Our Story to Success
Written by Founder Katie Martinez
"I have these gifts, so why not use them for something bigger than myself?"
Elegantees was founded by Katie in 2010
June 2010: The Birth of Elegantees
This required courage. After years of striving, getting by in New York City, I finally felt on top of my game while a Production Manager for an apparel manufacturer. I planned to buy a studio condo with my savings and (finally) have a secure adult life! Yet the dream I've had since age 13 to run my own clothing line itched me. I left my job and moved back to my parents' farm in Iowa to start Elegantees. Claiming their large finished basement for my start-up and temporary home, I setup a "warehouse" free of charge. I blew through $10K to buy fabric, a website, and a lot of round-trip flights to NYC where I checked into factories and crashed on the sofas of friends.
I reflected back on a season of grief when I was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I learned about human trafficking in a class. I vividly remembers my heart breaking while sitting on a campus stoop feeling hopeless for all the girls being abducted and sold. I longed to help. Now, with having a business, I declared that profits from Elegantees would benefit a non-profit that is fighting sex trafficking.
I thought about the mission everyday as I worked from my parents' basement. While I had no idea if I could do it, I dreamed Elegantees could be a for-profit organization that makes beautiful clothes and helps put an end to sex-trafficking.
September 2010: The First Styles Released
The first collection of Elegantees launched on September 25, 2010. I was thrilled to see $700 in sales the very first day! The local newspapers and TV stations in Eastern Iowa were picking up the story about this 24-year old who started a clothing line and is boldly going out to fight human trafficking. They made me sound like a superhero, but I really had no idea what I was doing....
(Except for modeling, I did a lot of modeling for the brand. This was our homepage image on launch day.)
I was talking a lot with Israel Martinez at the time (my last name wasn't Martinez then). He was fascinated with my entrepreneurial ambition and told me things like, "you're beautiful in every way." We were falling in love, and I would move back to NYC sooner than I planned. After all, I wasn't taking a salary and living away from home requires money. I did it. Going back to New York, I was fortunate to rent a 60 sq feet room for less than $500/month in Astoria. Back in Iowa, my mom took over shipping the orders for me. Moms are the best. She faithfully drove to the post office for years to come.
April 2011: Connecting to Nepal
I toured Virginia Beach, VA to put on an Elegantees fashion show with the IJM student chapter at Regent. While there, the students introduced me to a man from Nepal named Ramesh Sapkota. He spoke about the anti-trafficking work he's been doing for 20+ years. At the time, his organization was rescuing over 20,000 women and children out of trafficking each year in Nepal and India. I wanted to tell him, "Ramesh, when my business starts making a profit, I want to donate to you." But before I spoke, Ramesh shared a vision to transform Nepal by reducing poverty. It's the primary reason trafficking happens in the first place. He had determination to open a sewing facility, and that filled me with awe. For the first time, I felt a connection the people over products. I realized that fair-wage employment is more beneficial in the long run in fighting trafficking than gifting money in a charitable way. It redirected my business dream to focus on providing economic opportunities.
July 2011: Back to the Fashion Industry Day Job
Living back in NYC, I quickly went through my savings and needed a job. As I was searching for part-time catering or a restaurant gig, my former employer happened to recruit me back with a higher salary than before. I accepted it knowing it would be long hours, but I wanted to save up to pursue working with Nepal. I was quickly drenched in my day job that I was hardly active in Elegantees. Our sales and presence on social media dropped. It looked like the business was going backwards, but behind the scenes, Ramesh and I were creating a partnership in Nepal. My personal life was spiking with excitement - Israel proposed in Dec 2011, and we married in June 2012!
