Katie Martinez (maiden name Behnke) was top of her game as a Production Manager for a fashion company in New York City. Yet the fashion line dream was itching her, and moved back to Iowa to pursue it. She set up a "warehouse" in her parent's basement with $10,000 saved up. That doesn't seem like a lot to start a clothing line, but she was no longer paying rent, and it helped having relationships with factories in New York.
"I have these gifts, so why not use them for something bigger than myself?"
Elegantees was founded by Katie Martinez in 2010
During this time, Katie couldn't stop thinking about an intent she had while a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. When introduced to human trafficking awareness in a class, her heart broke learning that girls are abducted and sold as commodities into prostitution. Katie vividly remembers her cry out to God while sitting on a campus bench feeling hopeless for them, wanting to help. Now, with having a business, fashion could make that difference! The profits from Elegantees would benefit a non-profit that is fighting sex trafficking.
The first collection of Elegantees launched on September 25, 2010. Katie returned to the big city to be with her soon-to-be husband, Israel Martinez.
Katie met Ramesh Sapkota from Nepal and Pastor Eric Watt of Greensboro, VA for the first time. The two men are dear friends to each other and work to provide the funding of and facilitating of pulling over 20,000 women and children out of trafficking each year in Nepal. Eric and Ramesh share a vision to transform the country of Nepal by reducing the poverty. It's the primary reason trafficking happens in the first place. Ramesh impressed Katie with his determination to open a sewing facility. Through hearing Ramesh talk about his people, she realized that fair-wage employment for vulnerable women is more beneficial in the long run than gifting money in a charitable way. Meeting them was inspiring and redirected Katie's dream to not only try to fund human trafficking rescue efforts, but help provide economic opportunities.
Living again in New York, Katie needed money to pay her bills. Just in time, her former employer recruited her back. She accepted it knowing it would be long hours, but she could save to pursue Nepal. Elegantees wasn't growing during this season. Some new styles popped up on the website that were made in New York, but without the time to put into advertising, the brand was less active in growth and visibility. Katie spent the next year exploring possibilities with a sewing center.
Working with an undeveloped nation has many challenges with logistics. With determination, an order for the "Hope" dress was placed to be fulfilled in a sewing room. Surprisingly, the test order of dresses cost about seven times more to produce in Nepal than to produce in New York. This wouldn't stop the dream to employ 500+ women brought into freedom from trafficking in Nepal.
Katie left the fashion industry to devote her time to growing Elegantees and to make it better financially. Her wonderful husband, Israel, supported their needs so Katie could defer a salary. The "Hope" dress created a lot of excitement amongst the supporters of Elegantees and learned they are willing to spend more for a product that is truly helping someone. It encouraged her to find a way to balance out the higher production expenses. Katie wrote out her goal for Elegantees to be a business that can support itself and not be dependent on donations. When a profit could come about, the motive in growing the business will be for creating more opportunities for rescued women, and even fund rescue projects!
Amazing progress happened as a television show with 1 million viewers featured Elegantees on air. The exposure created a feeling that this would be "the big break." A special collection was funded by maxing out credit cards. Sales came in as the show aired, but not enough to cover the need. Katie was in debt, humbled, and prayed for direction and help.
Jan 30, 2013 - The 700 Club Live Interview and Fashion Show
During New York Fashion Week, Katie met Wildy Martinez (maiden name Sanchez) who was a fashion designer in between work searching for a meaning within the fashion industry. Like Katie, Wildy wanted her efforts to bring about fruit that can transform lives. Wildy dedicated herself to the vision and has been on board since. Her creativity in sketching and making the "elegant tee" more beautiful every season is growing the brand.
Katie desired to catch up financially by cutting out some of the high customs and freight expense of working in Nepal. She partnered with Restore NYC to visit a safe house in the city to start with giving sewing classes to women living in their care. A few of them loved sewing enough to want to work for Elegantees. While the cost to make each item was less than Nepal, there were challenges that were quite different. There wasn't structure such as supervision and clocking in and out. To build a successful model in providing a long term employment solution, a centralized location would be needed. Perhaps one day with a larger team and the money to make a sewing center happen, we will try again to produce locally.
Katie hosted classes for five women in a New York City safehouse. She fondly enjoyed working with "Hannah" from Ethiopia. The first time she was at the machine, Hannah was excited she could sew on automatic with a foot pedal; it was like "driving a car."
Wildy flew to Nepal to meet the team, see the sewing center, the rescue efforts, and learn more how we can work better for them, and vice versa. A handful of discoveries were made (such as a fabric warehouse in Kathmandu, and a cutting table that wasn't being used!). This trip could help with the logistics.
Roshani, Ramesh, and Wildy enjoyed meeting and learning from each other while in Nepal.
2014 was a year that many things changed. Facebook changed the visibility for pages which greatly declined our website traffic. We spent a lot of resources and time into developing collections and pitches for major retailers. We didn't see a return. The temptation to quit was daily.
At the end of the year, our friends in Nepal informed us we weren't giving them enough sewing work to keep operating. They proposed closing the sewing center for good. Their cry for help was ironically a good thing because we needed to hear it. After a year of dragging in rejection wondering if the slump would go back uphill, we woke up to how much the women who depend on us need us. We no longer see this as huge as the 500 women on the waiting list for a sewing job, but the ten women that work in the sewing center already. To help the ten, a small success like a trunk show in someone's home or church is a huge success! We rang in the new year running a new race to focus on the prize: securing the 10 women every day, while still aiming to get all 500 off the waiting list.
Kingdom Hope Garments (the official name of the sewing center) receives sewing requests for Elegantees that is exceeding the minimum for continued operations. The sewers are very busy and they sometimes need more time to finish new styles. More women will be brought to a sewing machine soon.
Wildy Martinez, Katie Martinez, two friends that both married non-related Martinez men (another thing they have in common!).
The team based in New York continues to donate our time and talents to grow Elegantees. Katie is a stay-at-home mom to Joanna, and another baby on the way. Wildy designs for another company during the day, does life with her husband Joel, and sketches for Elegantees every week. The rest of the team includes students and volunteers donating a few hours per week to help grow.
Growth is increasing through carrying Elegantees in more stores (if you're a store owner, click here), and amazing ambassadors (learn more) who are promoting on social media, hosting trunk shows and fashion show events in their hometowns. We also partnered with a team of women who are distributing Elegantees in Mexico (learn more). We believe more is to come!
Profits benefit Kingdom Hope Garments, and the other half is reinvested for growth (promotions, increasing fabric inventory, etc). We send the funds to Nepal upfront to ensure all sewers are paid in full, and the sewing center is operating without worry. Elegantees is a Limited Liability Company and intends to compensate our New York team a fair income in the future.
Women in Nepal will not be seen as a commodity in which their body can be bought and sold for sex or any other reason.