Written by Jen Woo
Entering the fashion world as a model/actor waiting tables with no prior experience, Sam Russell joined the industry as an amateur and left a styling maven. However, tired of the soul-tearing ego of Hollywood, and inspired by his mother’s drive in overcoming struggle, he founded The Giving Closet and redirected his attention to helping women in need. An Austin native, Russell daydreamed of working in show business, and with 13 years in LA, his dream came true. And, as with all fantasies that come to life, many of his experiences still come as a surprise, bringing him to the realization that his connections should be shared. “From traveling with Stevie Wonder and window shopping with Sophia Bush to discussing “socks’ with Chuck Lorre before the Daytime Emmys & meeting our First Family, I had a light bulb moment one day and realized I could do so much good with my fashion contacts,” Russell told 429Magazine.“Once that thought washed over me, it all consumed me.” Frustrated with Hollywood and immersed in a world of people with so much, but incessantly “whining” about wanting more, Russell found the ego out of balance. Despite the synergy between his work and LA, he needed a break. With his partner, he moved to a four-acre country home reminiscent of his Texas roots in the Washington DC suburbs, and now commutes to NYC for work.“Separating my ego from the work has helped my career tremendously.” Russell’s work with women stemmed from growing up seeing his mother overcome her circumstances, despite being exceedingly abused by his father.“My mom is a survivor,” he said. “I saw that through hard work, wise career choices and having a flair for dressing really helped her take better control of her destiny. In spite of witnessing the abuse his mother endured, he found himself in an abusive relationship for 3 ½ years. Seemingly an ideal relationship by outsiders, as his partner was a public figure, Russell explained it as an illusion and feeling trapped “It took him hitting me once to say enough,” he said.“When I came to, I realized I needed to better apply what I have learned in my life and moved swiftly with my personal choices so I never had to wake up in that type of situation again. I am a survivor, just like the women I help,” he added.“If you empower every woman on the planet, you empower every child and point them in the direction for a better future that they create.” In 2011, he began a traveling mission to “re-route” fashion PR goods set aside for celebrity gifting to “real women in need.” The Giving Closet seeks exceptional stories of selfless women through non-profits and social workers and surprises each chosen with a wardrobe upgrade valued at $10,000. “I am here to prove that fashion does have a heart.”Using fashion to boost underprivileged women’s morale, Russell explained that a new outfit could change not only someone’s attitude, but their destiny as well. Many of the women he has worked with through The Giving Closet have landed new jobs, promotions, and even new boyfriends. “The new outfits inspire confidence and I get to be a part of that,” he exclaimed. “This is my new calling—I am less interested in dressing the elite anymore. Real people need me and what good does it do to have all of these amazing PR contacts and to only use them for the privileged?” He described one of the consistent highlights of his career as “looking in the eyes of a single mom that has been surprised with a Giving Closet giveaway, [and] seeing that hope come back into her soul.” A major part of Russell’s purpose is sharing his experience with others in order to help them overcome and flourish. Speaking openly about being out since middle school, his near death car accident, the abuse he endured as a child, and how sexual abuse his influenced his choices over the years, he says he has only begun.“I have made a lot of bad choices in my life, but those things do not define me,” Russell said about his abuse issues. “I am not defined by any of my mistakes; I am made up of my possibilities.” As related to the LGBT community, he believes discussing sexuality diminishes the power it has in shaping choices. “It’s crucial that we have more gay, lesbian and transgendered role models,” he stated. What Russell has taken from his encounters is to never mistake kindness for weakness and to draw personal boundaries. It’s ok to walk away when uncomfortable in an impossible situation. “I learned that some people are truly friends that care for you, others are just curious,” he said.