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FASHIONABLE DIALOGUES: Ciano Clerjuste - Empowering Youth through Fashion

In an industry often known for hyper-competitiveness (think fashion reality shows), the United Colors of Fashion (UCOF), a New York City-based 501(c)(3) non-profit that works with under-resourced youth and HIV/AIDs victims, demonstrates compassion within the fashion community. Its core mission is to “Empower Youth Through Fashion.” Since its formation in 2010, UCOF has been mentoring and offering its free fashion education program to under-resourced youth in New York City. The non-profit also partners with local philanthropic organizations in underdeveloped countries to help youth suffering from HIV/AIDS, sickle cell anemia and paralysis. This past October, UCOF celebrated the work of emerging and established international designers alike at its third annual gala, which featured designs by Marc Bouwer (USA), David Tlale (South Africa), Naked Ape by Shaldon Kopman (South Africa), Ron & Ron (Haiti/USA), Kosibah (United Kingdom), Sukeina (USA) and Carmen Marc Valvo (USA). Exquisitely produced by South African Jan Malan, the show featured a symphony of song, dance and designs set in procession against the words “FAITH. HOPE. FASHION” lit in electric blue. The fashion show was casted by Sandi Bass and styled by Christine de Lassus. Leaders in the industry joined to show support including Phillip Bloch, Stephen Burrows and top models from the ‘80s such as Alva Chinn, Coco Mitchell, Carla Hall, Patricia Tracey, Jamie Foster, Linda Morand, Maria McDonald and Irina Pantaeva.

Fern Mallis, the renownedcreator of New York Fashion Week, served as the Honorary Chair for the event. Activist and former model Bethann Hardison presented Pat Cleveland, the legendary supermodel and Honorary Committee Member of the Women & Fashion FilmFest, was honored with the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award for her invaluable contributions to the worlds of fashionand the arts. One of the highlights of the show was the heartfelt introduction made by Ciano Clerjuste, the passionate yet soft-spoken man behind UCOF, of UCOF’s top intern and Achiever of the Year, Sade Solomon, who presented her first collection that evening. Her garments featured structured cropped tops, vests, shorts and capris in an array of youthful, mouthwatering sorbets. Following the event, we had a chance to speak with Ciano to delve into the origins of his organization and the reason why he works two jobs to help others.

WFF: For those not familiar with your organization, what inspired you to create UCOF?

Ciano Clerjuste: Growing up, my parents taught me and my siblings to always share everything we have, and be nice to everyone because you never know where you’ll end up in life. I have carried that legacy with me. I made a promise to myself during my teenage years to help those less fortunate and in need - the same way I was raised by my parents.

At age 17, my mother was hit by a car in New Jersey, which left her paralyzed from the waist down - shortly after, my father died. After the tragedy, I had to raise my eight year-old sister. A plethora of people helped us, and that tragedy made it clear to me that doing charity work was my calling. Little did l know it would end up being what it is today, with United Colors Of Fashion (UCOF).

UCOF is a New York City-based non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with a mission to Empower Youth through Fashion. UCOF works to achieve its mission through two initiatives: (1) locally mentoring under-resourced youth in New York City about the fashion industry through hands-on training in fashion education; and (2) offering provisions of financial assistance, food, and clothing to youth in South Africa who are living with HIV/AIDS, sickle cell anemia and paralysis.

To date, UCOF is the first registered 501(c)(3) in the nation to offer Fashion Education to under-resourced youth.

WFF: Ciano, please tell us how you got into fashion, and your journey into philanthropy?

Ciano Clerjuste: I was exposed to fashion at a very young age. I started sewing my own clothing at age 12, and learned a lot of techniques from my aunts and cousins who were tailors and seamstresses. Therefore, I was always around fashion designers. I received training very early. As an artistically talented person, I wanted to get a degree in fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). When my school advisor learned of the family tragedy, and how I had to work full-time while in school to take care of my family, she told me about the competitiveness in fashion, and how artists struggle. I listened, and ended up getting a degree in Business Management, but kept on taking classes in design and the arts.

