Fashion line expands for a cause

Heidi VanderWal, left, and Danielle DeSmit said the switch to direct sales has Crowned Free positioned with reps in at least 10 states. Courtesy Crowned Free

A company that launched in 2014 selling custom fashions in boutiques has moved toward a pop-up shop and direct sales model to “link arms” with women who want to help survivors of sex trafficking.

Grand Rapids-based Crowned Free, founded by best friends Heidi VanderWal and Danielle DeSmit, this summer launched a direct sales model the founders and a half-dozen pilot representatives had been testing since fall 2016. 

The company sells women and children’s clothing, bags and totes, jewelry, scarves, hats, pillows and other accessories on its website, Prices range from $5 for small accessories to $92 for clothing items.

Instead of also selling the clothing at boutique stores in Holland and Zeeland, as it did originally, the bulk of sales now takes place via home parties and pop-up shops hosted by Crowned Free reps.

DeSmit, “chief difference maker,” said the change made sense given the demand.

“Ever since we started, women kept saying, ‘How can I do what you’re doing?’” she said.

VanderWal, “chief crown officer,” said people were asking about job openings in particular.

“They were saying, ‘I want to volunteer, be a part of it; are you hiring? I want to be a part of it,’” she said. “And we said, ‘If you can think of a way to help us out, let us know.’”

After the direct sales company VanderWal worked for closed in July 2016, she and DeSmit used the time to “regroup” and ultimately chose the direct sales approach.

Realizing they needed to be able to scale up their manufacturing operation to support higher sales volumes, DeSmit and VanderWal hired a manufacturing consultant who specializes in direct sales, and they moved their stateside manufacturing operation from Lansing to Los Angeles. 

Approximately 55 percent of Crowned Free merchandise now is made in Los Angeles and the other 45 percent by survivors of sex trafficking in Michigan, throughout the U.S. and in countries such as India, Cambodia and China.

Some of the products are made in Grand Rapids, including pillows made by survivors in a state-funded safe house run by Wedgwood Christian Services.

“When a customer gets our product, it will be signed with the first name of the survivor who made it,” DeSmit said.

Once the products are made, they are shipped to a Grand Rapids warehouse that fulfills and ships the orders, including those placed at parties, which means sales reps aren’t required to carry their own inventory.

Crowned Free gives back 15 percent of the proceeds of its non-survivor-made products to organizations that work with rescued women, such as Exodus Cry, the Manasseh Project, Redeemed Ministries, Crisis Aid International, World Orphans and the Scarlet Cord. 

“We prayerfully consider each month who we’re going to give to,” VanderWal said. “August and September’s giveback went to Redeemed Ministries in Houston to restore flood damage to a safe house there after the hurricane.”

Crowned Free does not disclose revenue numbers, but DeSmit and VanderWal said that since rolling out the direct sales model, the company’s monthly sales have doubled as reps have hosted parties in Michigan, Indiana, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Idaho and California.

“Knowing that these purchases are going toward a cause, women get excited about that,” VanderWal said. “They know their purchase is powerful.”

From 2014 to 2016, Crowned Free was giving up to 35 percent of its proceeds to support rescue organizations, but DeSmit said their consultant helped them realize that percentage would not be sustainable with a direct sales model, so they scaled back to 15 percent.

“It was important to Heidi and (me) to figure out a way to continually give back and open our doors to find a way for women to get in and make money. That’s why we thought it was important to hire a consultant with experience in the direct selling industry, to help us find a way to be sustainable,” DeSmit said.

“We didn’t want this to be a ‘fly by night’ company where we only last two years. To look at you and say, ‘We give back 15 percent,’ I think that’s really good.”

The pair said one of the other reasons they switched from boutique selling to direct sales is so they could better communicate the company’s mission.

“When we were selling in boutiques, our story got lost, the story of why we were doing what we were doing,” DeSmit said. “In a home, you can converse and educate.”

Although Crowned Free is a for-profit organization, the co-owners say they are primarily a giveback company and are in the process of applying for Benefit Corporation (B Corp) certification.

“If you look into companies that are B Corp certified, they have to prove they give back financially,” DeSmit said. “They have to go through your financials, profit and loss, balance sheet and you have to go through a huge questionnaire. 

“We are excited because we qualify. It’s just the time to take the survey that’s hard because we wear so many hats. In order to give money, you have to make money.”

VanderWal and DeSmit said besides themselves, the company does not have employees; it has contractors: a graphic designer, an accountant, a manufacturing manager, a consulting firm, an attorney and independent sales reps.

In addition, the business has become a “family affair,” VanderWal said.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity for our kids to watch, to be a part of,” she said.

Added DeSmit: “They‘ve shipped things, packaged things, done inventory and carried inventory all over the city.”

The co-founders said their business also would not have been possible without community support.

“We had a lot of prayer support in the beginning,” DeSmit said. “We would not be where we are today without this community.”

As another way to involve area residents, Crowned Free will host a spring fashion show at 20 Monroe Live in January to raise awareness and funds as part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

DeSmit said she wants to encourage budding entrepreneurs to take the risk of moving forward, even if they don’t feel 100 percent ready.

“For those out there that have dreams and passions to make a difference, if they have a business idea or an aspiration — surround yourself with like-minded people and seek out mentors in the community to link arms with to help you propel into what you’re trying to do,” DeSmit said.

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