Fashion success helps trafficking victims

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DUBUQUE, Iowa - The carpet of the Harbor Room at the Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque served as fashion runway for Elegantees, designer Katie Martinez's clothing line.

Walking to the beat of pop music, women of all shapes and sizes proudly displayed the shirts Martinez of sells with 100 percent of the profits going to help rescue women from sex trafficking in Nepal.

While most runway models are serious and straight-faced, the models in the Elegantees show Sept. 26 smiled as brightly as the colors of what they were wearing. After all, the shirts they sported are more than just shirts: They are hope to women in Nepal.

One fan of Martinez's designs is cousin Emily Roling.

"My fall wardrobe contains all but two shirts of Katie's," said Roling with a smile. Roling was one of several family members assisting Martinez that evening by walking as a model in her show. "I'm really proud of her," Roling told The Witness, newspaper of the Dubuque Archdiocese. "I'm older, but I look up to her."

Martinez, a Catholic, is a native of Sherrill, Iowa, and her family has much to be proud of.

When she was previously featured in The Witness in 2010, she had just launched her Elegantees line.

"If I have these gifts and I can start a company and if I can make it prosper, why not have the dividends go to this cause," she said of her venture. At that time, the shirts she designed were manufactured in New York City, with the hope that someday they would be sewn by women rescued from trafficking.

Her hopes have now become a reality. Since launching her line, she's expanded her efforts and recently partnered with the Nepali Rescue Project out of Virginia Beach, Va., to help set up a sewing shop for Elegantees in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Martinez credits divine intervention for how she came into contact with the Nepali Rescue Project. The organization's project coordinator, Melanie Bedogne, and Martinez connected via social media on Facebook where Martinez markets her T-shirts.

"A lot of doors have opened for me," she said. "It was God behind the scenes."

The United Nations describes human trafficking as "the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them."

The U.S. State Department estimates at least 600,000 to 800,000 human beings are trafficked across international borders each year. Among those victims, 80 percent are female and 50 percent are children.

For the past 20 years, the Nepali Rescue Project has been rescuing women sold at the borders of Nepal into India, said Martinez. The project has staff "at the borders ... stopping the girls and questioning them. If it looks suspicious, they take them back to the safe houses," she said.

Martinez said many of the women come from broken homes and do not want to return there when rescued so they are taken to the safe houses and given counseling.

The Nepali Rescue Project then seeks to teach the women a skill, such as sewing, so they can earn a living. According to the project's website, the organization has saved 20,000 women from trafficking. However, their work does not end with the rescue.

Once in a safe house, the organization also makes sure the women are "restored spiritually and emotionally," said the site.

Since becoming acquainted with the organization in 2011, Martinez has been hard at work figuring out how to get her clothes sewn in Nepal. "How to get the quality of fabric - and the colors - bought and cut in Nepal has been most difficult," said Martinez.

She said she considered many options before coming up with the idea to buy and cut the fabric in Los Angeles and then ship it to Nepal to be sewn.

At her recent fashion show in Dubuque, she debuted the successful first order sewn by the rescued women: a feminine knee-length dress sold in lavender or black and appropriately titled "Hope."

"These girls don't have a choice," said Martinez of the women and girls being trafficked. "Imagine the most difficult thing to be in where your only hope is if someone tries to rescue you."

Martinez had the support of friends and family, including her new husband, Israel, an opera singer. She said she lives off the savings from a previous job while she puts all of the profits from Elegantees back into the business. Its website is

In the next year, Martinez hopes to get her clothes into as many stores as possible, giving the women in Nepal who sew her clothing line more sustainable jobs. Next March, she will visit Nepal and meet the rescued women for the first time.

"I'm looking forward to meeting these women. I want to just show as much love as I can while I'm over there."

Russo writes for The Witness, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970