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How Handbag Line On-Ra Will Support Sex Trafficking Survivors

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A sample from an On-Ra bag
A sample from an On-Ra bag

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There are a lot of clothing lines and accessory brands in New York City trying to do good—from producing locally to donating a portion of their profits to charity organizations. But On-Ra, which was co-founded by Anna Moss and Kayon Watson earlier this year, is taking the concept to an entirely different level.

The brand's mission goes far beyond providing quality crafted handbags that give back: Moss and Watson aim to support foreign-national survivors of sex traf?cking through a skills training and apprenticeship program. That means that all of the products will be designed and manufactured in collaboration with these women.

Moss is also the designer behind the handbag line Chiyome, and also works as an instructor for the Prison Education Initiative. (You may also remember her from Season 7 of Project Runway.) Watson's background includes advocacy work with international development organizations, non-profits, and the UN.

Together, they plan go far beyond charity work—On-Ra's main objective is to train survivors in sewing production and design skills so that they can develop sustainable career paths and move closer toward restoration. We met up with them both at their studio to learn more about the project.

How did On-Ra come about?

Anna: We had a business partner who was based in South Sudan—this really amazing American woman who moved there about five or seven years ago. She opened an orphanage and identified that there was a real need for attention for the population of women that are survivors of sex trafficking in South Sudan. So she approached us, and at that time Kayon was going to be the coordinator and I was going to be the designer for the company, and it kind of slowly shifted.

She ended up having to move back to the U.S. for health reasons, and so she was like, "You guys, we had compiled all this research—you can take it and do whatever you want with it." So we shifted our focus to New York, and are feeling out relationships with different organizations here that work with survivors of sex trafficking. We're working with one non-profit that has two safe houses here, and they do really incredible work to transition the survivors out of the trauma they've been through and into a more independent lifestyle.

But we sort of identified that there's a gap between their experience of recovery and full independence in New York. We realized that not only could we,create something that's job skill training-based and career mentoring-based, but also something that can really harness the fashion industry.

Are you employing the victims through production, or are they benefiting from the profits?

Anna: It's going to be skills training. We're going to have an apprenticeship program where we can train them and teach basic sewing skills, and then they're able to be independent contractors so that they can work for whoever they want, and hopefully we'll be their first client. We're saying—we'd love to be able to work with you on this, but we also identify that you're going to need a lifeline for working in New York.

Kayon: We're really big on that this isn't a charity. This is a business that honors people and that empowers people, which we feel is different than most companies that do this. They'll work with women or at-risk people in different cities and countries, but it's more of a charity base. Like, a "buy one, give one" kind of a thing.

This is a way for us to show these women that they're on the same level as us. Most of them—actually, all of them—aren't from the United States, which is another reason why we really love the organization we're partnering with here in the city. People come here without family, without friends, they're going through this amazing life transformation, and we're trying to show them, "You're not a charity case. You're a contributing person within society and we're going to value and honor you by working together in a collaborative manner."

That's awesome. Can I ask what organization it is, or have you not officially announced it yet?

Kayon: We can't really say it right now.

When you do start to progress further, what's your vision of what the company will look like?

Anna: I think it'll be small initially, because the capacity for the safe houses is pretty limited right now. They are under ten women in each safe house and they've been there for around two years, so it's a pretty small population. But we're thinking about the future, and what this might look like a year from now. If we're going to scale up, what the facility going to be like and how we're going to think about space issues.

But [Kayon's] point is really good about differentiating this model from a model that has a charity component to it. In a sense, we're thinking about really integrating ourselves in New York, and thinking about how we can create a model that's sustainable and that also does the most good for everyone involved.

Kayon: We're starting out small and we'll grow as the demand grows and our population grows, too.

Anna: And I think also what's really exciting is that eventually—there's going to be a period of trust building initially with the women—but how I envision this from a design prospective is to be a fully collaborative endeavor, in which the power structure of employer/employee and designer/worker is really broken down and those lines are really blurred. Because I'm interested in saying, "What would it be like for you as a person who is creating this to think about what your skills are, where you're coming from, what's your perspective, what is your culture?" and thinking about how we can integrate those actual components into the design.

