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The Clothes Off Our Racks: How production professionals are improving the lives of those in need

Charity, Circular Economy, Costume, CSR, Donation, Production Waste, Social Innovation, Volunteer, Wardrobe, Zero Waste

This is the first in a series of stories highlighting great work being undertaken in Ontario’s film, television and digital media production industry.

By Sarah Margolius

Since 2016, The Canadian Alliance of Film & Television Costume Arts & Design (CAFTCAD) has been instrumental in the growth and support for an initiative that has given away thousands of clothes to those in need.  The Clothes Off Our Racks (T-COOR), the brainchild of producer and production manager Kim Yu, is a response to poverty in the City of Toronto and is a great example of the circular economy in action. CAFTCAD’s 150+ members, composed of costume professionals and various business affiliates, are committed to reducing waste and celebrating Canadian costume art and design. CAFTCAD jumped on board to make sure that at the end of a production, clothes aren’t disposed of but instead go to those that need them most.

The origin of T-COOR started four years ago at the American Film Market, where Yu and filmmaker Matt Hotson were raising funds for a project. The stark juxtaposition between industry delegates and some local residents was unsettling. “There’s a lot of opulence in the film industry. We were staying at Venice Beach, just outside of Santa Monica, and there was an entire city block with people on the other side of the economic spectrum. They were sleeping in the streets and had nothing - no clothes or food,” said Hotson. “It was jarring.”

Yu came up with the idea of making food and serving it to people camped outside, an act which laid the foundation for the initiative now known as T-COOR. “We knew serving food was a band-aid solution. Most people would feel good about their act of charity and just move on. But when Kim came back to Toronto, she organized a get-together with friends to discuss what to do next.”

Kim agreed. “It didn’t sit well with me, to be in such a beautiful place, attending a film market to find funding for a project when there were others who needed funding for basic necessities. We thought, wouldn’t it be great if our industry could help more? That’s when we came up with the idea of talking to our wardrobe friends to see whether we could hand out extra pieces of clothing after the next wardrobe sale.”

Lynsey Clark wants to raise awareness

Those friends were involved with CAFTCAD. “Kim and I first met at Film Port Studio, and we talked about what we could do together,” explains Lynsey Clark, CAFTCAD’s Operations and Communications Manager.  “There was a great link.  Lots of people in the costume department are buying and making great clothing and costumes. But once a production wraps, and especially if it’s the final season, then what happens to the clothes? They can be sold, go to collectors, the production company, or into the archives.  Sometimes, the clothes are offered to the public. That’s where T-COOR comes in.”

Clark continues, “Since the wrap process is so quick and people are working to extreme deadlines, we appreciate the services provided by T-COOR to help make sure these clothing items are not being disposed of and instead go to people who can use and appreciate them. This service really adds to the whole project.”

Volunteers at a recent clothing giveaway (L-R: Sarah Margolius, Kim Yu, Volunteers)

T-COOR is more than a social and sustainability service for the film industry or clothing bank; it is a unique and innovative hybrid that has been tearfully appreciated by recipients. “I’ve been influenced by other volunteer programs, like the Out of the Cold clothing room, handing out clothing and toiletries to the homeless every week,” said Yu. “That’s how I knew there was an opportunity to utilize wardrobe from film and tv. Also, Francesco Productions and the CFRs in the South Bronx is all about meaningful interactions to encourage people to try to improve their circumstances. There have been workshops for people who didn’t have a lot of money or support to come to the Centre and learn office skills, how to build a resume or attend career dressing lessons. I saw that clothing could be more than a necessity.”

“The scale of movies and TV shows can be pretty big,” says Hotson. “In our industry, there can be a lot of redundancy. For example, there can be multiple copies of the same piece of clothing for every actor. Sometimes the clothes can’t be returned, or they have almost never been worn. The clothes we get are better than a lot of the old, worn stuff going to shelters. These clothes are basically new.”

Clothing donations at a recent event

The high quality of the clothes can help to re-build self-confidence and a sense of dignity among those in need. Says Yu: “The clothing helps people keep warm in the winter, but also boosts confidence.  We’ve had some really lovely donations from some of the bigger network shows. These clothes really do go to people in need. Someone may not need a business suit or a nice dress right away, but they will use it later, for an interview or special event. It also makes you feel good to get dressed up. That’s also something I’ve learned from the Franciscans – helping people regain self-assurance can be quite empowering to move forward in a positive way.”

To get closer to people in need, T-COOR has recently undertaken direct clothing giveaways in addition to going through charities that deal with the homeless. “When you give clothing away directly, you get to know people’s stories,” Kim says. “You can ask them their name, shake their hand, look them in the eye - standard stuff, but sometimes you just forget with everyday struggles.”

A recent clothing giveaway at St. Lawrence Community Centre in Toronto.

What is the next step for TCOOR and its supporters? For Clark, it’s the opportunity to spread the word. “The costume community is very passionate about this cause. I want to continue to raise awareness among our members and their communities. Kim is an incredible woman with immense drive and determination, and it would be great to give more support to help expand T-COOR’s transportation and storage capabilities.”

For those in the industry who want to make a difference, but don’t know where to start? “Don’t think about what you can’t support, think about what you can,” Clark says. “Maybe its volunteering for part of yours or your team’s day or providing a truck and a driver for half a day per week or month. Just look at your business and organization and see what fits.”

Matt Hotson shares a story at the T-Coor Holiday Party at Film Port Studio, where T-COOR began, in 2017

For Hotson, it’s about both expanding the number of participating productions, volunteers and resources. “I think it’s important to share this story and for productions to hear that T-COOR will come and pick up the clothes. Otherwise productions have to get a vehicle to get to the shelters, which can be expensive and take a lot of time,” says Hotson. “Time is a precious resource and some people can donate it, but we also appreciate other resources like storage and transportation.”

Last but not least, what is the one piece of advice that Yu can offer to others? “If you truly want to make a difference, any sort of first step can inspire other people to help. Then, it just grows. It’s that whole ‘pay it forward’ movement. I never thought that we would be so fortunate to have different costume designers from so many different shows be willing to donate. I really didn't expect it to grow so fast.”

Want to help right away? Here's how.

1. To volunteer your time, a place to store clothing, help with the transportation of clothes, or arrange for your productions' clothing to be dropped off, please email or leave a message at 647-781-5899 (Pick ups can be arranged if necessary).

2. Purchase and donate the following items to your local shelter. According to Out of the Cold's Gloria McPherson, these important items are always needed:  warm winter men's gloves, gently used men's jeans and hoodies, and men's underwear.

3. Learn more about the circular economy, and get involved with Sustainable Media Production Canada's Industry Working Group. We're exploring ways to reduce the amount of material going into our landfills, and work towards the goal of a zero-waste Ontario. Join our next meeting.



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