x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Beulah’s beauty is in its detail

The London-based womenswear label Beulah employs women in India to do embroidered detailing for the dresses – a source of employment that's helping these women escape the dark trade of trafficking.

Courtesy Katrina Lawson Johnston
Courtesy Katrina Lawson Johnston

We talk to Natasha Rufus Issacs about her womenswear company Beulah, which employs former prostitutes in India in the production process.

When the young London womenswear company Beulah launches its new bridal collection, Milk & Honey, this month, it will have all the style that has allowed it to win the custom of the likes of Kates Middleton and Moss, and support from stores such as Harvey Nichols.

The aesthetic is feminine, for sure, with plenty of Beulah’s signature embroidery work but, as its co-founder Natasha Rufus Isaacs describes it: “Romantic without being puffy or overdone as some wedding dresses can be.”

What few women might realise on their big day is that at least part of the dresses, as with much of Beulah’s main line, will have been made by one-time female sex workers in India.

As unlikely a starting point for a fashion company can be, Beulah grew out of a visit to New Delhi by Isaacs and her business partner Lavinia Brennan, keen to find out more on the little-reported crisis there in human trafficking and the sex trade.

“I just couldn’t believe that such things were still happening in this day and age,” says Isaacs.

Since neither she nor Brennan had any experience in the fashion business, what Isaacs also didn’t expect was to return home to launch Beulah in a bid to help.

Aptly named, Beulah, from the Hebrew, denotes the journey of a woman out of despair and into a new life – and reflects the fact that while many of the brand’s fabrics are Italian and the dresses are made in London, one of their signatures – embroidery detailing – is made by the women in New Delhi, with whom Beulah works through a local charity called Open Hand.

“Customers want to see embroidery on our dresses now because it has, in effect, become our logo,” says Isaacs, who previously worked for the Sotheby’s auction house in London. “But we use it because we want to help as many women as possible in these terrible circumstances in the Dehli slums and many of them have the skills that allow them to do embroidery work piecemeal and at home. Sex traffickers play on their lack of education and employment and make promises of a better life. Giving them work in communities where they can’t find work keeps them off the streets.”

Each Beulah dress is also delivered in a canvas bag made by other, less skilled women in the same situation too, made through a Kolkata-based project called Freeset, while the company is also engaged in a continuing collaboration with the United Nations’ Blue Heart Campaign, which also works to help raise awareness of human trafficking – a Beulah print appears in scarfs and, most recently, the insole of a slipper designed in collaboration with French Sole.

“Working with India is very difficult,” Isaacs concedes. “You really need people on the ground there to make it all happen. We want to get more women involved but we’re realising so many of them have been in prostitution since they were young so really have no skills, so we’re going to have to get more creative about how we can help, even if it just means talking about the issue more.

“But, of course, we do also want to be known as a fashion label in our own right. And it’s hard to stay focused on the charitable side while building a business, especially as there is such a disconnect between the two worlds. We figure that the bigger the business, the more impact we can have.”

The company, while still small, is now in growth mode – as well as the new bridal line, Beulah has just taken on a new designer to develop the range and is spreading its offer beyond special occasion dresses into daywear separates and knitwear, and is getting ever more adventurous in its approach: its new collection is based around the idea of kintsugi, the traditional Japanese aesthetic arising from piecing together broken china using lacquer resin sprinkled with powdered gold to create something more beautiful than the original unbroken item.

That is a fitting analogy for the charity work that goes on in the background, unknown to many of Beulah’s fans.