In 2014 I was working out in India setting up my social business, Secret Pillow Project. It was then that I heard this story which led me to create the Secret Sari Dress.
The northern frontier of India shares borders with Nepal and Bangladesh. Across these borders and from communities in the neighbouring states, young girls are trafficked into India’s big cities and are forced to become sex workers. They each have their own unique story about how they ended up in the brothels but they all share the same fate: rape, isolation, hopelessness. There are a number of organisations working hard and, in many cases successfully, to rescue these young women. Once rescued, the women are detained in a women’s shelter for their protection, during which time evidence is gathered and cases against their traffickers go to courts. The rescuing organisation will work hard to contact their families and try their best to ensure that the young women can return home. They can sometimes spend up to two years living in the shelter homes.
Over recent years this story has spread across the world, horrifying everyone who hears it. The part of the story that grips me the most was the length of time some of the young girls live in the shelter homes. My question was “what do they do whilst they wait to go home?”
In the Christmas of 2015 we were planning a huge pop up retail event in Old Street Tube Station in London. It was our biggest pop up yet. We decided to call the shop “Discover the Secret of the Pillows” and give it a South Indian paradise theme. At the time a lovely lady called Anita was volunteering with us. She is a Hindu and passionate about the empowerment of women. She offered us the most extraordinary thing: to come to her house and empty it of anything that would help make our shop appear more authentic. It was a brave move on her part, especially when we borrowed all sorts of beautiful Indian artefacts including a statue of the goddess Lakshmi which holds water and rose petals at her feet.
After the pop up I returned all the items to Anita and we sat had coffee and chatted about the next year and what it held for both of us and the project. As I got up to leave, Anita walked over to a suitcase on floor, sunk down, rested her hand on it and bowed her head. She looked so sad. I knelt down next to her and gently asked what was inside the suitcase. She looked up and told me it contained her late mother’s saris. She told me she could not open the suitcase, the smell of the saris and their fabric patterns reminded her too much of her beloved mother. She told me that her mum was also passionate about women, and she asked me if I would make her a promise. She asked me to promise to take the saris away and use them to empower women in India. I promised I would because I was indebted to Anita and her generosity. I was unsure at that time how I would live up to the promise and my mind was rushing. All I managed to ask was if I was allowed to cut them up. Anita told me I could do anything I wanted with them.
After dragging the heavy suitcase to my car, I drove home. I was nervous to open the suitcase but when I did colours and sparkles dazzled me. I opened up one of the saris and marvelled at it. How was I going to live up to my promise? I quickly shut the suitcase and pushed it under my bed.
The saris must have started to work their magic on me while I slept because I began to think about the young women more and more. I decided to find out more about them. I discovered that whilst they waited in the shelters homes they were given basic skills training in beauty therapy and rudimentary tailoring skills. The main issue was that once they had learnt these skills, they had no chance to practise them. I knew that making Secret Pillows in the shelter homes would not work because the materials were too bulky. The shelter homes are in the centre of cities and there is very limited space. I knew I had to come up with a much smaller, foldable, useful, purposeful and charming product. But what?
Summer of 2016 was upon us and I was heading out to Portugal with some of my girlfriends. Amongst them was Amy, a leading handbag sampler from London. Amy is one of my oldest friends and we have forever shared a love of clothes, shopping, and sewing. There was a sewing machine at the place we were staying. I pulled out the suitcase and selected 4 saris from Anita’s mother’s collection. I stuffed them in my bag along with sewing scissors, a needle and thread. I had the beginnings of a plan…
Poolside one sunny morning, I made Amy and myself a strong coffee. I took it to her and told her I wanted to tell her a story. I told her about the young women in India, and that they needed work. I shared the frightening statistic that 60% of these rescued girls who return to their homes are re-trafficked within 1 month. I told her that money is key to preventing this from happening. If these women could earn their own money, they would be much less vulnerable to being retrafficked. I said I wanted to give them the experience of making something that would sell overseas. She immediately asked “how can I help?” I explained that if she could design a foldable beach dress out of a sari, we could run training workshops and produce them inside the shelter homes. She finished her coffee and told me to get her a sari, scissors and a needle and thread and leave her alone for 20 minutes. I ran to gather the items and impatiently waited.
20 minutes later she called me back up and threw a small ball of sari fabric towards me. She said “that’s a Secret Sari Dress. Put it on!” She showed me how to release the dress from the pouch and wear it. It was the most perfect beach dress I have ever worn.
It was our girls’ day out that day to a beach restaurant. So, I took Amy’s sample and made one dress of each of us. I had to rush but managed to finish them just before the taxi arrived. We piled into the taxi and planned the photo shoot that commenced the second we arrived at the beach.
