Nisa – the Wellington underwear brand employing former refugees

From Saturday Morning, 8:40 am on 15 June 2019

Former litigation lawyer Elisha Watson is the woman behind Nisa – an organic cotton underwear label that employs former refugees who speak limited English.

Elisha Watson

Elisha Watson Photo: Supplied/ Elisha Watson

Watson tells Noelle McCarthy that Nisa came about after she bonded with some refugee women in Wellington over a shared love of sewing.

Now Nisa has a workshop and store on Wellington's Willis Street, an online store and hopefully soon a men's range.

Elisha Watson first met Wellington's refugee families while volunteering at the Community Law Centre and the Red Cross.

The experience was both beautiful and heartbreaking, she says.

"As someone who's born here you don't realise how complex life is when you're trying to set up from scratch – arriving here as an adult with no relevant qualification to NZ [and] children who go to a school system you don't understand. There are so many hurdles and barriers to them really feeling at home."

She found many people were desperate for something that charity couldn't provide them – jobs.

"People can give blankets in the winter, people can give food, people can welcome you but having a job essentially requires business to step up.

"I got this little idea in my mind that maybe business has a big role to play here, and if I want to be a part of that I have to set up… a business.

"This idea, this little baby, took over more and more of my brain until I felt like I just had to give it a go. I couldn't really live with myself without really seeing if something like Nisa could work."

Connecting with refugee women over sewing projects was a way to bypass the language barrier.

"Sewing is something that doesn't require a huge amount of language – it's very much 'see and do'."

Communicating without a shared language also encourages empathy and patience, she says.

Elisha Watson, founder of Wellington social enterprise Nisa, with some organic cotton products

Elisha Watson, founder of Wellington social enterprise Nisa, with some organic cotton products Photo: Nisa / Supplied

Watson decided Nisa would manufacture well-designed, good-quality cotton underwear because there was a gap in the market, she says.

Fashion is so individual – even amongst people who have the same ethos – but most women wear basic cotton underwear.

"How can we make organic cotton underwear beautiful?"

Starting up a new business required Watson to "be shameless and put yourself out there every day to achieve your vision" but her hard work is paying off with sales now in the tens of thousands.

Awareness of who and what's involved in manufacturing a product is the key to ethical consumption, she says.

"Every single stitch on the garment that you're wearing was sewn by someone's hands… there's a human involved in every single step.

"This is really a time for our refugee and migrant communities to shine because they have these skills and they have so much to offer."

Nisa is currently crowdfunding to buy the "Rolls Royce men's underwear machine". Find the details of their PledgeMe campaign here.