Tate & Tonya transforms throwaways to kids’ duds

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Sometimes small businesses are started on a shoestring. Melissa Marts’ new venture was started on a thread.

Marts’ company, Tate & Tonya, makes and sells upcycled clothing for children from infants to age 5. She turns donated dresses, shirts and other items into one-of-a-kind kids’ bloomer-style pants and sells them on Etsy and at popup events.

Marts got the idea for the company while she was executive director of the Women’s Resource Agency, which aims to nurture financial independence for women and teen girls. The agency has a clothing donation program for women who are trying to get jobs.

“We would end up turning away three-fourths of the clothing,” Marts said, adding some items went to organizations like TESSA and Goodwill. But used clothing that has a few stains or rips or is out of style ends up in landfills “and just never breaks down” if it’s not made of natural fibers.

Other pieces would go to USAgain, which ships clothing overseas.

“They ship in huge freighters that travel to multiple places with really cheap labor,” Marts said.

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In places like India, women literally unravel the clothing into thread, respool it and sell the thread.

“In some ways, it is a story of recycling,” Marts said. “But there is a cost to the environment and a cost to people — mostly young women — who don’t end up getting paid a reasonable wage to get out of poverty and stay stuck in that life.

“I was like, ‘What can we do with these clothes that are going into the trash?’ We talked about making aprons, but people weren’t really excited about it. Then we came up with the baby bloomer idea. A seamstress at WRA started experimenting with different patterns, and we were off and running.”

But Marts found she didn’t have much time to work on the project and decided to start her own company, which she launched in April 2017.

She organized Tate & Tonya as a public benefit corporation, an entity that is a for-profit alternative to a not-for-profit company for socially conscious entrepreneurs.

Colorado is one of 19 states that allow public benefit corporations. The state doesn’t track the number of these corporations, but BenefitCorp.net, a website that offers information about public benefit corporations, lists almost 4,000 such enterprises in the United States, including Patagonia and Kickstarter, and about 150 in Colorado.

Colorado’s statute, which became effective in April 2014, defines a public benefit corporation as one that is intended to produce one or more public benefits and balances the public purpose with shareholders’ financial interests.

“We have to report out annually on our impact to keep clothing out of the trash cycle and empowering moms who are experiencing homelessness,” Marts said.

The company contributes 3 percent of sales to Partners in Housing and donates upcycled children’s clothing to organizations such as Community Partnership for Child Development Head Start.

The Tonya component of the company’s name represents homeless moms, and the Tate part stands for sea turtles endangered by pollution from shipping and landfill runoff.

Marts said she could have focused on other marine life such as egrets or octopi but decided to go with turtles.

“I had the benefit of swimming with two large sea turtles when I was on vacation in the British Virgin Islands around 2000,” she said.

Marts said sales of the baby and child bloomers, which retail for an average of $20, are “slow but growing. Pikes Peak Women did an investment early on in the company for us to make a significant amount of pants.”

Marts has been doing the sewing at her home since her seamstress moved away, and also works on building a following on Etsy, Facebook and Instagram. A website is in the works.

Marts, formerly chief programs officer at Care and Share Food Bank, also does consulting work in nonprofit fundraising while she grows Tate & Tonya’s sales.

She plans popup appearances at the Birth and Beyond Wellness Fair on Oct. 13 at Third Space Coffee, the Makers Faire on Oct. 20 at Library 21c, and several holiday markets in November and December.

“My plan is to have three seamstresses employed by April of next year,” she said, “and I hope to pay myself a salary within the next three months. I would love for this to be my full-time job, but the notion of a public benefit corporation is to create jobs for other people.”