When CEO Catalina Girald launched the eco-friendly lingerie company Naja in 2014, she did so on a mission to empower not only the women who wear her products but also the women who make them.
At the time, she says, the lingerie industry was dominated by Victoria’s Secret.
“The imagery was all about ‘pleasing the male gaze,’” Girald says. “I didn’t want my daughters to grow up thinking that their self-worth was tied to how a man saw them, and I didn’t think this imagery promoted women’s self-esteem. So we became one of the first brands to change the way that lingerie is marketed toward women. I’d like to think that we played a part in inspiring the movement of portraying real women.”
Girald, a former corporate attorney with an MBA from Stanford, soon teamed up with Golden Globe-winning actor Gina Rodriguez, who came on as a Naja co-founder after the two connected over their passion for women’s empowerment, body acceptance, and creating new opportunities for underprivileged women.
An empowering partnership
Together, the pair set out to create a company that would disrupt the way women shop for lingerie while also improving the lives of women in the workforce. At its garment factory in Colombia, Naja primarily employs single mothers and female heads of households, paying above market wages with healthcare benefits.
“We chose to aid single mothers because many have to choose between working and caring for their children”, Girald says. “At Naja, we’ve implemented flexible work policies that make it easier for women to balance work and childcare.”
All the children of Naja garment workers also receive books, school supplies and uniforms, in addition to having all of their school meals paid for. While public schools are free in Colombia, Girald points out, the rest of the expenses are not. “I believe education is the way out of poverty”, she says. “I wanted to make sure that our workers didn’t have issues paying for their children’s basic educational needs.”
For Gina Rodriguez, the larger mission struck close to home.
“During my first year of shooting Jane the Virgin, my college friend and 4-year-old moved into my very small one-bedroom apartment”, Rodriguez recalls. “I learned firsthand how very difficult it is to be a single mother. When I discovered that Naja employs single mothers and gives them an opportunity to provide for their families while working from home, I asked how I can get involved.”
Designed to help women
Through its Underwear for Hope programme, the company trains and employs at-risk women in the slums of Medellin, Colombia, to produce the lingerie bags that are available with each purchase. The program allows marginalised women who might otherwise have difficulty finding employment sew from home, providing them the opportunity to become micro-entrepreneurs. Naja also donates 2% of its revenue to local charities that provide support and continuing education to these women. (And 70% of the proceeds from its Masks 4 good initiative now help the rescue charity Soi Dog.)
“Partnering with Naja was a no-brainer”, Rodriguez says. “Not only is the lingerie beautiful and well-made but the foundation and the mission of the company align perfectly with my heart. Through embracing body courage, changing societal norms of beauty, and empowering single mothers, Naja will be revolutionary in the fashion world.”
Or, as Rodriguez puts it, “Naja makes one feel just as beautiful on the inside as it does on the outside”.
That starts with marketing that empowers women instead of objectifying them. Naja uses real, non-Photoshopped women in its campaigns and often features its own customers as models, encouraging them to tell their stories on social media.
“We did away with fake wind blowing into models’ hair and poses singularly aimed at the male gaze in order to connect with the smart, courageous and sexy women of today”, Girald says.
A global connection
Naja’s designs are also inspired in part by Girald’s extensive travels around the world. “Either the art of a country, its culture or its food”, she says. “Often, they are also influenced by women’s handicrafts in a particular country. For example, I lived with Kazakh and Mongolian nomads in Mongolia. I was inspired by how strong tribal women were around the world.”
With meticulous attention to detail, Naja’s products are known for the kind of design elements and artistry more commonly found in much more expensive luxury lingerie, from breathable memory foam cups and hand-harvested Peruvian cotton to chic and unexpected interior prints.
And the global connection also informs the brand’s approach to sustainability. Named for Rodriguez, the popular Gina bralette, for example, features a timeless silhouette with modern cutouts set off with lacy insets and mesh detailing. But even more impressively, the look is crafted from recycled nylon made from leftover scraps on factory floors and recycled fishing nets.
“We were one of the first companies to use recycled PET and recycled nylon”, Girald says. Naja, which was featured on Shark Tank early on, also uses environmentally friendly digital and sublimation printing technologies to print their fabrics. “Billions of gallons of water are used each year to dye fabric for the garment industry”, Girald says. “With digital printing, our water waste is next to none.”
In each of its collections, Naja strives to include fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles – even the bags are made from compostable corn starch. And the company is now researching fabrics with bio-polymers that will allow your lingerie to one day be compostable, too.
For Girald, the future of the socially conscious brand is all about the intersection of sustainability, materials science and fashion. And as an entrepreneur, she’s excited to see what comes next.
“If I’m not radically changing things”, Girald says. “I’m not interested.”
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