Restoring Lives, One Elegant Tee At A Time: Interview With Katie Martinez, Founder Of Elegantees

Meet Katie Martinez, Founder of Elegantees

Katie Martinez has been passionate about fashion since her mother’s soap operas caught her eye. A student of the industry, she studied design and supported billion dollar brands before a chance encounter inspired the social entrepreneur to build a business that could protect Nepalese women from sex trafficking. Today, the founder of Elegantees is launching her first line of organic clothing and children’s designs. We sat down with Katie to hear more about her evolution from midwestern girl to international business owner. 

You grew up in Dubuque, Iowa before making your way to New York City and eventually Nepal. What is your story? How did you go from farm to fashion? 

I was a lover of art since I was a toddler and spent my summers inside drawing while the other kids played sports. At 14, I got into my mom’s soap opera, which took place in the L.A. fashion industry. With that as my inspiration, I started designing, learning to sew, and applied to get into the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Upon acceptance into the competitive Fashion Design program, I found a home in the garment industry.

The mainstream fashion industry is deeply flawed, but there is a growing push from conscious consumers for brands to be more responsible. What trends have you noticed in slow fashion and how is Elegantees responding?

I launched the first collection back in 2010 so it’s been fascinating to see the changes in the past 7 years. In the beginning my focus was on low prices and raising money for sex trafficking rescue operations. Then in 2011, I met the founder of a nonprofit in Nepal that rescues thousands of people from trafficking each year and he opened my eyes to see that a hand-up (not a hand-out) has the greatest impact. I was so drawn to the idea that a job could help restore a rescued woman that I jumped into a partnership right away! We had to start charging more because making things in Nepal actually costs more than making it in the USA, but our customers were happy to pay the price because each piece was a part of a woman’s restoration.

Over the past 2 years I’ve seen potential customers ask if we’d look into organic cotton. In response I learned that a GOTS certification also includes fairly-traded wages for cotton farmers. I love that and our first organic fabric cotton shipment has just been received and the first organic cotton styles for us will be released in August. Now we’re committed to using organic whenever possible.

In addition to producing a beautiful line of casual clothing with an elegant feel, Elegantees is providing economic opportunities for survivors of sex trafficking in Nepal. Why Nepal? And what impact do you hope to have there?

I wasn’t planning to work in Nepal. I believe it happened by divine intervention. The man with the vision to eliminate trafficking in his homeland was praying to find a way to give rescued women meaningful work with and fair wage. Before starting Elegantees, I worked as a Production Manager in New York for a couple of billion dollar brands. With my passion for pattern-making passion and experience in logistics, I play a role that contributes to the success of the sewing center. This makes my heart sing and it’s the reason I love my work!

I felt eager for the challenge to work in Nepal and coordinate design and production to help smooth operations, and to place orders. We’ve overcome challenges over the years, but today we have 14 women sewing full time in Nepal. Each time we hire another woman, an entire family is significantly more protected from the risk of being trafficked. 

Each time we hire another woman, an entire family is significantly more protected from the risk of being trafficked. 

From the fashion industry to the sex trade, your career is deeply intertwined with how we define what is beautiful as a society. We’d love to hear more about your definition of beauty.

When a woman takes care of herself and others with kindness, she’s at the height of beauty. True beauty is in being clothed in strength and dignity.

Ideal beauty is an expression of something that comes from the inside. This confidence trumps an attempt to seduce that is commonly found in fashion photography. Our vision is to create an example through fashion that says freedom to feel beautiful isn't in luring in attention. It's found in loving one self so much that there's enough respect to protect her body. When a woman takes care of herself and others with kindness, she's at the height of beauty. True beauty is in being clothed in strength and dignity. 

Yes, we have freedom in Western culture to be as seductive as we want, but this isn't really freedom. I used to dress in a way that I thought was gratifying because of the attention. It fueled a place of pain inside me that came from feeling unwanted as a kid because of being teased so much. As I started dressing more immodestly, the looks from others fueled an addiction to reveal more. It got to the point where there wasn’t anything left to reveal and I couldn’t feel satisfied. Where is the freedom in that? Realizing this was the beginning of my personal journey to dress myself and others in elegance. Freedom is in finding a confidence that proclaims a selfhood.

Elegantee’s clothing is soft and stretchy, flattering and feminine. Tell us more about the inspiration behind your designs and how you evolved from simple t-shirts to so much more.

Thank you! I love hearing positive feedback about our products. It all started when I realized how difficult shopping had become for me personally. I needed something I could wear to work so we designed tops that are pretty, comfortable, and can be thrown on without special bras or layering pieces. 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!

Having spent my life in both Iowa and New York City, I’ve seen two extremes in the way women dress. The most common is to avoid fashion altogether and wearing that same tee and jeans. The other extreme is where there is so much emphasis on fashion and beauty it becomes an identity. Elegantees is for the woman who seeks to find a balance without compromising her beliefs, budget, or time. 

As a young social entrepreneur, what has been your experience creating change in a deeply entrenched fashion industry? Have you been able to influence the industry and in what ways do you hope to grow your impact?

The true power lies in the consumer’s hands. Every dollar we spend impacts the world we live in.

I enjoy getting to meet so many gifted and creative people. Ranging from models to model bookers, to influencers to buyers, being able to have conversations is eye-opening for everyone. I feel honored when people are interested to hear my views and experiences, and I can hear theirs also.  The true power lies in the consumer’s hands. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the purchases from our supporters. Every dollar we spend impacts the world we live in.