The world of fashion often conjures images of haute couture, high-paid models on the catwalk and trendy clothing with expensive price tags.
But some fashion designers are delving into what has become known as fashion activism — using their designs and their high profiles to advocate for social change.
For Katie Martinez, the owner of Elegantees, and Andre’ Wright, co-founder of Humanize My Hoodie, fashion activism has been a major tenet of their brands from the very beginning.
Changing lives in Nepal
Katie Martinez, a Sherrill, Iowa, native, became interested in art and fashion at a young age.
“I got introduced to the fashion industry through my mom’s soap opera, ‘The Bold and the Beautiful,’” she said. “It was about two competing fashion houses in L.A.”
After graduating from Dubuque Hempstead High School, Martinez attended fashion school in New York and started working in the industry. During a class at school, the issue of sex trafficking was brought up.
“I couldn’t believe that such a thing was happening,” she said. “But when I was first in New York, bouncing around from apartment to apartment and paying bills, I could see how I could very well have fallen victim to it myself.”
Martinez said she was once approached by a man as she was window shopping on Fifth Avenue.
“He told me he could make my dreams come true,” she said. “I was intrigued and went into a bar with him and had a drink. There was something that drew me to him, and I wanted to know more, but something didn’t feel right. I could see how easy it was to be drawn into that.”
Martinez decided that when she founded her label, she would donate a portion of the profits to a nonprofit dedicated to helping trafficked women.
She founded Elegantees in 2010. While traveling to bring awareness to the brand, she met Ramesh Sapkota, founder of Our Daughters International, an anti-trafficking nonprofit. It was a match made in fashion heaven and changed the trajectory of Martinez’s original vision.
Instead of just donating money to anti-trafficking organizations, Martinez realized she could have a direct impact by employing Nepalese women who had escaped sex-trafficking as seamstresses.
“We started with two seamstresses in a safe home that (Ramesh) had (in Nepal),” she said. “We now have a team of 20 women, a quality control person, a logistics coordinator. It’s a thriving business now.”
Martinez said there are more than 300 women on the waiting lists of anti-trafficking nonprofits in Nepal waiting for employment.
“I would love at some point to not have a waiting list at all,” she said.
Despite part of her business operating on the other side of the world, Martinez hasn’t visited the Nepalese factory.
“I was going to go in 2020, but then, COVID hit,” she said. “I’m hoping to be able to go this summer.”
Martinez, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, Israel, and their two children, didn’t draw a salary from Elegantees until 2017.
“In the beginning, I was really motivated by the mission itself,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that, I would’ve thrown in the towel a long time ago, or gone back to working in the industry.”
Visit Elegantees at www.elegantees.com.
For more information on Our Daughters International, visit www.ourdaughtersinternational.org.
Dispelling myths and training allies
Andre’ Wright and Jason Sole, both 43, have been friends since Sole’s family moved to Waterloo, Iowa, from Chicago when he was 16.
Wright, a Waterloo native, and Sole are the co-founders of Humanize My Hoodie, a fashion brand with a mission to change the negative perception of hoodies. A documentary short featuring the pair and the Humanize My Hoodie brand will screen at this year’s Julien Dubuque International Film Festival this month. The documentary will highlight a pop-up “Black Liberation Space” the company created in Iowa City as a community gathering place for people of color.
“The film is about what it was like to create this space in a very White-centric city,” Wright said. “It was a former clothing store that my friend owned, and during the renovation period, it was sitting empty and she allowed us to use that space for seven months. Now we’re in the process of purchasing our own space so we can do this all time.”
“Black people are perceived as dangerous when we wear hoodies,.” Wright said. “We’re vilified in the Black culture, and other cultures as well, for wearing them. And the darker the color, the more people look at it as being dangerous. I have a 15-year-old son, and I worry about him wearing a hoodie.”
Wright said the history of the hoodie has always held it as something criminal or illicit.
“They were originally worn in ancient Greece and Rome,” he said. “They were always associated with crime, with women wearing them to sneak out and meet their lovers. It’s always had this connotation of not being a good thing.”
Wright, who now lives in Iowa City, and Sole, who makes his home in Minneapolis, had kept in touch during the years through social media and the occasional visit. In 2017, Sole, a criminal justice professor posted about wanting to wear a hoodie to class in order to lower the criminal threat perception among his students. He tagged the post #humanizemyhoodie.
“I told him I thought that conversation shouldn’t just be in the classroom,” Wright said. “And that’s how it started.”
Wright already had a fashion label, Born Leaders United, but Humanize My Hoodie would be different.
“Initially it was just to change the perception of how we looked,” he said. “We wanted to rewrite the narrative of the hoodie. That we’re not criminals. We’re not dangerous people.”
Wright and Sole soon saw the opportunity for a much wider reach than just designing and selling clothing.
“We realized we needed help, and we needed White people to help,” he said. “We wanted to teach them to be our friends. We wanted to reach out to people who were wrestling with their biases. How could we work collectively as a group to change a lot of these situations in the world, particularly where Black people were being harmed? It’s all done through conversation and action. Before you can be an ally, you have to do some work.”
A big part of Humanize My Hoodie is the Online Ally Workshop Experience Wright and Sole developed.
“It’s not enough to say ‘I’m not racist,” Wright said. “What about racist-compliant? How do you become anti-racist? This workshop has really given our movement a chance to stand out above others.”
Wright said besides offering great fashion, the goal of Humanize My Hoodie is to build community, raise awareness and create allies.
“The evolution of our movement is to tell the truth and have those difficult conversations,” he said. “We can’t move forward until we talk about the past and make those repairs.”
Wright said big changes will happen once those conversations take place.
“We’ve always been in a state of emergency,” he said. “We lack in home ownership, in many things. But once we move forward, we can celebrate Black joy and Black excellence, and all of those things we stand for.”
Visit Humanize My Hoodie at www.humanizemyhoodie.com.
Visit Born Leaders United at www.bornleadersunited.com.
For more information on the Humanize My Hoodie Online Ally Workshop Experience, visit www.humanizemyhoodie.com/ally.
Michelle London writes for the Telegraph Herald.