Anna Malika had a dream since childhood to have her own clothing line. It didn't flourish due to childhood abuse and trauma which led to being trafficked during high school. Despite the odds, she is a new creation today. Her passion now in awareness, advocating for other survivors, and fashion has brought together a friendship between her and our team. As we learned more about her desire to design, we offered Anna the opportunity to try designing a collection for Elegantees. Anna flew to New York, met with us for fittings, and came back again for a fashion show during Fashion Week last month. A dream finally came true to a well deserving gem! Each of Anna's pieces were made in Nepal in our sewing center. The collection got a lot of buzz from Refinery 29, NET NY, and LifeSite News. It's already making our sewers very busy, which means we may see more restoration for more ladies in Nepal as it keeps going. Now, it's here for purchasing on our recently re-designed website!
I'm thankful for the good moments come when our amazing volunteers come together and are inspired with ideas. These women believe in Elegantees so much that they continue to offer their time and gifts for growth (yep, they work for free!). They each have specific roles they are embracing. For me, as the Founder of Elegantees, I'll be less involved in certain areas, in order to focus on leadership and making more of our sketches a reality! Next year, we plan to make lots more designs such as skirts, cardigans, clutches, and more dresses.
I'm also thankful for the scary moments. Since I started basking in the joy of becoming a mommy last December, I hadn't been giving Elegantees as much attention as I could have. I hadn't delegated the tasks that needed the most attention until a recent scary moment. The sewing center in Nepal informed us they are struggling and considering closing the doors. It was scary to think that for a moment, that could be the end of a dream. It was a good thing in disguise because it's unified us as a team and we're setting goals, and more importantly making tangible plans to achieve the goals. I had no choice but to let go of details in order to revamp the big picture. Some of our team picked up those details, and I'll continue focusing on the big picture. Everything is looking optimistic now, and we're very focused on and excited with the goal to fight, protect, restore.
I'm thankful for you, your support, and finding the mission to restore women something to work toward everyday. Wishing you a lovely Thanksgiving.
We were honored to speak at the Mujer de Proposito conference in New York City over the weekend. Telling the stories of the women who make Elegantees while presenting a fashion show that is fun, stylish, and modest is just awesome!! It made our hearts so full of joy to share. Hope you enjoy the video recap =)
A vision of Elegantees is to see every sex trafficking victim in New York City receive a safe housing option and an employment opportunity. The tool is through fashion and retail. We are compelled to this dream because of the stories we hear. One of them includes a high school student who was kidnapped at age 9, and sold for sex against her will. When she was 12 years old, NYPD Special Victims Unit came to the rescue, but the cop and his partner betrayed her and took advantage of her vulnerability. This damaged her, but today she is overcoming her past. She now attends church at The Brooklyn Tabernacle, lives in foster care, and is bravely working on her high school diploma. During those years, she met hundreds of girls around her age that were also in "the life" and many times would talk about how they wanted out. These young girls are working in strip clubs, and selling their bodies because they were runaways, abandoned, or abused. Their pimps offer them a false sense of worth and love that they never had before. What if someone offered them an alternative that was solid and trustworthy? Jesus is the answer, however, there are things that need to be given first to provide a feeling of safety and trust before seeing glimpes of the truth in God's love. They need provision through housing, friendship, and meaningful employment.
The tool is through an Elegantees store, which is a dream of ours that is watered and growing often. The ambitions of the store and its success will directly benefit survivors to become overcomers and start a new life! It's been more specifically revealed in three stages. If we focus on it step-by-step, we will be most likely to succeed.
To open the store in NYC and hire survivors of sex trafficking to work in it. There are thousands of teen girls and young women who are in "the life," and we want them to have an opportunity. The store would also be equipped with volunteers to mentor and help encourage them in their working ability.
To open a space in NYC for survivors to gather and learn to sew, and make basic elegantees for the store. This step would be reached as capital allows us to build the sewing shop. Simultaneously, the current sewing facility in Nepal would also expand. In New York, it is ideal for a newly rescued woman to do something creative to help her mind recover from the physiological damage.
To expand safe housing for victims. There is a high need for housing. This goal will be reached through directly transferring a large percentage of the store's sales to organizations such as Restore NYC to build more safe houses in NYC.
