A small group of domestic abuse survivors in Montreal is working with a fashion designer to rediscover their creative side, and to heal in the process.

It’s allowed them to, at least briefly, get their mind off the trauma they have experienced.

“I get to know myself again,” said Julie, a collaborator in the collection called Renaître, or coming back to life.

She is one of five survivors who have used the services of Auberge Transition, which helps those who have experienced domestic violence.

They’re working with designer Rachel-Diane Epoupa to create 10 pieces.

Epoupa, originally from Cameroon, started her Niango clothing line in Dakar, Senegal, before coming to Canada in 2017.

The word Niango means “woman” in her mother tongue of Bassa.

“I witnessed the suffering of women throughout my childhood and my adult life,” said Epoupa.

“I grew up hearing women screaming from being beaten by their husband. And I was also wondering why nobody did anything about it.”

Her current collection uses handmade material created by a women’s association in Senegal, which helped train textile designers so they would have a way to earn a living.

While volunteering at Auberge Transition in Montreal, Epoupa wanted to find a way to collaborate with the women who used its services.

When the project began in March, she said many weren’t sure how they would be able to contribute. But as the weeks went on, their confidence grew.

“They took it very seriously,” Epoupa said. “They really embraced the process and even led the process.”

Some women, as a result of the abuse they had experienced, said they wouldn’t wear dresses that exposed their arms. But over the course of the summer, they were able to draw sleeveless clothing — a process that Julie said is helping them move forward.

Epoupa asked the women to bring in material that inspired them to help tell their personal story. They brought images including butterflies, roses and crystals.

The soft palettes and designs inspired by nature evoke their desire for healing, Epoupa said.

“Each team member really lights up, being able to get involved more and more each time that we have a meeting. It was awesome for that,” said Julie, whose last name is not being published for the safety of her and her children.

When in an abusive relationship, Julie said “you’re put in a box of sorts, all alone, more and more isolated from others.”

“What you love to do, drawing, whatever, it is all put to the side.”

Epoupa is planning on releasing the pieces next year. The co-designers will receive 20 per cent of the sale price, which is expected to be $200 to $300.

After taking a break during the height of the first wave of COVID-19 infections, Rachel-Diane Epoupa said she was surprised to see all the ideas that the women had come up with. (Submitted by Rachel-Diane Epoupa)

She is now crowdfunding for the collection’s launch event, where proceeds will also go to the women.

The designer sees the collection as a way for women of means to help provide income to these survivors as they work to rebuild their lives.

“You cannot pretend to be a brand that supports women without caring about their problems and actually making programs that support them and create a real impact,” she said.

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