their Own. Others on the runway were more melodramatic: An evening gown worn by "America's Top Model" winner Jaslene Gonzalez mixed deep-colored block-print fabric and jersey; cocktail dresses boasted bold-printed flirty skirts; even menswear jackets incorporated the African designs.
Hawks said, "This is not a religious organization, but it is tapping into a group of people with compassionate hearts who did not have a way to help. I don't have a lot of conversations about motives or hearts, but I get a lot of searching questions about meaning and priorities in life."
What's clear from the show prep and the success of the latest runway event is that Hawks' passion and calm spirit attracts already overworked volunteers, but what also draws her for-profit colleagues to her nonprofit venture is respect for her skill. Top designer McCarthy tells a story of Hawks calling him before refitting a size 8 jacket from his line for a size 2 actress on Gossip Girl. "It can't be done," he told her. "But when I saw the jacket on the show, it was an amazing alteration and I have been her fan ever since."
Widows who never believed they could be designers are becoming designers, said Geoffrey Waiswa, one of Hawks' associates in Uganda. And designers who never knew how to help are helping Africans. And beneath it all, said Waisa, "People don't stop using clothes."