Runway shows have grown to be about the people attending, the music played, and the stunts performed — if attention is paid to the pieces of clothing, it's in the context of what trends they might launch, never how they were made. One designer, however, used her New York Fashion Week debut to put her seamstresses and their shared stories in the spotlight. With no previous background in fashion design, Anna Malika created a platform to raise awareness of sex trafficking and to help women who've been victimized to achieve independence. Sponsored by fashion brand Elegantees and as part of a permanent partnership with The Nepali Rescue Project, her collection presented last Friday was founded to provide these women with a trade and a sustainable source of income, which can be an important first step in a long process of healing. With 500 women on the waiting list to join the construction team at the Sewing Center, Anna Malika and Elegantees are just getting started. Born in India and adopted into an American home, Anna experienced sexual, emotional, and physical abuse as a small child, causing her to fall into a cycle of self-hatred and develop an eating disorder. As a teen, Anna would be lured by the false promises of someone who would become her trafficker. “During high school, I was brainwashed by a 40-year-old man into taking pictures for an ‘art project;’” she describes. “Later, I realized he was creating and selling pornographic photos of me and other young girls. When he passed away in 2009, I took action to retrieve what I thought were around 20 photos, only to find out there were thousands. I was in complete shock. Later, I began to fully understand what trafficking was.” Sadly, Anna’s experience may not be so uncommon; the prevalence of sex trafficking is commonly misunderstood and underestimated.
The Polaris Project defines sex trafficking as the exploitation of a minor or individual through force, fraud, coercion, deception, or manipulation for use in commercial sex or sexual labor purposes, such as prostitution, pornography, sexual massages, or other sexual acts. According to the International Labour Organization, over 20 million individuals fall victim to human trafficking globally each year — 22% of which is related to forced sex work — and the industry is worth $150 billion worldwide. These numbers change depending on which NGO is reporting: the UN says there are 2.4 million victims of sex trafficking each year, and the U.S. State Department reports that between 600,000 and 800,000. Regardless of the numbers, the truth remains that it's a blight on society and one Malika is brave to try and face down. Of course, this is not a tragedy that only takes place on foreign soil. Unicef describes the United States as one of the top destinations for victims of child trafficking and exploitation; cases have been reported in all 50 of the United States, involving potentially 100,000 children. Countless programs work to end sex trafficking — the Nepali Rescue Project, for example, aids 20,000 women and girls each year — but a lack of employment opportunities for those women can immediately threaten their newfound freedom, which is what makes Anna Malika's collection such an incredible endeavor.
Gita and Binita, the two women pictured above, are just two of the seamstresses employed to design the New York Fashion Week collection, the proceeds of which go right back into the program to provide job opportunities for more women like them. Malika hopes to ensure that all women who are rescued get to experience the liberation that supporting oneself financially can bring. Following her escape from her trafficker, and his death, Anna entered a rehabilitation program. After three years, she graduated with restored confidence in her self-worth, beauty, and independence. As she was careful to point out, "beauty is so much more than a size tag." When FIT graduate and Elegantees founder Katie Martinez discovered Anna Malika’s story and approached her with the opportunity to design a collection to debut during New York Fashion Week, Anna knew the time was right. And, the name would be “Freedom is the New Beautiful.” According to her, “Freedom means letting go of defining myself off of my past. Fashion design is my way of expressing freedom, joy, and healing, while helping other women attain these things, as well.” The collection itself includes streamlined eveningwear and sophisticated separates — some adorned with pearl detailing, a meaningful addition for Anna. “Pearls go through a period of darkness inside their shells,” she says. “But, while in that darkness, they become something beautiful.” The Anna Malika Collection will be available in late February. Sign up to receive an email notification of the launch day here.