Brand Story: Elegantees – Providing Economic Opportunity

New York-based clothing brand Elegantees info started off as a socially-oriented enterprise with a goal of donating a portion of profits to charity organisations fighting sex trafficking. However, owner and founder Katie Martinez decided to change her business model early on after a chance meeting with a Nepalese campaigner against trafficking.

“I learned about human trafficking in class when I was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After founding the business in 2010, I declared that profits from Elegantees would benefit a non-profit that is fighting sex trafficking” she explains. “Then in 2011, I met a man from Nepal named Ramesh Sapotka. At the time, his organisation was rescuing over 20,000 women and children out of trafficking each year in Nepal and India. Ramesh had a vision to transform Nepal by reducing poverty. He had a determination to open a sewing facility. 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 providing economic opportunities.”

So Katie partnered Elegantees with Ramesh’s non-profit N.I. Nepal. The company now produces garments from a sewing center in Kathmandu, where women trying to escape the sex industry are given the chance to learn new skills and become independent contractors paid a living wage. Currently, Elegantees employs 18 workers but they have a waiting list of around 500 women looking for an opportunity to find another way to earn a living. Human trafficking is a growing criminal industry in Nepal, with an estimated 200,000 women and girls trafficked to brothels each year.

Elegantees helps to raise awareness of this problem as well as offering people a way out. The company sells clothing, mostly for women (men’s t-shirts are also available), including t-shirts, tops, dresses, skirts and tunics. Each item has a tag featuring its maker’s signature, reminding owners that their purchase has made a real difference.

Elegantees uses the “slow fashion” approach. For Katie, it’s not about mass producing clothing that will be in one season, out the next. It’s about producing something that lasts and has meaning. More and more ethically-minded small to medium-sized companies are following this approach. For Elegantees, it’s about creating garments that are attractive but also simple and comfortable.

“I started Elegantees with the vision to be as effortless as the everyday jeans and tee-shirt routine, but will make women look and feel elegant!” says Katie.

Katie grew up on a farm in Iowa before relocating to New York and studying fashion. She used to buy from billion dollar brands but had a long-harboured dream of starting her own enterprise which would enable her to help others. Although she is now living her dream, it has not been an easy journey and Elegantees has come close to shutting down on a couple of occasions during its eight year history. Coordinating things in Kathmandu from her New York home was always going to be a challenge, but there have been other setbacks – materials lost in the 2015 earthquake close to Kathmandu, fuel supplies affected by India shutting its border with Nepal, a slump in business which almost led to the sewing center closing for good.

But thankfully things are now back on track. Katie has reduced her workload but sourced a couple of reliable pairs of hands to keep things moving forward. The company has over 17,000 Instagram followers and products retail in over 40 stores in the US, Canada, Germany, Ireland and New Zealand.

The difference that Elegantees is making to women’s lives can be seen on the company’s website, with some of the sewers sharing their stories. One tells of the confidence she feels now that she can live for herself and support her family. Another explains how she was rejected by her family after being forced into the sex industry, but now the relationship has been restored.

Seamstresses at Elegantees earn between 2-3 times the minimum wage in Nepal and are entitled to paid time off. This enables them to live independent lives and support families. The company is also committed to sourcing its materials organically and ethically. Most of the cotton comes from GOTS Certified Organic Cotton suppliers in India, where farmers are paid a fair wage and are not exposed to harmful chemicals. The dyeing process uses natural products. Elegantees has made a commitment to use 100% organic cotton by 2020.

Katie’s dream is to be able to expand the business so that more women can be offered a path away from sex trafficking. She hopes eventually to be able to offer jobs to all 500 of those currently awaiting an opportunity.

“Women in Nepal will one day not be seen as a commodity, in which their body can be bought and sold, for sex or any other reason” she says.