That was the day the Secret Sari Dress was born. I knew that we had create the perfect product for the women in the shelter homes. On my return from the beach I contacted one of the charities who support the women in shelter homes and arranged a meeting with them on my return to London.
Within two months, we had agreed a plan of action with the charity: I would run a crowdfunding campaign and generate as many pre-orders as possible and then we would, together, run training sessions on how to make a Secret Sari Dress in six shelters home across India.
I shot down to Cornwall to visit a friend who lives near the beautiful Daymer Bay. My idea was to take some footage of me putting the Secret Sari Dress on and off to edit into our crowdfunding film. My friend had to head out and do some jobs. So, she left me at home with her children. The sun began to shine so bright and I knew I that I had to head to the beach straight away. This was the perfect time to photograph and film! I looked around to see who could help me and was there was only Matilda, a gorgeous 7 year old. I ask her to help me and explained as best I could why it was so important. She jumped up and said she would help! We ran down the beach together and set up our photo shoot. Only 7 years old and she took the whole thing in her stride. She told me whether the photo was good enough and made suggestions of how we could make it better. What a team we were that sunny morning!
With Matilda’s excellent footage I rushed backed to London and found somebody to help me with the crowdfunding film. Within a week I had announced that I would be launching a new crowdfunding campaign and started a list of customer pre-orders. I loaded the names onto two whiteboards in our office and I had 130 pre-orders within 24 hours! Everyone wanted to be on the white board. I was blown away.
I launched the campaign and we smashed our target within a few days. Lots of people shared the details of the campaign and it went viral. By the last day we had nearly 1000 orders. Hours before the campaign was to close, Crowdfunder.co.uk emailed their whole database with the campaign and hundreds more of orders flooded in. It was quite incredible.
The money poured into our bank accounts and we uploaded all the orders to our online shop system. We paid the charity 50% up front and they began to plan their training workshops and the production. We had promised customers that they would receive their Secret Sari Dresses in time for the British Summer time nine months later.
The workshops began and I was lucky enough to attend the one being held in the Mumbai Shelter home. The young women loved the concept of the dresses and were excited to be involved in the project. I enjoyed spending the afternoon with the young women. We talked about the different countries the Secret Sari Dresses might end up in. We played around with the dress sample that we had and put it on and off. There was lots of laughter.
The mood in the shelter home that afternoon was positive and everyone was light hearted. However, you can see that behind the laughing eyes of the young women that there is deep sadness and much stress caused by the traumatic experiences they have endured. One young woman in the training whispered to us as she was leaving to return home the next day. She was so happy. I will never forget her joy. I looked at the other young women training and I thought to myself, all these girls will also return home but they will have their earnings from making Secret Sari Dresses in their pockets. Money can protect these young women.
Production took place over the next six months. The employees of the charity were meticulous with their ongoing quality control and each safe house was supported to deliver their order as quickly and as efficiently as they could. (Thank you for the care and love you put into it.)
We set up an email group in our Mailchimp account to make sure we could keep our customers up to date with the production. It was all very exciting and we were determined to share the excitement with our customers. We decided on 20 May 2017 to be the day of The Big Choosing. This was the day when we would put all of the Secret Sari Dresses on our website for customers to choose their favourite. Because they were made from Vintage Saris, each dress was unique. Every single one had to be photographed and coded. The image had to be edited and added to the website with the correct size and fabric composition. We had wonderful team of volunteers who worked tirelessly to enable this time crushing process happen.
The Secret Sari Dresses arrived at our store in Bangalore, I opened them with nervousness and delight. The dresses were stunning and I felt triumphant because I knew how many people had worked so hard to make it happen, not to mention all the commitment from our customers.
Because of time constraints we flew the Secret Sari Dresses to London and the photography coding and uploading happened within 2 weeks. The day of The Big Choosing arrived. We all stood at our stations waiting for our customers to submit their choice of dress. What amazed me the most was how all our customers were waiting online to choose. Our Live Chat function had 8 chats going at one time! We worked so hard that day and hundreds of dresses were sent out across the globe. The young women were in my heart and head for the whole weekend. I constantly kept thinking this isn’t enough to protect them and thousands of others like them but it’s a start.
Thank you – this project would not have been possible without the commitment and hard work from
Amy Cowell of Turquoise Studios – the designer of the dress
The NGO that delivered the project – the care you put into it was incredible
The customers who purchased the pre orders
Customers who made donations towards the product development of the Secret Sari Dress
The Secret Pillow Project Staff team in India and UK
The Volunteers who helped deliver The Big Choosing - (Thank you Ngaire, Jo, Rachel, Sarah, Margaret, Olaf, and Antonia)
Lucy Seigel – The Observer Ethical Fashion Journalist