By Heidi Baumstark
Passion creates energy. And one local woman specializes in both. Kelsy Dominick, founder of DiDomenico Design, has built a fashion career that has landed her designs on New York’s runway. On the other side of the globe, she has channeled her passion and entrepreneurship, helping women in developing countries to earn a living by teaching them the art of sewing.
African-American and Italian-born, Dominick comes from a lineage of strong women dedicated to hard work. In 2009, she graduated from Battlefield High School in Haymarket, and that year, launched DiDomenico Design selling her creations at high-end boutiques in Blacksburg while attending Virginia Tech. She graduated in 2013 with a BS in fashion design and international business.
It all started with pillowcases. At the age of nine, her mother taught her how to sew starting with the humble pillowcase. From her mother’s African-American relatives, Dominick learned from her grandmother, Lucille, who owned a business reupholstering chairs and couches. From her father’s Italian side, her Great Aunt Bessy designed elegant gowns and wedding dresses for her clientele of “Little Italy” in Belleville, New Jersey. On an old 1914 Singer sewing machine, her Aunt Bessy made sketches come alive.
Today, Dominick still uses that same Singer machine and it travels with her around the globe. In 2014, she was in Asia visiting Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Laos. In 2015, she stepped out to “sew the world” visiting countries like Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Haiti and Scotland, to name a few, and documented each journey with a fashion photo shoot dressed in fabrics from each country holding her trusty old Singer machine. One of her dresses on the runway from New York’s Couture Fashion Week in September 2015 was made from gold fabric she found in Tel Aviv. People can follow her travels on social media at #SewingTheWorld.
In 2017, her focused changed. Seeing a need to help women improve their lives, she embarked on teaching sewing classes. Meeting women who barely survived due to loss of a husband or other financial crisis motivated her to step up and make a difference, helping women to learn a profitable skill so they could support their families. With connections through Park Valley Church in Haymarket, Dominick’s first sewing class was in July 2017 in Manila, Philippines. “After a few lessons, the other women taught each other; they didn’t even need me anymore.”
Her second sewing workshop was in Africa. Last October, Dominick traveled to Malawi, the landlocked country in southeastern Africa, teaching sewing lessons to almost 100 women who made flowing skirts out of local fabric. Traveling with In a Perfect World Foundation (IAPW), a non-profit that empowers youth worldwide with opportunities by bringing education, mentoring and artistic expression to high-poverty countries, she began her work there. “While IAPW helps kids, I wanted to introduce something to help the adults—the women in the community.” By serving as chair of IAPW’s youth advisory board, she is helping struggling communities make meaningful change.
The purchase of a handmade skirt is basically an investment to fund future sewing workshops through IAPW in other parts of the world. Dominick is helping Malawian women to sell their skirts for only $50, which lands customers with a one-of-a-kind skirt splashed with vibrant colors in unique patterns. Malawian fabrics have beautiful medallions in the middle of the design.
Last August while she was gearing up for her Malawi trip that fall, she posted a Facebook fundraiser challenge asking for donations for her birthday. With funds that poured in she bought two sewing machines that she left in Malawi. “IAPW matched that and donated another two,” Dominick said, “so the women can continue to sew and improve their skill after we’re gone. Most just wear fabric wrapped around their bodies; I’m trying to help them sell their skirts to people who can pay for them.”
The way it works is that donations come in ahead of time. Once Dominick arrives, she takes a whole day in the local outdoor market to pick out fabrics. Her class meets for about three weeks from 7 a.m. until noon; some women stay longer to continue on projects. Basic sewing skills are taught to make a wrap skirt. They also learn how to add pockets and make fitted skirts. Wrap skirts are one-size-fits-all; some are floor length and variations in all garments are intentional. Once they complete the project, Dominick inspects each skirt and then the women get paid. A photo is taken of each woman. The photo, and a little bio Dominick wrote on the sewer, comes with each skirt.
“When I travel, I bring lots of fabric back home. When I see something I think, ‘Wow, I know what I can do with that!’ I love incorporating the culture of whatever country I’m in,” she says. On top of all her travels, Dominick designs custom pieces in her Haymarket studio including wedding gowns and elegant evening wear. Cynthia Baker chose Dominick to design her wedding dress for her big day, Oct. 8, 2017 in Haymarket. Baker was busy trying on wedding dresses at traditional bridal stores when her then fiancé, Drew Baker, asked if she wanted someone to design her dress. He knew just the person: Dominick, since they were friends from Battlefield High School.
Baker said, “I met with Kelsy and showed her photos of dresses I tried on. She took my measurements and took great notes. We met later, presented a drawing and gave me some options as far as lace and fabrics. She’s very professional and friendly and came back with what I wanted. It was really easy and a very pleasant experience.” Dominick added, “Brides show me what they like and I tell them what would look good on them. Think about it: Their gown will be the only one that will ever exist in the world.”
This July, IAPW will be going to Guatemala to build a school. Dominick will be there to lead her third sewing class with her old Singer sewing machine by her side. “I’ve been blessed to travel and see fashion through the eyes of many cultures,” she says. “There is lots of artisanship in these developing countries. No one is giving them a platform to sell their creations. But when you teach someone, no one can take that back. That’s why we’re trying to empower people by teaching them a skill.”
Dominick’s passion spans many stages: from wedding aisles, to New York runways, to the poorest of developing countries. “The skirts start a conversation,” she says. “It gets people talking about a country you normally wouldn’t talk about.” And by purchasing a skirt made by Malawian women, customers keep the passion strong, one stitch at a time.
Check out her website, www.didomenicodesign.com,which also includes links to purchase Malawian or Filipino skirts. Check out SewingTheWorld and follow her on social media at @sewingtheworld. Information on In a Perfect World Foundation can be found at www.iapw.org.
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.