March 1st, 2017

Can these kids' clothes change the world?

A worker in a factory in India breathes a little easier.

A child in El Salvador gets relief from stomach parasites.

And students from Newark are mentored by business professionals in workshops and on field trips that let them see a world beyond their own circumstances.

All because you bought a super-cute outfit for your niece.

Can the world be saved by a decent line of children's clothing?

Not likely. But can the world be changed? Susan Correa is banking on it.

Correa of Fair Lawn enjoyed a lucrative career with a fashion production company in New York.

"Profit was the purpose and I loved it," she said, in the midtown headquarters of her new clothing company, Art & Eden.

Still, something nagged at her. Correa saw unhappiness in the corporate world, and sensed a lack of fulfillment in herself and in many colleagues. Was that just the way it had to be? Or could there be more to business than business?

A fearless networker, Correa used her LinkedIn contacts to reach Jostein Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry's, seeking advice on running a company with a conscience. Solheim put her in touch with other people in the ice cream company, and Correa began to develop a road map for her future. She eventually convinced investors in her native India to support Art & Eden.

"It took me two years to build Art & Eden, mainly because I needed to figure out why we should exist," she said.

There was no way a small company could take on what Correa calls "the three Goliaths" of children's wear: Carter's, The Children's Place and Justice. "They are all in a tyranny of price war," she said, "and I knew we could not win that."

She founded Art & Eden with one thought in mind: We can be the best in the world by being the best for the world.

That led to a business model that emphasizes environmentally friendly standards — certified organic and recycled materials, low-impact dyes, recycled packaging — and fair trade practices, ranging from the wages and conditions in Art & Eden's factories in Bangalore, India, to the creative freedom afforded designers, artists and other staff in the company's New York showroom. Correa follows a version of the stakeholder theory of management: Value the needs of everyone involved, rather than only the shareholders.

Employees say the approach is invigorating.

"Art & Eden really allows the creative team to push further into concept and develop from there," said clothing designer Katherine Lee, by email. "Not every idea is perfect in the beginning, but we are given the space to develop each idea to its fullest potential. There is a lot of value placed in our product being unique and well-designed, so there is a willingness to try lots of new things and then see what works best for the brand.

"Because we are designing a sustainable product, there have been many times as a designer I wasn’t able to use a specific fabric, print technique or trim because they did not meet our sustainability standards," Lee said. "Working within this framework pushes us to be problem solvers and I think be more creative because we really have to think outside the box to make a competitive product."

Art & Eden also has a philanthropic side. The company helps fund medical missions to El Salvador by the nonprofit Christian charity HOPE Worldwide, an organization with more than 25 years experience in disaster relief and providing aid to developing nations throughout the world. Art & Eden funds the portion of the mission that brings multivitamins and the anti-parasite medicine Albendazole twice a year to children in San Salvador and the village of Suchitoto.

"Stomach parasites are almost universal among the children, readily found in the water and in their diet," said Russ Hargrove, chief development officer of HOPE Worldwide, speaking from the non-profit's headquarters in San Diego. "This means that not only do they not feel well, but they are unable to focus in school and it really affects their growth and development."

"We can't cure this, and we can't solve the whole problem," Hargrove said. "The medicine only lasts a few months. But if we go there twice a year and give them Albendazole to kill the parasites and give them multivitamins to keep their immune systems up, then we get to see the kids meeting certain benchmarks."

Correa joined the mission as a volunteer in November to see first-hand what HOPE Worldwide accomplishes and how her company's money was helping the process.

"For Susan to say, 'I want to connect my brand with that outcome' is a powerful thing," Hargrove added. "It's been fantastic to have the power of business working alongside our mission."

Most recently, Art & Eden began a partnership with Camden Street School in Newark, which serves pre-K through 8th grade. Ninety percent of the students live below the poverty line and 40 percent have special needs.

Sam Garrison is the school's principal. He has 626 students and nearly that many stories about the far-reaching effects of poverty in these kids' lives.

