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VOL 3. NO. 27 Monday, July 16 - Sunday, July 22, 2001
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Fashion Designers Take Over Capital City
By Dorothy CAMP

Elena Crusoe, courtesy photo

For 52 years the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD) has been working to focus the attention of the fashion industry on the creative contributions of its member designers. Founded by Mary McLeod Bethune and Jeanetta Welsh Brown (now in her 90s and living in Ohio), NAFAD remains the only African-American fashion association in the country. July 16-20, 2001 African-American milliners as well as jewelry and clothing designers will join their colleagues in all areas of fashion for "Artistry in Fashion," NAFAD's 52nd National Conference at the Wyndham Washington Hotel (1400 M Street, NW).

Scheduled activities for the five-day event will include discussion sessions to explore economic issues as well as marketing and creative opportunities for these artists. The public will be able to take advantage of workshops and hands on demonstrations in fabric weaving, decoupage, making buttons from clay and a whole host of creative endeavors. Then on Saturday, July 21 at 1 p.m. an awards fashion show will be held to showcase and honor original designs by NAFAD members.

Jewelry designer Elena Crusoe has been a member of NAFAD for four years. "I became a member because I was looking for an avenue where I could expose my work and have camaraderie with other creative people. I was also attracted by the association's rich history," Crusoe told Metro Connection.

At Elena Design Studio, nestled in a quaint professional plaza within walking distance of the Silver Spring metro station, this artist creates one of a kind designs. When we visited we were drawn to her collection elegantly displayed in glass cases and on golden statuettes. In the back room, where the jewelry is conceived and created, there were hundreds of rows of boxes full of a variety of semi-precious and natural materials such as amber, turquoise, onyx, fossilized ivory, bone, horn, pearls, wood, sliver and other metals gathered from resources around the world. Crusoe's shapes and hand-painted surfaces have become her signature style. Her earrings, necklaces, bracelets and pins are recognized for their exquisite and durable construction.

Crusoe, who comes from a large creative family, said she discovered her love for jewelry while designing clothing with her sister Barbara. When she couldn't find what she wanted to accessorize their fashions, she began gathering materials to make her own unique pieces. After four years and increasing interest in her accessories, she stopped sewing and concentrated on finding interesting materials for her expanding jewelry collection. "When I discovered jewelry I dropped fashion like a hot potato. I was surprised as anyone else but jewelry took a hold of me and I knew this was what I had to do," Crusoe exclaimed. "I do it for the love of being creative. I couldn't find it, so I made it and everybody loved it."

Crusoe developed the business, using personal funds and investing the money that came in back into the business. "I saved all of my money for a year before leaving my job, but it has been a constant struggle." Crusoe said she has had problems drumming up business in the African-American community and is not sure why. "African-American women love my work, but are not my biggest consumers." While many of her designs have an Afrocentric flair, Crusoe's work also has cross-over appeal. It is this that has sustained her business thus far.

Another challenge, Crusoe explained is competing with the mass production of imitation jewelry, or big companies that buy products in volume from third world countries and sell them cheaply. Although it makes things harder, Crusoe said she is not overly concerned. There is room enough for all artisans, she believes. Neither does she fear duplication of her work and is secure in the fact that her clientele appreciate that each piece of jewelry she makes is uniquely and carefully crafted.

The fact that Crusoe is an African American has been an asset in the right markets, she said. Her designs are available in specialty and accessory shops around the country as well as in the Smithsonian's gift shops and Nordstrom's department stores. "These large businesses must do diversity marketing and give minorities and women-owned businesses a fair chance," she explained.

Crusoe's clients also include local and national celebrities. She encourages her clientele to visit her workshop and choose from a vast array of beads, stones, charms, trinkets and findings. They then may commission her to design and produce special accents for their own wardrobes and tastes. "Opening my own studio and showroom has been my greatest success," she said.

But Crusoe isn't content with that level of achievement; she wants to do more. And more also means giving back to the community. She conducts jewelry-making workshops in schools and summer camps and even initiated a proposal to do a project at a home for battered women.

One of Crusoe's more ambition project is "Beads of Peace." She is the facilitator for the project that will be launched in South Africa in 2002. Sponsored through the International Peace Garden Foundation, the program is designed to teach poor African women and youth the art of jewelry design so that they can create business to help support themselves and their family. The project will take advantage of local talent, resources and aesthetics but the products will be created for an American market. The project extends beyond the creation of jewelry, participants will be involved in the promotion and marketing of the jewelry so that by project's end they have learned the techniques required to sustain their business venture.

There is no doubt to Crusoe's commitment to this project's success. She donates a portion of every jewelry she sells to help fund the project. Crusoe said that after all her years in business, it is projects like these that continue to inspire her.

For more information about NAFAD's 52nd National Conference, the "Beads of Peace" project or Elena Design Studio call 301-588-8574 or email elena1418@aol.com.

To comment on this or any other story email editor@metroconnection.info.

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