Dresses That Help Fight Slavery

Article excerpt

Byline: by Richard Dennen

WHEN Kate Middleton wore a chic chiffon off-white dress and matching headscarf to visit the Assyakirin Mosque in Kuala Lumpur last month, she sparked the usual stampede by fashionistas desperate to copy her look.

However, this time the dress wasn't by Alexander McQueen or Alice Temperley but a less well-known name -- Beulah London.

By the following morning, the fashion label had been inundated with requests from American women after their own version. Yet few would have realised that by wearing the dress, Kate was supporting not just her friend -- Beulah's founder Lady Natasha Rufus Isaacs -- but also victims of sex trafficking in India.

Natasha, the daughter of a British peer and fiancee of Kate's ex-boyfriend Rupert Finch, was working alongside a host of other well-connected 20-somethings at Sotheby's -- the famed London auction house -- five years ago when she decided that her future lay in helping others.

Initially, the committed Christian volunteered at a church in central London, helping with homeless projects. Then in 2009, Natasha and her childhood friend Lavinia Brennan made the life-changing decision to swap parties at Club H -- Princes Harry and William's private basement at their family home -- for a stint teaching needlework and English to victims of sex trafficking in India.

Natasha, 29, explains: 'I had been talking to a friend about human trafficking and I was determined to do something to help. I met women who had been abused and a girl who was trafficked from the school where I was teaching.

'She fell in love with a man who promised her a new life and whisked her away, and she didn't return.

'It was heartbreaking, but it helped me to understand slavery and how traffickers work.

'It also taught me the importance of education because traffickers prey on the uneducated, the ones who have no options. I realised that providing skills could prevent trafficking.' Natasha, who has a history of art degree, spent two months at a workshop teaching vulnerable girls who had been rescued from brothels and slums.

'They were making simple things such as cushions and cards,' she says. 'It was not glamorous. I did cry.' The sanitary arrangements were 'bucket and chuck it'.

It was there that Beulah London was conceived. Natasha and Lavinia's idea was to create an ethical fashion label that would pay a living wage to rescued women and save them from the economic necessity of returning to the streets.

'It was a real motivator to start up a business which could be profitable and provide women with an alternative, sustainable livelihood,' she says. Until then, her interest in fashion had extended only as far as raiding the family attic for her mother's old Biba and Ossie Clark numbers, but she bought a copy of the book How To Be A Fashion Designer and got to work.

Each Beulah garment comes with a canvas bag produced by victims of trafficking in India through a Calcuttabased project called Freeset.

Some items in the collection are made via a project in Delhi called Open Hand, by women who have escaped trafficking and the sex trade, including some who are HIV-positive and widowed.

'It is very hard trying to juggle starting a business and involving women in the production of the clothing, but we are making progress,' Natasha says.

'Some people thought I was crazy to give up the security of a job but it didn't really excite me. My family were ridiculously supportive of my idea to set up a social enterprise.' Three years later, Beulah London's client list includes models Kate Moss and Tolula Adeyemi, singer Natasha Bedingfield, presenters Tess Daly and Natalie Pinkham, and Hollywood stars Sienna Miller and Demi Moore.

But their most famous patron is undoubtedly Kate Middleton, who dazzled in a floor-length red Beulah London dress at a charity gala last year and wore a flower-patterned creation to a wedding in July. …