Initially, when we were thinking of focusing the company in South Sudan, we were very much restricted on what the design could be by what was available. So to me, it makes sense that if we're going to be working with women who potentially have craft backgrounds that it doesn't necessarily make sense for me to teach them entirely new stuff. But instead, for it to be more of a back-and-forth.

How important of a role does funding play in embarking on a project like this? What would you say is the first step to making something like this financially possible?

Anna: That's something we're thinking about a lot lately: who our potential investors could be. Thinking about how we can grow in a way that's going to make sense. For Chiyome, when I launched the company, I was thinking about what the initial line could be and how could I build in enough profit to grow organically, and I think those are along the lines that we're thinking of now.

Kayon: I think it's also helps that you just really look at your networks and the resources that you already have. Do you have friends that know a designer, know people that are investors? We've been really fortunate and blessed to have a lot of connections that are able to point us in the right directions.

But as time goes on, something that works in our advantage is that this is a woman-owned company, and we're supporting women that are a vulnerable population in the city, so there are a lot of grants and funds there that we're tapping into and we're investigating. But that's something that I think with any startup or any entrepreneur, it's the big question of, "Where would the money come from?"

Do you feel that there is a big gap in the fashion industry where social and cultural issues are concerned?

Anna: It does feel like we're pioneering new territory, because we haven't seen too many other models for what we're trying to do. It also just stems from who we are naturally, that we identify that this is something that could happen, and what are our skills? How can we envision a project that is going to be successful and also serve a real role for our communities? But I can't really speak to why I don't think it's being done more, but I am really excited about being a part of making this successful.

Kayon: I think the gap is becoming smaller and smaller as time goes on. I feel that our age group, the millennial generation, is very much more socially aware than our parents' or our grandparents' generation. I think that our age group also understands that you don't have to do just one thing your whole entire life. You can mix things, and they go quite well together. And that's a trend that's happening more and more.

I have a background working with international development organizations and the United Nations and other non-profits, and you have to use all the resources you have—particularly to solve very deep issues that have years and generations of various levels of conflict and various levels of poverty. Human trafficking and sex trafficking is very complicated, and it's very dynamic in terms of why it happens and where it happens.

That is in itself why we need to use every available resource, and why not fashion? One because we both love it and we enjoy it, and also because New York is the hub for fashion and culture.

Anna: The great thing about this sector of the fashion industry is that I think it's easy to attract people who care really deeply and are able to be committed. People come out of the woodwork. I think when people identify that they can use something they love to have a real benefit for others, it's kind of easy to build a community that way.

Kayon: Another thing that we're really big on as well is breaking down the stereotype that if someone in a marginalized population made this product then it isn't as good as if it were made in Paris or Milan. Our perspective is that it's just as good. But that's usually how businesses are run: the person that makes the product gets the least amount of profit, and the person that makes the most is the CEO. That's another way that we're trying to break down that stereotype of how businesses are run in the fashion industry.

How do you plan to articulate all of these ideas to consumers? I often feel that with projects like this, there's always the big question of: how much is it benefitting the population it's intended to?

Kayon: That's definitely something that's a part of our strategy—not only selling a good product that people will love, but also inviting people to learn more about it. We want to connect people to people. Customers to the makers of it.

We hope to do that through handtags on the bags—a really quick blurb on what it is, and if you want to know more about it, here's the website. Also, doing after-hours little get togethers, where everyone's hanging out in a cocktail environment and where supporters and people who love the brand come. We're also very big on building a community and a family atmosphere, and extending that to our customers as well.

Where do you plan on selling? At markets, or small boutiques, or larger department stores?

Anna: I think a mix. Initially, I think we'll start with an online store and then move into smaller retail partners while we build up our system of apprenticeship and training. Speaking to how we're going to educate our customers, I think that there's a real opportunity for us to dispel myths and really educate, and it's going to be an interesting challenge for us trying to figure out how much of that we want to take on, because being a small company and having limited resources and taking on a lot of work, it's going to be a balance to figure out what takes priority. But that's the reason why this is happening in the first place; this needs to be something that people know more about.

What's your ideal timeframe to get everything rolling?

Anna: I think what would be realistic is a summer launch online, and then we'll feel out our retail partnerships after that.

Want to learn more about On-Ra? Head to the brand's website below to find out more about the project. We'll be checking back in with Anna and Kayon when they officially launch online.
· On-Ra [Official Site]