Birmingham Fashion Week benefits charity co-founded by Jewish philanthropist

By Lee J. Green

While the third annual Birmingham Fashion Week features dresses and other fashions from up-and-coming as well as established designers, a portion of the events’ proceeds addresses the needs of schools and communities in Alabama from the devastating 2011 tornadoes.

Birmingham Fashion Week kicks off on Feb. 26 and runs through March 2.

Alabama Forever, a non-profit group co-founded by Birmingham Jewish community member and University of Alabama graduate Alex Sokol, will benefit from Birmingham Fashion Week. Additionally, the kick-off party will be hosted by the Gus Mayer department store at The Summit.

Sokol visited tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa on April 28, 2011 — the day after the storm struck — and knew what he had to do. “My wife and I felt a calling. I wanted to devote my life to this and help those in need,” he said. “After a disaster strikes, people need food, water and diapers. But once that need has been replenished, there is so much more we can do to rebuild and improve our communities, our schools and the quality of life across Alabama.”

Along with long-time friends Chris Nix and Ed Welden, Sokol then almost immediately launched Alabama Forever. At first it was mostly a disaster-response mission, but it soon branched out into the wider purpose of helping communities and schools in need. “We want to change lives and leave a lasting impression,” said Sokol.

One of the three main initiatives is the Alabama Forever Classroom Project. This helps not just schools affected by storms, but also Black Belt and inner-city schools by providing important teaching resources, technologies and supplies the schools need but can’t afford. “We rank in the 40s among U.S. states in many educational statistics and we want to play a role in improving that,” he said.

The second is the Alabama Forever Sports Endowment. All middle school and high school coaches and administrators in the state can apply for needs-based grants that would provide things such as safety supplies (concussion-protection helmets, for example). The organization has also funded the start-up of several new sports programs at schools that did not have them before.

“Sports and community are so intertwined in Alabama. Improving schools and improving athletic programs helps to improve communities,” said Sokol.

The third initiative is the Building/Re-building Communities Program. Alabama Forever partnered with Nick’s Kids, a charity founded a few years ago by Alabama Crimson Tide Head Coach Nick Saban and his wife, Terri, to rebuild and build new playgrounds in Tuscaloosa and hard-hit Phil Campbell.

Pratt City, just west of Birmingham, was also devastated by the 2011 tornadoes. Thanks in part to the donation of computers and educational resources from Alabama Forever, the Pratt City Library will open its doors again in June.

Sokol said that growing up Jewish, he has always been focused on the importance of tzedekah and mitzvot. His father, Bruce, started the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama and provided a good road map for the launching of Alabama Forever.

Alex Sokol serves on the board of Camp Smile-A-Mile, a year-round program that helps send children with cancer to camp, with Birmingham Fashion Week founder Geana Lee Fleming. The Camp is also a benefactor of Birmingham Fashion Week.

BFW was founded on the “ideals of bringing unity to our community through fashion.” The week of events at various locations culminates with the final runway show on March 2 at Birmingham’s Pepper Place.

This year, BFW has been expanded to seven days of various events showcasing world-renowned designers, including Heidi Elnora (former “Project Runway” TV show contestant from Birmingham), By Smith and Annie Griffin. This year will also feature designs by and appearances by “Project Runway” previous contestants Anthony Ryan Auld from Baton Rouge, Joshua McKinley and Laura Kathryn.

On March 2, the Emerging Design Winner and Rising Design Winner will be announced. One of the submissions eligible in the student category is an Andy Warhol-inspired dress designed by Alabama School of Fine Arts student and Jewish community member Annie Bloomston.

Gus Mayer has been hosting the opening night event for Birmingham Fashion Week the past three years. CEO Jeff Pizitz, also an involved member of the area Jewish community, considers their involvement a large mitzvah.

“This benefits two very important charities and it helps young designers to get discovered so that they can further their careers. It is a special event and we’re happy to be a part of it,” said Pizitz.

He said Gus Mayer carries several of the lines produced by designers who have been involved with Birmingham Fashion Week.

“It’s a great way to showcase some of our area’s and the nation’s top designers,” he said. “Birmingham is a stylish community and this event gives us a chance to show the nation how fashion-conscious and fashion-forward we are here.”