Fashionably Conscious Sells Couture for a Cause
by arielle castillo
At the Merrick Park outpost of Koko & Palenki, a string of locally owned designer boutiques, gorgeous garments and accessories of different colors and textures line the walls. But on a recent summer evening, more items are arriving than they are leaving in shopping bags.
Near a lounge in the middle of the store, they slowly start to amass. On the floor are studded Jeffrey Campbell leather slip-ons and See by Chloe red leather mules, and on a nearby rack, a red, floor-length, one-shoulder Carolina Herrera gown and a black-and-white, sleeveless Herve Leger bandage dress. Gradually, more soigné Miami women come in, toting bags and unloading their designer wares while servers offer flutes of Champagne.
But rather than being the scene of sudden retail returns, it’s the kickoff to a series of events that turn fashion into funds for community programs, Alchemy Style. The event at Koko & Palenki is the first in a number of “collection parties” for the charity Fashionably Conscious, the annual designer discount sale that’s grown exponentially since its inception in 2006, and which returns to the Village of Merrick Park September 20 to 22.
Gathering gently used finds from Miami’s most coveted closets, the event offers them at rock-bottom prices and donates all the proceeds to Coconut Grove Cares. The nonprofit in that neighborhood operates the Barnyard Community Center, a facility that provides free educational and cultural afterschool and summer programs for underprivileged children ages 5 to 13.
Fashionably Conscious shoppers who score, say, a Jason Wu dress will also be funding nearly six weeks of free after-school programs for a child. Buy a $600 Chanel purse that usually retails for $4,000 and you’ll send a child to six weeks of free summer camp, with money to spare; $200 will buy school supplies for 10 children for a whole year. An appreciation for fashion, the event proves, doesn’t have to be frivolous. “Fashionably Conscious has become our main fundraising event,” says Sylvia Jordan, executive director of Coconut Grove Cares and the founder of the Barnyard Community Center. “We can really provide different things to the children as they need it.”
Keeping everything running smoothly at the event is Annette Lopez, an attorney and also chair of Coconut Grove Cares and a cofounder of Fashionably Conscious. A volunteer at the Barnyard since her high-school years at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, she joined the nonprofit’s board of directors in 2005. But when the economy took a downturn, so, too, did the organization’s grants and donations.
That’s when the board’s then-chair, Alexandra “Ali” Codina, and Lopez decided to get creative. In 2006, they banded together with friends and fellow volunteers Liza Walton, Marcia Martinez, Cece Feinberg, and Alexandra Gonzalez to mount the first Fashionably Conscious. Held in a donated warehouse space in Wynwood, the first sale brought in $6,000. The following year, it raised $16,000—then $26,000, then $40,000, then over $84,000. “The event just keeps growing,” Lopez says. “This year, we’re looking to raise over $100,000.” That extra money would help start a special reading program, targeting “children who are falling between the cracks,” Jordan adds. “A lot of the children right now, all over the county, are reading below grade level.”
The dollars go to Coconut Grove Cares as unmarked funds to be used for any number of programs the Barnyard currently runs for the children it serves—and that’s a lot of programs. There’s the usual after-school homework help, which is administered by certified teachers from other schools. But there are also sports programs, music lessons given by University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, horticulture projects with The Kampong botanical garden in the area, and more.
All of them aim to ameliorate serious social and economic inequalities that have long troubled the west Grove. “A lot of these children come from families without computers or Internet, and today, even at the public school that most of them go to, Frances S. Tucker Elementary in Coconut Grove, they assign homework for computers. So it’s very difficult to stay up to date with the era we’re in without that access,” Lopez explains.
Fashionably Conscious provides a significant portion of the money for this, while infusing the fundraising project with a healthy dose of actual fun—and a peek inside the wardrobes of the city’s social movers and shakers. “We’ve had a host committee that has been extremely supportive. It’s a who’s who of Miami. We’ve had Margarita Codina, Darlene Perez, Sarah Arison,” Lopez says. She also adds that there are nearly 40 hosts altogether, along with an executive committee and, this year, three event chairs: Lourdes Jofre-Collett, Rima Otrakji, and Raysa Fanjul.
Everyone involved donates his or her own pieces. Other goods come from collection parties or drop-off points at the Village of Merrick Park. Fashionably Conscious even sends drivers at the organization’s own expense to pick up items from people’s homes.
“It’s not just Chanel and Saint Laurent,” Lopez says. “A good portion of our sale is also contemporary designers, like Diane von Furstenberg, Alice + Olivia, even items from J.Crew and Elizabeth and James.”
But while brand names and projected price tags fly freely during much of the Fashionably Conscious talk, Lopez and her colleagues see those dollar signs not just as consumer savings but tangible community benefits. “It’s not like this is surplus money to the Barnyard—it’s money they count on to keep running their programs,” she says. “And since I grew up so close to the Grove and went to school in the Grove, I just always wanted to help my surroundings and the community I’m in.”