by Benedikte Hatlehol
In 2009, two British women in their twenties ventured to India to volunteer at an aftercare home for victims of human trafficking and the sex trade, located in one of the slums in Delhi. It wasn’t the overwhelming poverty Natasha Rufus Isaacs and Lavinia Brennan saw that had the greatest impact on them, but their encounter with modern slavery. They heard testimonies of heartbreaking stories from women who were trafficked from rural areas and imprisoned in brothels in the city. Some had also suffered severe domestic violence. This was a life-transforming experience for the tourists and the beginning of a new epoch in their own lives.
Rufus Isaacs and Brennan recognized not only the misery, but an opportunity to give these women a better life. And so they were inspired to launch an ethical fashion label with a transparent supply chain, while employing former sex workers. Through this effort, it was their aspiration to provide these women with a livelihood, independence, and a chance to make decisions about their future – a future free from abuse and captivity. However, neither Natasha nor Lavinia had any formal fashion training, so the first challenge was to learn how to start a fashion line. After two years of hard work, the result came in 2011 when their brand, Beulah London, was launched. During the first year of retail, the company had a satisfactory turnover of around £14,000 (Cocozza 6).
The brand is founded with the explicit goal to raise social awareness concerning both the issues and victims surrounding modern-day slavery. Their vision is “to contribute towards eradicating modern day slavery,” and seeks to inspire individuals and instruct society as a whole by claiming that “a woman’s freedom is not a luxury” (Beulah London). Ultimately, Natasha and Lavinia envision a world where slavery does not exist – a world where freedom is not only expected, but also guarded and protected. Brennan says that their aim is to “equip and empower women and young girls who have been trapped and exploited in the most appalling way” (Media Intelligence Partners).
Beulah London is a luxury brand that focuses on timeless elegance, and each piece is designed to be a wardrobe classic. The price range starts at £160 and goes up to £680. Each beautiful garment is created to make a positive change somewhere else in the world. Rufus Isaacs and Brennan call this the butterfly effect: “a small change at one place in a complex system having a large effect elsewhere” (Beulah London). Beulah is a traditional Hebrew first name for females used in several parts of the world, but can also refers to Israel and the Promised Land. So, the name Beulah becomes more than a name. It is a symbol of the brand’s philosophy, and represents each woman’s journey out of “darkness and despair, into a new life of hope and restoration” (Beulah London). More than 190 women have been helped through the work of Freeset, which is one of the organizations Beulah London collaborates with. Debi is one of these women and her inspiring story is just one of many that illustrates the positive force the fashion brand is driving:
My mother’s life as a sex worker was very hard, but she did it for us (my brother and I). There were customers in our room all the time which was hard. Because of this, it was difficult to study when I was young. When I got older it got even worse – many customers wanted me. That’s when I thought, If I could just grow up and get married I could get away from this, but my mother didn’t have enough money to give me in marriage. I thought it would be good if I could find a job, then I could have money for myself – enough money for my own marriage.
Freeset solved lots of my problems. I got a salary, which meant slowly I could save. I didn’t have a bank account at first, but I was able to get one and start saving. Freeset helped me to save lots of money. I used my own money to get married. I didn’t take any money from my mother. Because of my job at Freeset, I was able to help my mother, which meant she didn’t need to have so many customers. (Freeset)
Rufus Isaacs and Brennan’s admirable and inspirational effort to initiate and facilitate change is noticed by industry experts and consumers alike. The brand is also acknowledged by organizations like the United Nations and End Human Trafficking Now (EHTN) for their commitment to “social business” (Cocozza 6). Early in their career, they were recognized and honored for their use of fashion as a weapon against slavery. They received a special commendation during the prestigious UN Business Leaders Award to Fight Human Trafficking. In addition, a couple of years later they won the Business Leader Award, and have also worked on projects alongside various UN efforts.