I'll admit I've been sleeping in late these days, which is funny because I was born and raised on a farm. During this season, I'm a stay at home mom to the cutest and most curious 9 month old girl, so I tend to do the most work when my husband is home in the evenings. Sometimes I'll stay up [really] late. Our daughter still wakes at night up to nurse, but since I don't have to get up early, I don't mind. Thankfully, I can be flexible and sleep in until 10am.
Well this morning, I got up [really] early. And not that early compared to everyone with a 9-5 schedule, but the struggle was real! I went to a terminal at JFK airport because our Nepali friends were passing through and had an hour to visit with me. I couldn't pass up on that. I felt out of it, but the moment I strolled into the arrivals, a joyful spirit took over me. I then saw my beautiful friend (pictured above) who runs the sewing center. Along with her was Ramesh, a man I respect very much. He wears a lot of hats, all with excellence, and his presence inspires me when I see him. He is a pastor who teaches Bible to many people and nations. Ramesh is also the man who started rescuing girls from sex trafficking in Nepal over 20 years ago, and now today rescuing over 20,000 per year. He loves seeing the rescued girls become restored and independent, so they are no longer vulnerable to poverty and traffickers again. His dream is the reason why the factory in Nepal is a reality.
It was one of the most encouraging conversations I've had in months. You see, behind the scenes, along with designing new elegantees, some of our team has been developing a new brand with a plan to present it to a large company for distribution. It would mean consistent work for the Nepali sewers, as well as the opportunity to employ so many more. I know with my production and business background in fashion, one of the biggest obstacles to being successful at mass retailing would be price. Ramesh and I were just chatting about the possibilities should the order arrive, and if so, how the increase in quantity will help significantly with pricing and logistics. Just so encouraging we're on the right track!
Aside from the seeds of hope for current business goals, I left that airport thanking God for placing into my life and Elegantees my husband, family, Wildy (our designer), our other volunteer staff, and also our friends in Nepal. They have also taken risks to make this opportunity possible. Being entrepreneurial minded with a mission that has money toward the bottom of the priority list has made these past 4 years of this journey a step of faith indeed. Many times we made decisions with a bottom line that didn't make sense, but did them anyway because of our mission. But we are still going, and hope is our anchor.
"Sometimes business goes up, sometimes down, but God is always making a way. No need to give up hope ever." - Ramesh (paraphrased)
Carol is a dear friend of mine with a ministry that empowers women overcoming life challenges that often include sexual abuse and trauma. They are located in a small town in Pennsylvania, where it can be difficult finding or keeping work. What to do? The Martinez family (my husband, baby girl, and I) took a road trip to visit and host a sewing class. Once we arrived with fabric and machines, there were nearly a dozen women enjoying each other's company while waiting for us. After I set up, they huddled around to watch and learn. They asked questions, and took notes; what perfect students! I love teaching anyone who is intrigued and wants to learn, but it's extra special when it's with women in which I know are a new creation.
I brought one of the upcoming fall collection designs for the class. The tee is named "Vicki" with a criss-cross front detail; inspired by the design of the "X" in the End-It Movement. I'm glad we started with this style; Vicki means victorious. After making the first tee, one of the ladies tried it on and modeled it. We laughed. It was fun! We spent the rest of the day eating pizza, practicing with scrap fabric, and talking about a strategy to set up to work from home in the near future.
One of the women, whom I'll call "Fara," took on a great deal of confidence in sewing the Vicki tee. She didn't understand all my English, but did through watching me sew. When she sat at the machine, her eyes lit up, and she hemmed a sleeve even better and faster than my own ability! Out of all the women, Fara is one in greatest need of work right now, so she brought the Vicki tee and the machines home with her. It was noble how the others were not envious that we gave favor on Fara, but were happy to see her take on her new paid project with excitement.
Back at home, I receive an email from Carol that said: It was super productive and gave hope to all who came. I appreciate your willingness to teach and share this opportunity and your patience and love for the vulnerable. Especially Fara was empowered by our experiences today. I left with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the love God has shown me and the remarkable ways God sets people in stories that show His grace and mercy to those willing to see! This happened today -- even amidst the complicated dialogue.
The new dresses will have a special hang tag autographed by each sewer.
There have been many times that I've considered closing out all inventory, eating the loss, and going back to work in the fashion industry. However, my faith in Jesus, the support of my husband, and the dedication of our team reassures me that we're here to stay. It's also during those times I'm at the machine with a rescued woman. Her smile is activated, just from me taking the time to show her something new, that passion overpowers doubts. Yes, she is worth everything. I am reminded of our mission, and that is to restore women.