In 2010 after doing a show at FIT, Veronica Rovegno and I realized the struggle that emerging designers go through on a daily basis, how most of them go out of business after their first collection due to lack of funding. We thus decided to create an organization unlike any other focusing on amazing talents and social issues. Hence, UCOF was created, and today, it’s a one-of-a-kind fashion philanthropic organization with such a great mission.

WFF: How has your organization changed or grown since?

Ciano Clerjuste: Countless talented youth aspire to work in the fashion industry, but few make it. In fact, the vast majority of new designers go out of business within two years. Moreover, without access to the unique educational opportunities, internships, and connections that are invaluable to building a career in fashion, under-resourced youth stand little chance of even entering the industry. With the funds it raises, UCOF organizes internships and educational opportunities for under-resourced youth in New York in our Fashion Education Program, in order to expose them and help provide them access the many exciting career opportunities in the fashion industry. To date, UCOF has impacted the lives of over 300 under-resourced youth in New York and New Jersey. UCOF’s top student for 2013, Sade Solomon, recently graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), and launched her first collection at the gala at the Lexington Avenue Armory. It is a day I will never forget. To be able to do that for someone is one of the greatest legacies I can leave behind during my journey.

WFF: Tell us more specifically about your work with victims of AIDS and HIV?

Ciano Clerjuste: It is estimated that 67% of the 33 million people suffering from HIV/AIDS live in Sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa alone, there are 300,000 children living with HIV/AIDS and another 1.4 million who have been orphaned by the disease. UCOF harnesses the fashion community’s compassion for those suffering with HIV/AIDS to bring relief to victims in developing countries who lack access to adequate medical care. UCOF has partnered with Mapetla Day Care in South Africa to provide financial assistance, food, and clothing to young children suffering from HIV/AIDS.

WFF: What are the biggest challenges you face as UCOF’s leader?

Ciano Clerjuste: One of our biggest challenges is getting enough funding to run our programs, and corporate sponsors to fund our annual fashion benefit. We look for corporate sponsors from all over the world to fund the Annual International Fashion Benefit. Some companies take time to commit, and some give you the run around, which is time consuming. However, when we do find a good company, which believes in educating and mentoring under-resourced youth, supports our work with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and sees the marketing value/tax write off we give in return for sponsoring us, we try to hold on to them.

As a 501(c)(3), we are entitled to get grants from the government and foundations. However, the government and foundations have told us fashion is too glamorous for them to fund a project like this. They acknowledge the need to mentor under resourced youth about the fashion industry. Nevertheless, they simply have never had to set aside any types of funding for this type of project. Therefore, my family and I have had to fund the project for the past three years.

The government and foundations offer grants for free programming to support Dance, Music and the Arts, but there is no funding available to support free Fashion Education or to produce fashion shows for under-resourced youth. I believe that’s unfair. As the first registered 501(c)(3) to offer Free Fashion Education, making history comes with a challenge, and I am willing to continue fighting until everyone realizes fashion is art and should be treated as such.

Another challenge for me as the leader is working 7 days a week very long hours. However, I enjoy what I do fully, and work with an amazing team of people who help make the project possible.

WFF: Running a non-profit can be very challenging. Can you tell us of any moments that have reminded you, “This is why I do it”?

Ciano Clerjuste: Indeed, running a non-profit is extremely challenging. It is much harder to run a non-profit organization than a for-profit one. However, when I get a thank you message from our students in the Tri-State area, gratitude songs from the children in South Africa, I am reminded of why I run this challenging project, and I’m pumped to continue the fight. Not to mention, I understand the struggles under-resourced youth go through trying to build a career in fashion. I was one of them in my youth. When I think of what I went through, I am reminded daily of why I do this. I use Alvin Ailey as my role model. When he started his company, he struggled a lot. Now 51 plus years later, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of the most recognizable dance companies around the world.

WFF: UCOF’s fashion show this year was exquisite, from the garments to the lighting and production. Kindly elaborate on the concept behind the show and some of the key people?

