Many people are angry at the injustice of human trafficking. By launching Elegant Fashions, Katie Martinez is doing something awesome in response.
As a farm girl in Iowa, Katie Martinez didn’t set out to help human trafficking victims. Inspired to pursue fashion by watching her mom sew, her life was planned out. In 2005 she would leave the farm at 18 years old, attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, get a great job and enjoy a fulfilling career designing and selling upscale garments that would elegantly adorn women.
But then came a defining moment during a world affairs lecture when she first heard how women were were being horribly victimized by human traffickers.
“I was heartbroken,” Katie said. “I was very angry and prayed that one day I would do something to help these women.”
In the meantime, she had to finish college by taking night courses, work a day job to pay the bills and volunteer as an unpaid intern to gain experience to get her foot into the fashion world. Her first internship was not even remotely glamorous.
“For my first internship, I did a lot of coffee and lunch runs, handled UPS boxes and did a lot of data entry. The environment was very tense, lots of pressure. I was always on high alert.”
Through it all, Katie learned a lot about fashion and business. “It was a lot of hustle for five years.”
While in school, she met Israel Martinez and they got married. In September 2010, at the age of 24, she launched Elegantees publicly after a couple of months of ramping up. Israel worked full time to sustain the family while Katie poured herself into designing and production.
She remembered the defining moment during her world affairs lecture and felt fortunate she had not experienced the abuse of human trafficking.
“Part of the reason I wanted to launch a company was to give the profits to fight human trafficking. As a young woman in New York, I found myself in vulnerable positions many times, and I wondered why I was never taken advantage of when so many women were.”
Six Years Without Profits
If launching Elegantees was just a matter of passion and creativity, Katie would have cruised to immediate success. Instead, she had to learn first-hand about sourcing materials, manufacturing, inventory, cashflow and more. She went without a paycheck for six years.
Elegantees was gaining a good reputation among buyers, but it wasn’t making any money. Her dream of providing profits to help trafficking victims was going unfilled.
Despite the challenges, Katie maintained her commitment and determination. Fortunately, she was introduced to a “freedom fighter” and ER partner who was championing the cause of trafficking victims in Nepal. He had passion and a plan that meshed with her vision for Elegantees.
The plan was simple, yet hard. If Katie would hire girls rescued from trafficking in Nepal, then they could earn income, gain self-confidence and experience real hope for their lives.
So Elegantees made the shift, opened a sewing center in Nepal and hired trafficking victims as seamstresses, not knowing if it would work. It was a sizable gamble because the Martinez family was growing with the birth of a boy and girl. They now faced the strains balancing work and family life.
It took a couple years of training and production fine-tuning, but this year Elegantees became profitable enough for Israel to leave his job and join Katie full time. He handles customer service, photo shoots, promotion and helps with design choices.
Katie’s sister Kelli also helps by providing financial management and expanding their retail business. Currently 35 retailers stock Elegantees garments accounting for about two-thirds of Elegantees’ income. The rest of the sales are generated online.
The Dream – Jobs For All Victims
Today Elegantees is approaching $300,000 in sales and employs 14 women. They plan to hire up to six more seamstresses in the months ahead, depending on how fast sales grow. Each sewer earns double or more of the minimum wage – a livable wage in Nepal. Every hire means an entire family can escape poverty and is less at risk of being trafficked.
Katie’s dream is to one day hire 300 seamstresses, helping employ all the girls being rescued by her partner organization in Nepal. She credits her freedom fighter partner with providing her continued inspiration.
“He opened my eyes to using my business as a way to employ the girls. Every time I talk with him I get excited at what we can do to help.”
Fashion Designs and Mission Resonating With Women
“As women, we want to feel beautiful, but you don’t have to wear extra layers to look stylish. Our typical buyer is someone who is a younger or older mom looking for modern clothing options, something easy to wear for work that is still fashionable.”
Katie does nearly all of the pattern work and pre-production work for the lines, although she is now able to have samples sewn in Nepal to speed production.
Designing is a huge task. Elegantees collections provide 50 unique options. And the collections are refreshed twice a year, once for spring summer and and again for fall/winter.