"As you can imagine, I can spend all day here dealing with crises," Garrison said from his office. "And yet we have diamonds here who are thriving, despite everything, and I don't even know their names because I'm dealing with the ones who are in the most trouble. So when the opportunity came to work with Art & Eden, I wanted to give that to these kids who are like roses growing up in concrete, so that I could let them know, 'I see you. I want you to know that your hard work is not going unnoticed.' "

Art & Eden staffers began mentoring 15 students in October 2016. At first, the monthly get-togethers took place at the school.

"They have a big library and there was plenty of room, so I thought it made more sense to go there than for everyone to cram into our small office," Correa said. "But then I learned that most of these kids had never been to New York City before, even though they lived 20 minutes away. They were looking so forward to coming here. So, that did it. We changed our plans and now we'll be taking them to museums and showing them the city."

Batheja said she has seen the students coming out of their shell, beginning to trust the mentors and to seek intellectual stimulation.

"They are so spongy, so hungry for information," she said.

Garrison said the students return to school with renewed purpose and pride, knowing they've experienced something special. That attitude gives their principal more peace of mind.

"I can be overwhelmed and try to change the whole world, or I can go over to a corner and start a ripple, make a small change," Garrison said. "We can work on what we can control. It's this idea of 'I can do something.' Because if everyone does something, it'll be like Thanksgiving, when we all bring something and we have a feast. Otherwise, we show up and there's an empty table, and we're all looking at each other like, 'I thought you were bringing something.' "

Correa was troubled when she learned that the Camden Street students had limited access to computers. Her worries leaked out during a conversation with a friend, and suddenly a solution presented itself: Amey Pasarkar, a Fair Lawn teenager, was keen on refurbishing old laptops. The 16-year-old junior at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack was willing to put his skills to use for his peers in Newark.

"This kid's a genius, the way he can fix these things," Correa said. "And so, we have one more small problem solved."

Meanwhile, there are the clothes.

Correa is so enthusiastic about the good work done by Art & Eden that she sometimes sounds like the leader of a non-governmental organization, rather than an entrepreneur. But yes, she has products to sell: whimsical, durable, fashion-forward children's clothing, from infant wear to size 10. Art & Eden clothes are available at artandeden.com and at specialty stores, including Children's Clothes Closet in Spring Lake and Junee Jr. in Lakewood.

"Most children's brands are much the same: they slap a screen print on a T-shirt, pair it with leggings and that's it," Correa said. "So how do you make a basic that 's not basic?"

Art & Eden's designers respond with bunnies and birds, penguins and deer. Decorative zippers, usable pockets. A sequined ladybug on a jacket.

"Some of our prints are made in house, but we work with many artists around the world to develop our prints, which give so much flavor to the line," Lee said. "Many of our prints come from a story concept we are working on but sometimes when we work with an artist and their print takes on a life of its own that we love. We work that into the story and the collection takes on new life.

"The idea behind our prints are that they showcase our beautiful world and that they speak to the creative expression of children," Lee said. "This is why we so often make animals the key feature in our prints and develop them from actual art. We want to showcase them because we believe that the way we treat our world has a direct impact on their lives."

Other companies do offer beautifully made, imaginatively designed clothes for children. Often, however, such apparel finds its way into a middle-class wardrobe only as an expensive "grandma gift," because parents can't afford to clothe their growing children in upscale brands.

"I don't want to spend $60 on a dress," Correa said. "We keep our prices, on average, between $20 and $45."

Correa starts to talk about the palette for the spring line, but the mention of "color" sends her on a tangent. Before the November trip to El Salvador, Art & Eden asked students at Camden Street School to color postcards for the El Salvadoran children, who then returned the favor, drawing pictures on postcards for the Newark kids during the mission visit. In all, more than 300 postcards were exchanged among a group of children from two very different places. "Art Without Borders" is what they called it at Art & Eden.

"For Susan to start a company," Garrison said, "that has at its core mission the betterment of humanity, and that aims for profit-making, but for no one to get harmed in the process, who would not want that to succeed?"
  

  

    

   

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