Lei Lotus: the tiny boutique with a big heart
257 Colfax Ave, Grass Valley
Hours: Wed. through Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Extended holiday hours in December
After hour appointments available
Cathy Carter has always had an eye for design, but as a young artist, she never could have guessed where her talents would eventually take her.
Growing up in Fresno, Carter said she always had the best-dressed Barbie doll in town.
“My mom was very sophisticated — she dressed like Jackie O — she was an artist,” said Carter. “She made stylish Barbie clothes for me, then taught me to sew at age 11 or 12.”
As an adult, Carter moved to Hawaii, eventually opening stores where she sold casual cotton clothes on both Oahu and Maui. Always in search of new items, she traveled regularly to Los Angeles to attend trade shows. Over the years she began to look forward to the shows, as she had developed friendships with a variety of designers, merchants and importers. She later decided to move to Los Angeles, where she took a job working for a Nepalese import company.
“The people who owned the company needed a kind of liaison between Nepal and the U.S.,” said Carter. “Three months later they had me designing clothes in Nepal for American women.”
In addition to traveling back and forth from Nepal, Carter was constantly on the road — going to at least 20 trade shows a year, not to mention designing and overseeing the company’s catalogue.
“I did that for four years,” she said. “I was exhausted.”
In an effort to slow down, Carter moved to the small town of Astoria, Ore., where she opened a wholesale company and clothing store on a Columbia River pier. When her customers learned she had her “fair trade” clothes made in Nepal, they began giving her donations, such as shoes, clothes and toys to take to impoverished families.
On one particular trip, Carter lugged two 50-pound suitcases to Nepal, then realized she wasn’t sure where to donate the items. Through word of mouth, she learned there was a small orphanage nearby, called the “Hopeless Colony Orphanage” in Chapali Gumti Village.
“In Nepal, if families can’t afford another child they are forced to give them up,” said Carter. “At this orphanage, about 75 percent of kids were given up, the other 25 percent had lost their parents.”
When she showed up, Carter said it was nearly impossible to hold back the tears. There were 20 children living in a cold, bare, dark four story cement building.
“Their little rooms were so dirty, but there was so much love,” she said. “They said to me, ‘Please come back — everyone says they will and they never do.’”
But Carter was committed — every time she visited she brought more suitcases filled with donated items. But it didn’t take long to realize it was far more practical and cheaper to bring cash donations and pay for low cost goods inside Nepal. On one occasion, she took the children on the bus to have custom shoes made for each one.
“Some of them got sick on the bus because they were so excited,” said Carter. “Some had never been to a city.”
Today the orphanage, which has now changed its name to “The Happiness Colony Orphanage,” receives donations from individuals around the world, mostly designers, said Carter, who has visited the orphanage 23 times in the past 13 years.
Last year, Carter relocated to Grass Valley, where her daughter and granddaughter now live. In November of 2013, she opened a small boutique, Lei Lotus, adjacent to her daughter’s Colfax Avenue store, Green Light.
Inside the colorful boutique are pictures of Carter surrounded by Nepalese children, as Lei Lotus contributes five percent of its net proceeds to the orphanage. The combined annual contributions pay for virtually all of the children’s food, schooling and daily expenses.
Thanks to the Nepalese small family businesses and women’s cooperatives, Carter is able to design comfortable, contemporary clothing and accessories while supporting the principles of fair trade. She regularly emails or video chats with factory owners and manufacturers in Nepal between 1 and 4 a.m. to stay abreast of production developments.
“Recently my clothes have become much more contemporary,” said Carter. “I want to create a niche of clothing where you can dress up or dress down. My customers tell me they feel stylish, but the clothes are so comfortable they feel like they’re in their PJs.”
Younger women love to belt the colorful loose fitting clothes, while older women love the fit and often end up “buying the same thing in every color”
In addition to Carter’s store, Lei Lotus clothing and accessories can be found at other local businesses, such as the BriarPatch Co-op. Her wares are also sold at festivals, such as Victorian Christmas, Hot Summer Nights, the Celtic Festival, the Bluegrass Festival and more.
While Carter finds she is able to do more and more designing remotely thanks to Skype and digital photos, she hopes to go back to Nepal after the first of the year. This time she hopes to take artwork made by Nevada County school children.
“I’m so anxious to get back to the orphanage — these children are so touched by simple gestures,” she said. “I can’t think of anything that has been more rewarding. It’s added a whole other dimension to my business. That orphanage has truly touched my heart.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
The MEME stocks are on fire again. You remember these. My last article on the MEMEs was the called “The Game that is Gamestop.”