How sexual abuse survivors are finding strength and dignity through fashion

Sara, a sexual abuse survivor, walks the runway during a Free Fab'rik clothing spree event.

The power of an outfit is something Sara, a sexual abuse survivor, is just beginning to embrace.

On a spring afternoon in Atlanta, Sara struts down a runway amid cheers and whoops. Watching her dressed in fancy boutique clothes, a hopeful smile across her face, it’s hard to imagine the long, dark road that led to this happy moment.

Behind her treads an equally hopeful assembly of sexual violence survivors. They walk with purpose, chins up, showing off the new outfits meant to represent their new lives.

On the sidelines, volunteer stylists from the nonprofit Free Fab’rik and case workers from House of Cherith, a local transitional home, cheer them on. “You look beautiful!” someone calls out.

Free Fab’rik provides free shopping sprees for women in need. They partner with homeless shelters, transitional houses, and foster homes to help women regain confidence and dignity.

The new clothes, Sara says, are “like a stepping stone to my new journey and a new life that I’ve never expected.”

At 35 years old, Sara gleams in shimmery pink dress pants and a silky flowery top. She’s paired her outfit with high-heeled block sandals that add four inches to her short frame.

“It’s like a dream,” she says. “It’s beauty from ashes.”

Healing from within

Only months ago, in January, Sara was walking down the streets of Columbus’ worst neighborhoods, wearing suggestive clothes. “The last time that I was on camera, I was being arrested for prostitution,” she said.

She believes she started down this road at age three, when she says a close family member began sexually assaulting her.

“You’re so used to showing everything,” Sara says, reflecting on a time she describes as her lowest point. “I was getting in cars with men who I didn’t know. I had a gun put to my head. I’ve been raped. Then it got to the point that I did things just for a piece of crack.”

Aware that she would die on those streets, Sara walked three miles in the middle of the night until she reached a safe house.

“I will probably die if I go back out there again. There’s no doubt about that.”

“After the horrible things that she’s endured, it’s kind of like rebuilding from the ground up,” says House of Cherith director Kelsi Deel.

House of Cherith — a part of Atlanta’s City of Refuge transitional housing campus — is a safe-house for exploited women. They provide housing, meals, medical and social services, substance abuse recovery, trauma counseling and vocational training for women at risk.

“Our ladies come in and they are working on all this internal, emotional, mental health components. Just digging out the bad to fill it back with the good,” says Deel. “And that’s where Free Fab’rik comes in.”

The power of an outfit

Founded in 2009 by Atlanta entrepreneur Dana Spinola, Free Fab’rik aims at making clothes meaningful.

“My vision was to create a place where everyone could feel beautiful inside and out,” Spinola says. “It’s so much more than just a piece of clothing. It’s about the power of an outfit.”

The vision spun off from Spinola’s work as CEO of the women’s boutique chain Fab’rik. For Spinola, it wasn’t enough to give clothes away to women who needed them. She wanted to meet these women and bear witness to their stories.

“They are all such powerful stories. I can’t even repeat them because I’m in tears,” she says. “They are stronger than I’ve ever been.”

Free Fab’rik’s free shopping sprees have fostered a sisterhood of women united in their love of beautiful clothes and a wish to celebrate one another. For two hours, both survivors and stylists comb through racks, sort out outfits, and share their dreams for the future.

“One of the greatest parts is when the women say ‘This is the outfit I’m going to wear to get my daughter back’ or to attend a big court case or just a pivotal point in their life that gets to signify their healing,” says Spinola. “When you have on that armor, you can take on the world.”

Sara is counting on that strength as she struggles through the recovery process, which she admits “is still hard.”

“There’s days I want to give up. There’s days where thoughts come into my head about going back.”

As the battle rages on, she dreams of getting back custody of her son, training for a new career and “staying strong and clean.” She also wants to help people, and wants to allow herself to love.

She says this new self — beautiful clothes and all — has enabled her to look at herself in the mirror for more than five minutes. Something she couldn’t do before.

“I’m changed. I’m new. I feel like the brokenness is beautiful. I have strength. I have dignity. It’s awesome.”

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