Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
Picture this; you’re at the first annual World AIDS Condom Couture Fashion Show hosted by the student-run organization Face AIDS NYU. Your expectations aren’t skyscraper high; neither are they below sea level. A few models walk down the runway with dresses that have condoms strategically placed on them. But then the next model appears, snatching your breath away. She struts down the runway covered in nothing but condoms, and condom wrappers. The only casual piece of clothing that she has on are high heels; other than that she exemplifies the true meaning of condom couture. The person who’s responsible for grabbing your attention is Dominique Drakeford.
Drakeford is a twenty-five-year-old founder and the CEO of sustainable fashion PR and community development company Drake Natural. On December 6, 2013, she attended and participated in the first annual World AIDS Condom Couture Fashion Show. This platform gave her and a few other designers the chance to simultaneously showcase their talents and promote AIDS awareness.
Cash votes, which were sent toward raising awareness for AIDS treatment in Rwanda, were taken from the audience to choose the winning dress. The winner received a gift card to Housing Works’ thrift store, which donates their proceeds to services toward people who are living with HIV/AIDS. Each contestant was given 900 expired condoms and a three-week period of time to create a condom couture dress.
The competition’s theme was reminiscent of multiple Grammy-winning R&B/hip hop female trio TLC’s method of promoting safe sex through fashion in the early 1990s by attaching condoms to their clothing. The designers in the Condom Couture contest took it to the next level, but it was taken even further by Drakeford. Even though the competition didn’t have any strict guidelines Drakeford was the only designer who took it upon herself to glue, sew, and staple condoms together in order to create her first dress ever, fully made out of condoms.
Completed in roughly two days, Drakeford’s dress “Condom Nation” exposes the arms and back of the model. The front forms a V shape composed of bare condoms, while the shoulder pads are made up of cut-up condom wrappers. Lines of bare condoms were suspended from the bottom of the waist-high skirt portion of the dress. Possibly the most significant part of the dress was the five-foot-long train, which was latched onto the top of the skirt’s backside. Drakeford said, “The train was kind of a bold statement, a very Dominique edition to the dress to kind of give it some sass and pizzazz.”
As if layered condoms weren’t enough to stress the importance of safe sex, the train immediately diverts the mind back to wedding dresses, which is the usual garment that is known to have a train. The train on “Condom Nation” symbolizes Drakeford’s belief in safe sex even during marriage to prevent the possibility of transmitting HIV if one of the partners happens to have the disease. It would prevent them from bringing children into the world with the disease.
Drakeford is familiar with some of the HIV/AIDS statistics in Africa. “When [Face AIDS NYU] gave us the condoms I had learned that even though the AIDS epidemic in Africa is ridiculous right now with about seventy percent of HIV-positive people living in Sub-Saharan Africa,” recalls Drakeford. “The usage of condoms has definitely increased, but that goes away when a couple wants to conceive a child which increases the chances of the disease multiplying.”
With advancements being made in the medical field, HIV-positive women can now take a course of antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy which severely decreases the chances of their fetus being infected with the virus. It reduces the unborn baby’s chance of infection to two percent, but unfortunately not everyone has access to obtaining those drugs.
All in all Drakeford stands behind various ways of decreasing widespread HIV transmissions. She supports abstinence as well as HIV/AIDS testing. “I would encourage partners to keep one another accountable for getting tested even if you practice safe sex. My dad always told me, ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry.’”
The absence of female condoms from the show was something that went over Drakeford’s head and most likely the rest of the designers who participated as well. “To be honest I have no idea what a female condom looks like,” said Drakeford who found humor in trying to grab memories of its existence. “Female condoms are not acknowledged by the public. It’s funny because I remember taking my Sex Ed class and I don’t even recall talking about diaphragms. Maybe reading a passage in a book but never having a discussion about it. They’re almost obsolete in sex education today. Maybe it’s an alternative that we should look into.”
In the beginning Drakeford didn’t receive the type of support that she would have hoped for. She states, “When I first proposed the idea to my family and to a couple of my friends there was a lot of skepticism, questioning, and sarcastic encouragement. Showing people that I can go against the odds, beat the status quo, was kind of exciting. Their reactions were a lot more fulfilling than the actual competition itself.”
Even though Drakeford supports HIV/AIDS awareness, she believes that the work that is currently being done could be improved. Since she’s an advocate for it herself in the fields of social and economic awareness and youth development, she sees where it is lacking. She says, “I never feel like community centers and even marketing agencies are doing enough. There’s always ways to do more and push the idea further.” As far as the methods used to spread awareness goes, Drakeford believes in heightening awareness through social media outlets, and forms of art can be extremely effective.
“There was an exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum with regards to fashion and LGBT awareness, which was interesting, so I think the idea of infiltrating creative platforms to bring about AIDS awareness such as condom couture are slowly seeping in…but it’s definitely not mainstream enough, not only for the LGBT community but for other communities as well.” She goes on to say, “I also think that HIV and AIDS awareness does focus on the LGBT community a little more when it needs to be clear that anybody, any race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation can contract HIV. Not just blacks, not just LGBT, not just in Africa, anybody.”
Drakeford is originally from Oakland, California, where she obtained her BA in Environmental Management at the University of California, Riverside. She’s been a resident of New York City for about three years and has been attending NYU for a majority of her stay. During the spring of 2013 she completed her Master’s in Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Fashion, a program that she created herself.
Drakeford’s company, Drake Natural, is a public relations and community development business. She states, “It is a startup company so it’s in the very beginning stages. Its purpose is to publicize this idea of sustainable fashion from an environmentally and ethically conscious point of view…and spark change in the social elements as well, [and] under that category is HIV/AIDS awareness, protecting yourself, people becoming individuals, and making sound decisions.”
Through her business agenda she shows how important environmental awareness is to her. Being grounded in environmentalism it has become somewhat of a way of life for the young entrepreneur. Drakeford says, “I’ve always had this philosophy that how we live is embedded in the natural world and the earth is not going to be the same years from now so we have to take care of it and nurture it and be able to live in unison with it. I’m not a tree hugger per se, but I definitely think that we need to cherish our natural resources and the beauty within them.”
But besides the fact that she is aware of how much attention topics such as AIDS awareness and environmentalism deserve, she also has a goal for herself. “I really want to make a name for myself in the press in media outlets in publications. I want to be known, not only in New York, but in California. Those are like my two pinpoint areas to focus on and then eventually spread the company to London.”
Winning the Condom Couture Fashion show opened the door for Drakeford to connect with NYC’s Department of Hygiene’s Director of Condom Distribution. The director didn’t hesitate to offer Drakeford more condoms to create dresses if she ever happened to join future condom dress contests. It was a beneficial proposal to Drakeford, who plans on seeking out more condom dress competitions for the sake of challenging her own talents and spreading HIV and STD awareness.
When it comes to the future of condom dress competitions Drakeford claims, “I would never restrict myself to ‘I made this one dress and this is all I can make.’ I always tell people that fashion-forward change is limitless so I have no boundaries when it comes to creating change, instilling awareness, and doing good for a community. Yeah, I’m ’bout that life.”
For more information about Dominique Drakeford, Condom Nation, and her Sustainable Fashion PR and Community Development company, Drake Natural, visit drakenatural.com.
Photographer Alina Oswald is also a contributing writer for A&U (www.alinaoswald.com).
Jermane Graham is currently a student at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. He will receive his bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in Professional Writing this spring. He plans to become a music journalist.