September 2012: The "Hope" Dress
Working with an undeveloped nation has many obstacles. Did you notice the first dress made in Nepal didn't release until a year and a half after we said "let's do this"? It requires determination to set up things in underdeveloped nations that are already in place in developed nations (example: electric generators, translators, and customs clearance). The first design made in Nepal was the "Hope" dress. Surprisingly, the order of dresses cost seven times more to produce in Nepal than to produce in New York. Ramesh and I wanted to find ways to lower the costs. He knew that if he could, I could give more work for more women to be hired. Since re-trafficking rates are high, a dignified job allows survivors to remain free for life. So we setup a bonded warehouse and some other things to cut costs. However, it still costs more to manufacture in Nepal than the US. I don't mean to say that like it's a bad thing, because it's worth it to me. There is a waiting list of 500+ women brought into freedom from trafficking in Nepal that need a job.
November 2012: Decided it's my Full-Time Gig (For Good)
With Ramesh asking me to send more designs to keep the girls busy, I couldn't juggle my day job anymore. I needed to spend my days drafting patterns, sewing samples, and marketing the brand. I am grateful to my husband, Israel, who supported us so I could defer a salary for years. The "Hope" dress created a lot of excitement among the supporters of Elegantees, and I learned they are willing to spend more for a product that is tangibly helping someone. It encouraged me that raising our prices wouldn't lose customers. Ironically, it gained more.
February 2013: Meeting Wildy: Creative Business Partner
During New York Fashion Week, I met a confident and curly-haired lady named Wildy Martinez (she's not related, but I guess Martinez folks are drawn to me). Wildy was a fashion designer in between work searching for a meaning within the fashion industry. Like myself, Wildy wanted her efforts to produce fruit that can transform lives. She helped with styling, sketching, designing. Her creativity in making the "elegant tee" more beautiful every season gave me a new perspective. (While Wildy is no longer designing for today, she serves as a consultant for us.)
April 2013: Experimenting in a New York City Safehouse
Even with higher retails, we weren't making a profit. I desired to become financially sustainable by sewing easier styles in New York so I could balance out lower-cost items with the higher-cost items. I still wanted to give work to overcomers of trafficking so I hosted a weekly sewing class in a safe house via Restore NYC. A few of them loved sewing enough to want to work for me. While the cost to make each item was less, 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 imperative. Perhaps one day with a larger team, legal help, and the funds to make a sewing center happen locally, we would try again.
I 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. Sewing an electric machine was like "driving a car," she said.
The original sewing room in Nepal prior to renovation/expansion.
August 2013: Travelling to Nepal
We needed to visit Nepal to sort through more logistical hiccups. I was pregnant with my first baby, so Wildy went instead to meet the team, see the sewing center, the rescue efforts, and learn 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!
Roshani, Ramesh, and Wildy enjoyed meeting and learning from each other while in Nepal.
2014: A Year in a Desert
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 turned into 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 wait for a sewing job, but the few women that work in the sewing center already. To help them, we needed to start seeing small successes as a huge success! We rang in the new year running a new race to focus on the prize: securing work orders every day.
April 2015: Shook up by an Earthquake
The sewing work is now exceeding the minimum for continued operations. The sewers are very busy and they sometimes need more time to finish new styles. We hired more women. But then the massive earthquake happened. While it didn't strike our sewing center, and all our workers were safe, we lost an asset to our production. Our fabric that was in transit from China disappeared and was not insured. To hit reset, I maxed out credit cards. We caught up.
We've learned about the impact of the work. After a few years in, the girls started smiling more in photos. It affirmed us through the sacrifices.
Early 2016: A Threat to Extinction
We grew as a business, finally became profitable, and had enough work to provide the salaries. We sent the funds to Nepal upfront to ensure all sewers are paid in full. It seemed like it was going fine. Yet, the sewing center was operating with worry. For nearly a year, Nepal and India had been in a political quarrel and India forbid anything to cross the border into Nepal. The Nepalese people were suffering without the food, medical supplies, and our machines couldn't run without fuel. We did get our hands on fuel, but via an underground supplier who charged us way too much. The decision would be made that we'd have one final Summer season, and then we'd close shop. Ramesh was being advised by mentors to throw in the towel. I did not do or say anything, but prayed for God's will to be done.
