With a measuring tape draped around her neck, Clarisse Akonyi looks every bit the fashion designer she is as she spreads a piece of colourful fabric onto a table before carefully pinning it to a paper pattern. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Akonyi arrived in Hong Kong in 2011, leaving her life as a nurse behind her. But like many of the city’s 14,000-plus asylum seekers and refugees, who get little support and face a lot of discrimination, Akonyi found life on the fringes tough. So she decided to do something about it. In 2017, Akonyi – with support from Tegan Smyth, founder of Table of Two Cities, a grass-roots project that unites refugees through food – set up Art Women, a group of female asylum seekers who share a passion for arts and crafts. But Akonyi says it is more than a creative collective – it is also a counselling and therapy platform for female refugees. “Art Women is about creating a safe environment to help women recover from trauma, to help them heal and rebuild self-esteem – to empower them,” says 30-something Akonyi. Last year, after noticing that Hong Kong lacked quality African garments, Akonyi started importing the unisex, traditional Congolese fabric called liputa , which comes in bright and bold patterns. With the help of books and videos, Akonyi taught herself to make clothes and now hosts workshops to pass on her skills to other refugees. In a workshop at MakerBay, a space in Tsuen Wan that supports the city’s creative community, women are busy cutting patterns while children play happily or watch cartoons. Dominating the scene is a wall covered in vibrant liputa . “Back home, this fabric is worn by men while they play checkers,” Akonyi says, pointing to a colourful print. She explains that some patterns not only have social meaning but pay tribute to popular figures, sports or awareness days such as Human Rights Day or International Women’s Day. To share more about Art Women and the stories behind their garments, an event titled “Who Made My Clothes?” will be held at Social Room, in Central, on August 29. “Increasingly, people are thinking about supply chain and sustainability and ethics behind clothing,” says Smyth, who helped organise the event. “Few people know the story behind their garments – not just details about the colourful fabrics but the people making them and the energy that goes into making them.” For more details on “Who Made My Clothes?”, visit pelago.events.