“I designed Elegantees because shopping was hard. I needed tops that were pretty and comfortable, and with proper coverage. Having spent my life both on a farm in Iowa, and in the Fashion District of New York City, I’ve seen two extremes in the way women dress. A common approach is to avoid fashion altogether and wear the same tee and jeans/leggings daily. The other extreme is where there is so much emphasis on fashion that it becomes an identity. Elegantees is for the woman who seeks to find a balance between fashion and life, with a tee that looks like more than a tee.”
Buyers are responding to not only the style of Katie’s designs, but to Elegantees ethical mission.
“A lot of people who know about our mission want to help. For them, it’s more a clothing choice. It gives me joy to know know they really love the clothes too.”
Extreme Response is committed to women’s empowerment and works with partners in Nepal, Ecuador and South Africa who are changing the lives of human trafficking victims through rescue, restoration, counseling and skills development.
Want to help provide jobs for girls being restored from human trafficking in Nepal? Click here to visit the Elegantees Website. Elegantees offers free shipping, returns and exchanges on orders placed in the U.S. Click here to contact Elegantees.
Rooftop Revelation: Torn Up by Girls’ Tearful Stories
Photo Credits: Dave Smith
By Danny Cox, Kensington Church, Dec. 14, 2013
Danny Cox joined a team from Kensington Church in Michigan that traveled 15,000 miles to a remote area of Nepal to visit an Extreme Response partner. They weren’t there to sightsee. The team journeyed to see the reality of human trafficking first-hand, determine out how to respond and share this important story.
I have heard it said that once you start to despise your own sin, then your life can truly be transformed. I was having that thought as I set up the audio gear to help capture a few trafficking stories of young women in Nepal. We were perched on the third floor of a safe home for the women in a city outside of Katmandu. I was excited to be on this trip, but to be honest, I had struggled to fully commit to going.
Just a few weeks before we left for Nepal I almost backed out of the trip. I was feeling incredibly uneasy and was wrestling with the decision.
I suspected it had to do with the many years of an adoption process my family and I have experienced from 2005 until the present. In 2005, my wife and I went to Honduras to a small fishing village on the northern coast to serve at an all-girls orphanage. While there, we fell deeply in love with the girls.
But three young teenagers in particular captured our hearts and we felt a call to make them part of our permanent family. It took four long years and many miraculous events, but they finally came to live with us in Michigan.
These past 10 years have been beautiful, yet difficult. There is so much hurt and pain mixed with hope and love. Over time, we learned the devastating events our daughters had experienced at the orphanage for many years.
Human Trafficking Stories Break Me
I didn’t realize how much of the struggle and pain I had locked away in my heart as an act of self-protection. It hit me as I was sitting on the roof of that third-story safe home in Nepal listening to the story of one of girls who was rescued from being trafficked.
We were not allowed to be in the room listening to the stories. These girls had been through so much already; the last thing they needed was another unknown man sitting in a tiny room hearing their heart-wrenching stories.
So I was outside the room with earphones to monitor the sound levels and make sure everything was technically correct. Before the interview started, I decided to set my mind for what I was about to hear. I found a powerful story that described the need to receive mercy in order to understand what mercy truly meant.
As I finished reading, the interview started. I listened intently to this innocent little voice of a very young, beautiful little child talk about the horrendous circumstance of her own family selling her into slavery.
About halfway through the interview, perched high about this little city, looking out over Nepal in a little shady spot on this roof of the safe home, the floodgates opened in my heart.
I began to weep. I wept not only for this little angel, but also for my own journey. I wept for the depraved nature of these men who pervert innocent lives. I wept because of all the years we have spent fighting against the same things for my daughters. And I wept for my daughters and all of their pain of being orphaned and abused.
As I wept, I became angry. I became angry at the evil of our world. I became angry that young lives are being so badly distorted and harmed on this earth. At that moment I could hear in my earphones this precious child receiving comforting words in another language that felt familiar and true. Somehow, the presence of hope prevailed. The interview was over. I walked into the room after the people had left. Our team was wrecked.
We had two more interviews to record that day. Though there was incredible darkness in each story, there was also a powerful sense of light. In each story there is a remarkable discovery and a transformation from hopelessness to hope.
Each one of these girls has become a special treasure. Each of them is now a bright light for all to see. My hope is that we all become wrecked to help us see our own sin, and bring light into the darkness. These girls have inspired a whole new spark in our hearts. We are forever grateful.