Without question, there has been great progress since starting this in my parents' basement 4 years ago. I've been given a team of humble volunteers. Some customers have become supporters that share Elegantees with everyone they see. That's amazing! Today, we are working with women in Nepal, Iowa, New York City, and next week, we're starting in Pennsylvania too. We're even getting a store business plan for an opening in NYC next year.
Without question, there has been great challenges. We've learned that the best way to be a help is through giving opportunity to these women, rather than money (unless that money is earned). We've watched hearts become devastated at times when we had no choice but to lay off workers in Nepal for a season. At times, mistakes were made that cost us all the potential profit for an item. One of the things keeping us from long term success is the logistics in Nepal. It's an underdeveloped nation, so even if a fair wage is the same as it is in China, it's the electricity, transportation, duties and fees, that crippled long term success.
For months we were waiting for an idea to keep Nepal employed. So, we designed some dresses for summer. The cost to produce each dress is higher than what Forever 21 retails theirs for, but we're trying to see if they will still be a successful run. So far, we sold a handful of them at our popup boutique in New York last weekend! The supporters there just loved these dresses. Aside from the mission and fair-trade sewing behind them, they loved that they are thicker than the see-through dresses out there in stores, and also they are more modest!
Next year, we intend to open a brick-and-mortar boutique here in New York City!! It will carry elegantees, dresses, skirts, and accessories, all made by women rescued from sex trafficking and violence. The goals of the store:
- Set aside 10% or more of sales to give to Restore NYC to open another safe house.
- Offer the space for fundraising events for various causes in this city.
- Carry other brands made by survivors to encourage this mission worldwide.
We are setting up a one-day only boutique "pop-up" shop on July 18, 2014, that will be an event to show investors that many support this vision. Your presence will help make it successful.
Update: We did a great job organizing it and it was so great!! Really enjoyed getting to meet some supporters face-to-face However, we should have spent more time advertising it to have met sales goals. We learned that when the store opens, marketing will be so important!
We've been thinking a lot lately about how to get creative with being able to make beautiful clothing that is also matching a price that most are able to pay. This has been a challenge for us since we make small quantities and have a small profit margin. Our primary goal is to employ more women and see bright futures ahead. We are going to try more with American women who are in need of an opportunity. At Restore in NYC, Katie teaches weekly sewing classes to help build skills and confidence. Wings of Refuge in Iowa is teaching their resident to sew the Penelope tank to arrive in July. The Nepali Rescue Project is sewing up super cute summer dresses right now - we're hoping you'll love so much we'll have no choice but to design more dresses.
Elegantees is starting to sew a few of our designs with women rescued from trafficking that are in the New York City area. So far, I've been given three women to teach a sewing class through the hands of a noble organization called Restore NYC. I met the women two nights ago, and would like to share with you my experience.
A humble spirit took over me on my way to meet them. I didn't know what to do or how to say things, but I wanted to approach them with as much love as possible. These women all came from very rough situations and know they would need kindness! I felt very honored to meet them, and thankful my suitcase of soon-to-be-Elegantees would give them a job and better life.
Two of them seemed very happy to meet me. They thought I might be a Mexican like them because my last name is Martinez! However, my love for Spanish class in high school wanting to learn words such as "fashion designer" and "to sew" came in handy.
The third woman, who was a little rough on the edges, was the most interesting to me. She isn't rude, just she wants to be the designer, and likes to negotiate, and I think she doesn't like "authority." After I taught them how to use the machine and asked them work with me one-on-one to practice, she ended up taking a break. An hour later she come back, naturally down at the machine and starting sewing really fast! I instantly thought, "uh, oh, quality control!" But when I saw how straight the stitch was I asked, "Tu sabes coser?!" (you know how to sew!?) and she said she used to work in a factory. I was impressed and immediately understood why she left the room when I was working very slowly with the other two!
The rest of the evening was so wonderful. I could see the friendship on their faces and how they make each other laugh. I was so thankful I understood some of their Spanish and enjoyed their stories and jokes. To see them working hard and enjoying their company at the same time put a smile on my face the whole time! We are meeting again in a week, but until then, they will be working on completing the first step of the Catrice top.
The Catrice Design is one some of you have seen and asked "When is it coming out?" It's a high fashion piece, very trendy and risk-taking. You've seen me wear it in this photo above, but I've been saving it to be used as a tool to teach sewing. The sleeve bands are the perfect first project for anyone new to sewing.