Nonprofits, Retail, and Small Business & Startups

Passion for fashion benefits human trafficking causes

February 5, 2016
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Crowned Free
Danielle DeSmit, left, and Heidi VanderWal, friends since high school, started their business after learning about human trafficking in West Michigan. Courtesy VanDuinen Photographic

The local and worldwide fight to end human trafficking has found new allies in two West Michigan women entrepreneurs.

Heidi VanderWal and Danielle DeSmit are the co-founders of Crowned Free, a Grand Rapids-based clothing and accessory line to benefit girls rescued from human trafficking.

The goal of Crowned Free is to serve as a financial engine for organizations helping girls who’ve already been rescued. Thirty-five percent of all its profits go toward its mission to restore and rebuild the lives of girls rescued from human trafficking.

Crowned Free also seeks to employ those girls and currently is working with Agape International to employ girls in Cambodia.

In its first year, Crowned Free raised about $12,500 for the following organizations: The Manasseh Project, The Scarlet Cord, Crisis Aid International, AIM Employment Center, World Orphans, We Are Cherished, Restoration House of Greater Kansas City and Redeemed Ministries.

The aim of the business is to combine the two marketable industries of faith and fashion.

“That is actually a God story. God’s been in every detail of our journey. … Our journey has definitely been a journey of faith,” VanderWal said. “I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea for a women’s accessory — this idea to start a clothing line. In May of 2014, I partnered with my best friend.”

VanderWal serves as “chief crown officer,” and DeSmit serves as “chief difference maker.” The two have been friends since their days at South Christian High School. Both women have felt a passion for helping victims of human trafficking ever since they heard a local speaker present on how human trafficking doesn’t only happen overseas but also in West Michigan.

The idea behind Crowned Free is to attach a cause to VanderWal’s and DeSmit’s passion for fashion.

“We both love fashion and we have a passion for it, but we’re not fashion designers — we had no idea. That’s been a crazy part of our journey, learning how to do this,” VanderWal said.

“It started with T-shirts, (which were) well received. We found that when people hear about human trafficking and they hear it’s happening in our city, they think it’s horrible and ‘I don’t know what to do, but I can buy a cute T-shirt or a piece of clothing and can support the girls in that way.’

“People have taken ownership of the product in a ‘wear it/share it’ (kind of way).”

Crowned Free currently offers women’s T-shirts, tops, bottoms, hats, children’s shirts, as well as note cards and wall art. Right now, the focus is on women as its target audience.

The store’s merchandise can be purchased either online or at the Hawthorne Collection Boutiques in Zeeland and Hudsonville. In the future, Crowned Free would “love to be in some bigger box retail stores and boutiques,” VanderWal said.

In celebration of its first year of business, Crowned Free hosted a launch party and fashion show Jan. 28 that featured its new line of inspirational T-shirts, bohemian tops and accessories.

The event, which was sponsored by Macatawa Bank and Shape Your Life Studios, was held at Cheney Place, 1600 Monroe Ave. NW, in Grand Rapids. A portion of the ticket costs went to support Wedgwood Christian Services’ The Manasseh Project, which received a check for $1,500 at the end of the night.

The event sold out with about 400 in attendance, VanderWal said.

“We are excited to see the community embrace our idea of giving back to this worthy cause,” DeSmit said. “We are using our passion for fashion to provide our customers with amazing products to wear while knowing they are supporting many organizations that help restore the lives of men and women rescued from human trafficking. Our heartbeat is giving back and truly uniting all women to help make a difference.”

The products have been extensively thought out by VanderWal and DeSmit, including their logo. The Crowned Free crown has nine points to represent the New Testament’s nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. The logo is sewn in with purple thread to symbolize royalty.

The idea of using a crown as their brand was to play off a comparison to a beauty pageant in which a winner’s crown must be earned by merit and outer beauty, VanderWal said. But “in God’s kingdom, we’re all given a crown and there’s nothing you do to earn it. You just receive it.”

She added that this belief holds a deep meaning for girls — particularly those who are victims of human trafficking — in being accepted and loved unconditionally.

“God’s in the details,” she said. 

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