When Adele Masengo Ngoy was a little girl growing up in Africa, she dreamed of being a doctor. Her father, like many parents, had a different idea.
“All my family, almost everybody, are artists,” she says. “My dad was a painter, and he advised me to do something in the arts. He saw that in me, he knew me better than I knew myself.”
He asked Adele if she would be willing to go to an arts high school, where she could study fashion design. “We made a deal that I would go for one year, to see how I liked it.” From the moment she began classes, something clicked. She had a knack for design and an eye for color. It was, she remembers, “just easy for me.”
After high school, she entered into a college program for design. She went on to work as a designer, making dresses for well-heeled women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “The fashion industry is very different in Africa,” she explains.
Unlike in America, where women routinely wear yoga pants to dinner parties, African women dress up almost every day. “You might have a customer who comes to you every week because she wants a new design to wear,” says Adele. “It’s expensive, but it’s what women like to do.” While her business as a couturier kept her busy, Adele also found time to work as a professor, teaching the next generation of young women how to create beautiful garments.
“Teaching is my passion,” she says. “I love to share all the experience I have in me.”
In the year 2000, Adele left her teaching job, her business and her home country. Since war broke out in 1998, the Democratic Republic of the Congo had been torn apart by devastating violence. The conflict, which continued until 2003, was named the deadliest war in modern African history, and it resulted in millions of deaths and millions of displaced citizens. Along with her three young children, Adele fled to America, where she made a home in Maine. She quickly landed a job working as a seamstress at David’s Bridal—a far cry from the position she held in Africa.
“At first, to be honest, I didn’t like (my job) very much. I was a seamstress. I had never been a seamstress. I used to be a designer and have seamstresses work under me. Then, it was the opposite,” she remembers. “But I didn’t have a choice.”
Sixteen years later, Adele is now a manager at David’s Bridal, a position she enjoys far more than her first job. While she loves designing dresses for brides-to-be, she is still the ambitious, career-driven woman who started her own couturier business fresh out of college. Seven years ago, she founded a nonprofit business called Women United Around the World, which aims to promote independence for immigrants by teaching them valuable skills, like how to operate a large-scale sewing machine or how to design their own garments.
“My idea was that women from all countries, we all connect over fashion, no matter who you are or where you come from,” Adele says.
Every year, Women United Around the World stages a fashion show to raise funds for its educational programs—and to provide women from various cultures an opportunity to show their work. “I love to see other designs and traditional outfits from other parts of the world,” Adele says. “It’s beautiful. People wear colors that I would never have put together. They wear rich fabrics and bright colors.”
Fashion, she believes, is an equalizer. It’s a way of showcasing one’s heritage and celebrating one’s history.
Adele’s latest project, a line of high-fashion jackets, also seeks to cross conceptual borders by combining American-made materials with African-inspired colors and contemporary design. “I decided to call it Theluji. It means ‘snow’ in my language. For a long time, I didn’t know if I would design again, but now I feel like I’m coming back to life,” she says.
“For now, I am trying to minimize the cost, so I’m doing everything myself,” Adele says. Her list of duties includes sourcing materials, designing the jackets, sewing each piece, marketing the line and connecting with local boutiques and shops. Once the business is more established, she hopes to hire some of her students.
“When I came to America I was very lucky,” she says. Although she fled Africa’s bloodiest conflict, she views her life as one of good fortune and happiness, buoyed by luck, talent and grace.
“I had a skill. I didn’t have to go back to school,” she says. “There are many other women who come here and don’t have the skills I have. Even women who were lawyers or doctors, they have to go back to school to find a job. I want to help them make their lives easy, to make the transition. You don’t have to lose everything you left behind. You can start again.”
For more information about Women United Around the World: ?www.womenunitedaroundtheworld.org
?Katy Kelleher is a writer and editor who lives in Buxton with two dogs and one husband.