Be A Biographer: Tapping design talent to tell the stories of sex trade workers
A few weeks back, The Blind Project, a New York City-based nonprofit that helps commercial sex workers and people enslaved in sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, rolled out a crowdsourcing fashion-design challenge to highlight these issues. The competition, called Be A Biographer, invites the public to tell the story–through design–of one of three women formerly involved in the sex trade. The three winners–one for each story–will have their designs printed on T-shirts and featured in Variety magazine.
Already, 30 designs have been submitted. Fifteen semi-finalists will be selected by popular vote between September 16 and October 7, and a panel of judges will pick the winners, to be announced October 21.
In addition to highlighting the issue of sex slavery, the contest is meant to create buzz around Biographe, a Bangkok-based fashion brand hatched by The Blind Project (TBP). Slated to launch in fall, Biographe will be staffed by former sex trade workers. TBP’s 18-person team will train the women in fashion design and production and employ them in decent working conditions at a living wage. (Many women who leave the sex trade return to it for lack of economic opportunities.) Additional profits from the apparel and accessory line will go to TBP’s on-the-ground partner organizations, which provide the women with aftercare services as they rebuild their lives.
We wanted to know how the idea for the contest and the Biographe brand came about, and how TBP’s team pulled it all together, so we spoke with Kyle Westaway, TBP’s biz dev guy. Read on for highlights from our conversation.
How the idea for the brand came about: “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we help these women go from slaves to citizens?’ These women need to have skills that are transferable. We looked at our team, who are very marketing and fashion design heavy. Once we started thinking about it, it seemed like a no-brainer.”
The quality of submissions: “My honest expectation was that about a third of the submissions would be high-quality, professional level. I would say it’s more like 40-50%. So we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Having said that, we’re totally open to nonprofessionals submitting designs–even if you’re a fourth-grader in Iowa, we want to say your voice matters.”
How they’re getting the word out: “We’ve done a lot of personal outreach and it’s taken hold on the grassroots level. We’ve had coverage along the spectrum, from Change.org to personal blogs. We also have a celebrity spokesperson, AnnaLynne McCord, from the show ’90210.’ And then there’s social media: Twitter, Facebook–that’s our bread and butter.”
The importance of looking good: “We realize we’re not taken seriously unless our content looks good.”
The joys of working as a collective: “When people think of a social enterprise, they often think in terms of the lone social entrepreneur. We’re very much a collective–a lot of really talented people working their butts off.”
…and the challenges: “Trying to get a bunch of people going in the same direction is more challenging than having one top-down command. Having everyone find his or her role took some time.”
Finding the right partner organization: “It took us a while to find the right flagship partner. We got pretty far down the road with a couple of others but found they weren’t the right fit, so we’re really happy to have found NightLight International. Something like this doesn’t work unless you have someone on the ground who shares the vision.”
Fundraising: “Until now it’s been mostly passive fundraising, through a button on the website, but we’ve done pretty well with that. In the summer and fall we’re going to do a bit more active fundraising with foundations so we can launch Biographe in a big way.”
Photo: Be A Biographer