The women waited patiently behind the curtain, a lineup of beautiful faces. There was some nervous giggling, but everyone was glowing. These nine women, all in recovery from substance abuse and addiction, came together to proudly display the confidence that accompanies a reclaimed life after breaking the grips of a crippling disease. One at a time, they revealed themselves. With hair and makeup perfected by Mary Kay consultants, styled head-to-toe by local fashion influencers, each model strutted down the runway, posing briefly for a photo, then turned and sauntered back for her next change. Afterward, the audience described it with words like magical.
As the founder of Fashionkind, I amusingly recalled when this event was just an idea and doors were slamming in my face. “It is an unusual concept,” said a friend, “I mean… a Recovery Fashion Show?” I didn’t think it was so far-fetched, but I also forget that not everyone speaks Addiction. Even the ones who do often distance themselves from the negative association. Slowly at first, supporters began to step forward. There were countless sufferers and loved ones just waiting for such an opportunity to come out of the shadows, giving unspoken permission for others to follow.
A Little History
Raised in an affluent suburb of Northern Virginia, most of my friends and loved ones have struggled with substance abuse to varying degrees. My parents were young party animals, and my stepfather became a convicted drug felon in my tenth year. My sister Sadie and I sat in the back of his mandatory AA meetings and heard troubling stories, confirming my suspicion that something was wrong with our family. It was disturbing, though not enough to keep Sadie from traveling down a similar path of destruction.
Sadie struggled with alcoholism and addiction for more than a decade before giving up the fight. I ran away from home, chasing after advanced degrees and relationships that would keep me too occupied to party. But after being inseparable from someone for fifteen years, Sadie’s gradual abandonment took a toll on my life. She was absent but not dead. Would she have a wake-up call and realize that I loved and needed her? Or was I waiting for the dreaded phone call that she was gone forever? There were no answers.
Things only seemed to get worse. Everyone in my family drank and used drugs heavily – parents, siblings, and the endless stream of friends whose own homes didn’t permit the debauchery mine encouraged. Then from left field came the death by heroin overdose of my 25-year-old cousin, Sophie. For a while, I even attempted to drown myself in alcohol, isolated and intentionally, in hopes that I could either join them on the dark side or that eventually I wouldn’t wake up. I’m relieved to say that was a failure.
I moved repeatedly, changing jobs and relationships, and finally reached a point in my life where I could no longer deny that substance abuse was following me around. Eleven different geographic regions, and my sister was everywhere. Maybe it was a certain look in their eyes, or the close cousins Depression and Anxiety that I recognized. My connection to this spiritual malady was unshakable, and I’m certain now this mission chose me.
A Different Approach
For years, I saw Sadie in and out of rehabs. Occasionally there was a special counselor with whom she bonded, but often these places more closely resembled jails than hospitals. Even knowing that many of these patients displayed infuriating behavior, I still felt there was not enough compassion for individuals we know are ill. It was no surprise Sadie reached a point where jail was preferable to treatment.
I daydreamed about radical programs where addiction sufferers were not punished but rather given a safe home, healthy food, solace for healing, and people who genuinely cared for them. In my fairy tale, they would be nursed back to health and loved back to life. Upon recognizing their own worth, they would be able to create value in the world. They would benefit from healthy relationships and lose the urge to escape through destructive behaviors. But who am I kidding, right? I can see the eyes rolling and hear my stepfather’s words: the little bleeding heart. I knew it was a long shot when I started a nonprofit based on such a premise.
Luckily, it was not difficult to help people understand that the road to recovery requires employment and the ability to endure the interview process. Anyone who has ever been unemployed knows that the very nature of job hunting can wear down even the healthiest of self-esteem. Most of the solicitation amounts to nothing and total strangers have your future in their hands. It’s a game of rejection you have to play. In an interview, you must look the part, hold your head high, and believe in your worth. And what of a population even more vulnerable – those who have spent time at the mercy of an overpowering health crisis and unforgiving system. They often have greater barriers to employment like lack of education, criminal record, and the same dysfunctional support system that enabled their drug use in the first place. Without the means to provide for themselves, the likelihood of relapse is high. Reintegration into the workforce is key.
The Cinderella Effect
We began collecting gently used professional clothing donations for women. I turned my garage into a mini-Macys with clothing, shoes, handbags, and jewelry, along with random gifts of belts, scarves, and other accessories. The goal was to reach women in sober living residences whose next steps were self-sufficiency and outfit them for an interview. With a team of stylists and a fellowship of women in recovery, we would help them choose clothes to look and feel awesome. I was giddy with excitement to watch the transformation in these women go from demoralized to dazzling. When they posed for the camera, their formerly-guarded personalities emerged – sassy, sophisticated, smart.
I learned so much from these amazing women and even more about myself. I wish I could go back in time and offer the same compassion to my sister, but I can see now I was too angry about losing her. For so long, I was one of those judgmental people. Now, all I want is to see these beautiful souls shine.
During these styling sessions, I discovered another hard truth. Despite the joy and excitement of power-dressing and capturing it on camera, many didn’t want me posting their images on social media. Usually it was because they had kept it a secret from their families or colleagues, and I must respect that there are those who would hold it against them or even use it against them. Still, it seemed a shame to keep the inspiration to ourselves knowing it might give hope to others. But every now and then, one of the women would say, “I’m proud of my sobriety. I’ll shout it from the mountaintop if it’ll help just one person still struggling.” Thus, the fashion show was born.
I knew if I could get enough women to agree to this, it would work. Though not a walk in the park, we eventually gathered a motley crew of all shapes and sizes, a range of ages, and different lengths of sobriety – from a couple months to a couple decades. There would be no designers, only donated items from our collection, nothing to take the focus off the women themselves and their journey. The community rallied. The Thursday Club sponsored us at their stunning venue on the Pacific, and from there the support just spiraled. The catering, photography, flower design – you name it – everyone wanted to be a part of this, including a local politician who came to speak about her advocacy for this group. It felt like a miracle. People really believed in what we were doing.
Before it was over, I was being asked about next year’s show. Perhaps Sadie will be there, clean and sober, strutting down the runway. That may be just another fairy tale, but I will never give up hope.
Johannah Warren, Founder
About the Author
Johannah Warren is a San Diego-based writer, speaker, and nonprofit founder. Areas of interest include narrative nonfiction, human potential, and addiction recovery.