Citizen & Darling is a Southern California-based clothing line founded by two friends who teamed up to use fashion to combat human trafficking. Those who know me will immediately understand why I was initially drawn to them (see The Tote Project) but going beyond the commonality and cause, I wouldn’t be a repeat customer (spoiler alert, I am!) if I didn’t love their aesthetic, quality and price point. This “Freedom Fighter” sweatshirt is one of their many statement-making, comfy casual basics that I wear on a daily basis. I knew there had to be a great story behind such inspiring pieces, so I sat down with co-founder Christina Vaichus to learn how the new brand developed and what their goals are for the future.
M: How did your friendship with Karina lead to Citizen & Darling?
C: Karina and I went to kindergarten together. We weren’t necessarily close friends, more like acquaintances growing up, but we started going to the same church a few years ago and we began connecting more on that. Our lives were changing in big ways personally. I was in the middle of college and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Karina had gone to FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising) and I got together with her to pick her brain about fashion since it was something I was considering. She told me she was thinking of starting a business and we started going back and forth about what it would look like. She had recently seen a Netflix documentary about human trafficking and it had really moved her. For a whole year it was just a conversation. We brainstormed how the two of us together could integrate our strengths, desires and passions to do something that mattered. It took off from there and began to grow.
M: It sounds like after brainstorming, you knew you both had the desire to start a clothing line that would combat human trafficking, and it grew from there. What role does your brand play in the neoabolitionist world? Do you donate money or raise awareness or both?
C: We talked about what we would want to do, and what would be our long term mission – what would it look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now. We started feeling like there weren’t ( in our opinion) any resources that could make a difference in our [immediate] area. Last year we started out donating 20% across the board, but we realized that it was preventing us from being able to grow at all. Now events are where we are focussing on donations. At the last one, we donated 20% of the sales from all our kid’s clothes to a non profit focusing on child trafficking, and it was a way for us to highlight what’s going on with children. Right now our goal is to be more of an awareness company. We like to highlight organizations so people can make that choice and donate on their own. We’ll say “These are organizations that we’ll be donating to, but if you don’t have a need for clothes you can go to them directly too.”
Long term, our dream is to employ survivors of human trafficking to help make our designs. We’re not sure how that’s going to look yet, but we have been building a relationship with ZOE International. They are going to open a safe house near us in the desert where there’s lots of land. Maybe in the future we can come along side them in what they’re already doing. They have a lot of opportunity set up for people who are trying to recover from human trafficking — for both child survivors who need people in parent roles, and adults who need jobs to get started. We would like to be a fashion avenue to give survivors a trade. We’re still working out the details but it’ll all come together. It’s hard when there are so many aspects to your brand.
How do you narrow your mission down to fit in a box or a mold? Sometimes you just can’t and that’s when a new good thing is made.
M: How did you choose a name for your brand, and how does it tie in with your mission?
A big source of our inspiration came from our faith. We wanted to provide an answer for anyone who may be struggling with identity issues, self worth and confidence. We wanted our message to convey your worth in Christ and your identity in Him – why you were made. You have a purpose, and you are loved the way you are. That’s how we got the name Citizen + Darling. It helped us explain that whether you belong or you don’t belong, whatever your situation looks like, whether or not you’re a trafficking survivor, you have a citizenship in the kingdom of God that you’re not excluded from. Darling is how God looks at us, He doesn’t see our flaws and our past. We all have a testimony and brokenness in our lives, and we want to say that you belong and you’re not forgotten.
M: Let’s talk about the business side of the brand. How did you get connected with your local factories and screen printers?
We screen print our shirts in Karina’s garage. At FIDM she learned how to screen print, so that’s something that she perfected for our company, although she had the background already. We have a local source that we go through in Santa Clarita for the screens themselves. We try to get all of our blanks in LA; we’ve worked to make everything drivable so that it helps with production. As far as our factories, Karina had been doing research about Bella Canvas [they are WRAP certified] because they are transparent about where they get their clothing. She was really hungry to learn where to get good quality blanks that aren’t extremely expensive.
M: I’m always impressed when brands are able to manufacture ethically and keep their clothing affordable.
C: When we started doing the research about how clothes were made it was hard. I know Karina saw the documentary The True Cost and that was something that really inspired her. We started thinking, “Should I throw my whole closet out? I don’t have the money to replace everything.” But it’s more about being conscious moving forward. Throwing out a piece of clothing wouldn’t fix anything, rather we need to change how we buy — reading labels and doing the research, asking companies “Where are your products made?” That’s been really eye opening for me because it does take out the convenience of it, but we wanted to solve that. To build you have to sacrifice something, for us right now we’re ok not making as much as we could if we were charging $50 a shirt. How can you expect customers to be able to maintain that, let alone build a whole wardrobe on it?
M: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs like yourself, people looking to start a business or ministry to make a difference?
C: If there’s something you’re really passionate about and you’re just playing with ideas, first and foremost pray about it. It’s a big responsibility; it’s something that will change your entire life. It’s really worth it but it’s really hard. Start asking your friends questions and doing research. If in your circle you can start small and grow, don’t overwhelm yourself. Also forgive yourself — that’s the biggest one that I personally am working on. A lot of times we make mistakes and don’t stop to say, I’m imperfect, and I’m new to this, and I don’t know all the info but I’ll get there. We’re not a huge corporation but if we can make a difference in someone’s life, even if it’s small, it’s worth it. Small victories are a really big thing. Any type of victory is a good one!