Each Beulah garment comes with a simple canvas bag with their logo, and it is also possible to buy the bags separately. Currently the bags are produced by a business located in Kolkata in India, called Freeset. Over the last few years Freeset has employed around 190 trafficked women or women who are regarded as high risk of ending up as victims. Through employment, Freeset gives these women a chance to build a new life free from abuse. The women are employed full-time, paid nearly twice the going rate for an equivalent job, and have health insurance and a pension plan as part of their employment benefits package. (Freeset). Women trapped by poverty, sold by their own family, trafficked by strangers, and robbed of their freedom are given a second chance in life.
At the moment Beulah’s prints, kaftans and scarfs are produced through a project called Open Hand that is located in Delhi. The majority of the workers are either HIV-positive, widows, or trafficked women, and the long-term goal is to teach these women the skills needed to make all the garments. As a means to achieve this, The Beulah Trust was founded in January 2013. The trust is partially funded by 10% of Beulah London’s accessory sales, but individuals or businesses can also donate directly to the trust or add a donation as they process their order (Beulah London). The trust gives grants that pay for skill courses, and support third parties that provide women with education and professional training.
Some styles and accessories in the Beulah Collections are covered with the elegant embroidery of butterflies, just like the one in the Beulah logo. These are all embroidered by abused women. Every woman who commits to their embroidery course are given education, practical support, and a chance for full recovery. Embroidery is therefore an important piece of the puzzle, and each puzzle is a long lasting restoration of a broken life; a journey that enables individuals to discover their true potential. To financially support this remarkable project, the Beulah Trust collaborates with charities like Justice & Care, which rescues and supports victims of trafficking, slavery and other forms of abuse.
Since Beulah London’s launch in 2011 it has constantly grown, and what began as an abstract idea is now a great success. This year they presented their collection at Britain’s most fashionable event – London Fashion Week. The Duchess of Cambridge is an important supporter of the brand. Kate Middleton often wears their designs, most recently when she visited New York in December. She picked a black lace dress by Beulah for her first night out. The English aristocracy and Tatler society lovers, not to mention Hollywood celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Sienna Miller, and Demi Moore, are also among the brand’s most notable enthusiasts and devotees. Demi Moore regularly wears Beulah designs and also met the founders, Natasha Rufus Isaacs and Lavinia Brennan, at a UN event in Luxor in 2010. She was very impressed by the gorgeous dresses and the label’s admirable ethical foundation.
The fashion industry is not known for high ethical standards, but Rufus Isaacs and Brennan found a way to unite the world of fashion with their passion for triumphing in the struggle for global social justice. They managed to develop a brand with a transparent supply chain and collaborate only with companies who share a similar brand ethos. The two founders feel they did not sacrifice in order to achieve this, and find it inspiring that other designers, such as Stella McCartney and Diane Von Furstenberg, are following their lead and using fashion as a platform to raise social awareness. Even though these brands did not originate with that in mind, like Beulah London, they use their label as a tool to influence and make a change for the better. It is Natasha’s and Lavinia’s hope for the future that all designers will eventually do the same.
Beulah London. Beulah London, 2015. Web. 2015. http://www.beulahlondon.com/the-beulah-trust/.
Cocozza, Francesca. “Beulah London: The Perfect Union Between the Love for Fashion and Social Engagement.” Case Studies on Business & Human Trafficking. The United Nations Global Compact. 2013. Web. 3 March 2015. http://www.ungift.org/doc/knowledgehub/resource-centre/2013/Beulah-London-Case-Study.pdf.
Freeset. Freeset Bags & Apparel, 2015. Web. 3 March 2015. http://freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/our-story.html, and http://freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/meet-the-women.html.
“London fashion label squares up to Indian sex trade.” Media Intelligence Partners Ltd. Cision, 18 Oct 2010. Web. 4 March 2015. http://news.cision.com/media-intelligence-partners-ltd/r/london-fashion-label-squares-up-to-indian-sex-trade,c519107.