Ciano Clerjuste: On Wednesday, October 9th, 2013, United Colors of Fashion held its Annual Gala at the historic Lexington Avenue Armory. Fern Mallis, fashion industry leader and the renowned creator of New York Fashion Week, was the Honorary Chair for the event. Legendary supermodel Pat Cleveland, who walked the runway for UCOF’s gala last year and has made invaluable contributions to the worlds of fashion and the arts, was honored with the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award. Bethann Hardison presented the award to Pat Cleveland. This black tie affair included an international runway show featuring top models and acclaimed designers from around the world.

This year’s gala theme was: FAITH. HOPE. FASHION. As the name suggests, this year’s gala was a celebration of what United Colors of Fashion stands for: remaining faithful that UCOF’s mission will launch the careers of its under-resourced interns, while providing hope for their futures and for the children in South Africa through the transformative medium of fashion.

WFF: We saw quite a range of designs, from funky tailored men’s suits to exquisite beaded gowns. Who were some of the designers and how were they selected?

Ciano Clerjuste: The designers were David Tlale (South Africa), Naked Ape by Shaldon Kopman (South Africa), Ron & Ron (Haiti/USA), Kosibah (United Kingdom), Sukeina (USA), Marc Bouwer (USA), and Carmen Marc Valvo (USA). We handpicked the designers with that special something, but more importantly who can serve as role models and mentors for our students. UCOF was also excited to have industry veterans overseeing the runway show: Jan Malan was the Producer, Christine De Lassus as stylist and Sandi Bass as the Casting Director.

WFF: Aside from running UCOF, what else do you enjoy doing?

Ciano Clerjuste: In addition to running UCOF, I work full-time for an investment and insurance firm, Principal Financial Group as a Senior Account Executive. I have been doing that for over 8 years now. I am a trained professional classical dancer with over 15 years of experience. When I do get free time, I like to take a ballet or modern class to keep up with my techniques. I do not go to the gym - not even once in my life. Hence, dance is my only form of exercise. Lastly, I enjoy watching dance shows with my stunning sister, Eramene Clerjuste at New York City Center, Lincoln Center and the Joyce Theater - and spending time taking care of my mother.

WFF: What are some of the long-term goals for UCOF, and for yourself?

Ciano Clerjuste: In ten years, I see myself working full-time only for United Colors Of Fashion and leading the organization to huge success with the help of our awesomely talented team, and assisting emerging designers and HIV infected children in more than five countries. We are currently working on a ten-year plan, which is to open the first Center For Fashion in New York. The center will be a state-of- the- art building in midtown Manhattan with the following:

  • Event space to hold runway shows, presentations, mannequin installations and fashion exhibitions

  • Showroom for emerging designers

  • Office/studio space for emerging designers who are just graduating from fashion school

  • Free sewing classes for low income individuals

  • Fashion styling, hair and makeup workshops

  • Well equipped work space with all types of industrial machines for emerging designers to use

  • Stylish rental studios for casting call/auditions, photo shoot, fitting, filming, etc.

  • A chic boutique inside the building where people can purchase custom made clothes by our emerging designers and that will allow us in return to employ back most of the talented interns who have been part of our program upon graduation. This building will be the first space in NY solely dedicated to fashion, open to under resourced youth, the general public, and giving emerging designers a state of the art and well-equipped space to have fashion shows without breaking the bank. Most designers currently go out of business after their first show due to the high cost associated with putting such events together.

WFF: Fashion can be very competitive, especially for designers. What words of advice do you have for young people interested in pursuing a career?

Ciano Clerjuste: My first advise for the youth is always to know that education is key to success. I constantly remind them to focus on their natural talents, but getting a college degree to enhance the talent is vital. After getting an education, find a mentor to guide you through this competitive industry. Believe in yourself, stay humble, read the New York Times daily and other publications related to your field, and constantly look for ways to remain a savvy individual. Knowledge cannot ever be taken away from you. Once you have your head on your shoulders with the right education and experience, people will respect you. Plan your future, take risks and follow your dreams. People will always try to put you down in this industry, take them as a distraction. Keep dreaming big to the point where you have to grow into them, while simultaneously feeling fearless, FREE TO BE YOU.

To learn more about the United Colors of Fashion and its programs, please visit United Colors of Fashion

-- Jeanine Jeo-Hi Kim

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