Summer 2016: A Saving Grace + Expanding
When our summer collection was finished sewing, and the fabric we had in stock was used up, I was still praying for things in Nepal. Ramesh called me and said India opened up the border again, so we can't give up. After that phone call, I rejoiced and immediately jumped into Fall production. Oh how things were turned around. I asked them if they could hire more women to catch up. The answer was "Sure, but we need to renovate the sewing center." The former safe home was now too small to add another machine. With renovations, we could add up to 20 more. I hosted our first-ever crowdfunding campaign to meet the need and it worked fast! It was the first time I saw the power of our supporters cheering us on.
Today, we experience provision, but it's assuring that when and if we're in a bind, we're not alone in this. It's not my dream, or Ramesh's dream, but it's become all of ours. Together, we can do this.
The kind and funny Madan making samples at the sewing center.
September 2016: Tucking Away my Sewing Machine
With a toddler and a newborn at home, I found that sewing samples is now an impossible task. I had no choice but to mail my patterns via FedEx to Nepal, and then our sewing teacher, Madan, would follow my technical sketch and make a sample in any leftover fabric. They'd mail it back with the next production order, and I'd tweak my pattern based on how it fit. This process was something I should have done earlier. Sewing a fit sample used to take me hours. Those hours I gained allowed something new: 10 collections per year instead of the 4. I later discovered this one change helped triple volume and sales in the following year!
Working from home momma life. They were efficient assistants, especially with the sewing machine (said no mom ever).
Summer 2017: Stepping Away from my Pattern Making Passion
I utilized my local library for my "office" and spread out all my pattern making supplies at a large table. I was content making patterns and giving them to FedEx. Then I was particularly intrigued by a young lady named Jenna. She reached out to say she's a technical designer and wants to become our pattern maker. Jenna was born in the decade after mine (so she's more computer savvy), and it's been revolutionary for Elegantees. For the first time, we're starting to have designs that are more detailed such as button plackets in skirts, and notched collars on cardigans (both those things coming soon!). Jenna is humble and hardworking, and full of genius ideas. She also encouraged me to drop $5K on a large scale printer so she could email patterns to Nepal and they could print them and make a sample immediately. We now have that printer paid off with a much smaller FedEx bill each month.
June 2018: Increasing Transparency
For the first half of 2018, I continually felt like I wasn't enough in two areas. One was not putting enough into designing and choosing the colors for the collections. The other was not sharing enough the heart of Elegantees and updates to our supporters on a regular basis. I loved doing both, but with the other things I do as well, I chose to give the merchandising to Sarah. I called her up because she was a rock star intern for me back in 2013. I'm thankful she's rejoined Elegantees and passionately is taking on her role. Months ahead of when I'd normally have the next collection ready, she's already on it. Sarah and I Face Time a few times a month to touch base and she doesn't mind it when my kids are climbing on my neck while I'm listening to her. I love being a part of the design process still, but it's better that I'm not in charge of it anymore. Doing the collections with a team effort allows us to have a bi-annual design and fit sample get together. Here's a photo of us from our latest one in Manhattan.
Today: Still Driven by Faith
I thrive on restoring women, and "selling" clothing I believe in. The sales dollars convert to more dignity so my profit motive is one that satisfies. Every year we add more seamstresses. While it feels that there is no threats to extinction anymore, there is still pressure. We have a staff of nearly 20 in Nepal, and layoffs are not an option. So we live by faith season by season. I know I'm not alone in this, and it's not all on me. With a remarkable team, and the continued support of women like you, we will one day see 500 overcomers of human trafficking and extreme poverty making elegantees.
Elegantees wouldn't be here today if it were not for my husband, Israel. Since day one, he's cheered me on and also challenged me to do better. He recently left his career in hospitality to jump on board full time with me. He thrives in creativity. We both work from home as we raise our daughter and son.
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.
Explore more about Elegantees: