CINCINNATI -- When Rosie Kovacs graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning with a degree in fashion design, she set out to launch her own clothing line.
But she quickly figured out how difficult it would be to make that work here in her hometown.
As the owner of a small startup, Kovacs couldn’t order the large quantities that manufacturing companies in New York City, Los Angeles or China required to produce her garments affordably. And there were no local companies that could make her clothes here, she said.
Kovacs switched gears in 2009 and started a furniture company called Brush Factory instead. But she never stopped thinking about what Greater Cincinnati needed to be a better place for fashion designers to start and grow businesses.
Now, all these years later, she and Shailah Maynard have created a nonprofit organization called Sew Valley that they believe will give others exactly what Kovacs didn’t have when she was launching her career.
Located in the West End on the first floor of the National Flag Company’s building, Sew Valley is a space where entrepreneurs with sewn products can have their designs sampled, prototyped and even manufactured in small batches.
“We are hoping to help them build their business in a sustainable, viable way,” Kovacs said.
In doing that, the small nonprofit has the potential to have an oversized impact on the whole region, said Jake Hodesh of the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, which has awarded a total of $50,000 in grant money to Sew Valley.
“How many young startups and businesses and enterprises can be launched out of this place? How many connections can be made because there are three or six businesses working there every day? How many people are going to reach out to them to have garments prototyped? Can we continue to grow an industry here?” Hodesh said. “That’s what we’re all striving for.”
‘An amazing launchpad’
Sew Valley has seven studio spaces for its members to conduct business onsite. Studios have at least 215 square feet of space and come with the use of a dress form, a mood board, a desk and other basics for getting started. Members also get 24-hour access to Sew Valley’s equipment, free access to the nonprofit’s workshops and events and a discount on its production services. The members pay $150 per month -- or $300 per month for a larger space and a bigger discount.
Tessa Clark was one of Sew Valley’s first members and has a studio space there for her line of affordable, luxury women’s wear called Grind and Glaze.
Like Kovacs, Clark has been struggling to figure out production for her designs. She had worked with factories in Chicago and Cleveland, but it was difficult to get the results she wanted living so far from where her garments were being made.
“If you’re emailing or mailing physical patterns, a lot of things can be lost in translation,” she said. “It’s nice to have a studio space but also be able to see and produce the collection right next to the studio space.”
It’s also important to Clark to know that the people who are sewing her garments are being paid a fair wage and working in good conditions, she said.
Calle Evans launched her Calle Evans brand of luxury women’s wear in 2015. She had garments produced by a manufacturer in San Francisco but sometimes had to ship fabric to the manufacturer without even seeing it first.
“Having this in Cincinnati is huge,” she said. “I think we can be competitive with New York and California prices, which is amazing.”
Evans said she expects Sew Valley will inspire lots of DAAP graduates and their businesses.
“This is an amazing launchpad. If you’re in this space, you have opportunities to bounce ideas off of everyone,” she said. “It’s a little bit like school where everyone’s creating something so you just want to create as well.”
Creating stable, skilled jobs
Shailah Maynard didn’t attend DAAP. She studied fine and studio arts at Simmons College in Boston. But she worked in the fashion industry for years at Marc Jacobs International in Boston and New York and knows fashion retail and buying.
As communications director for Sew Valley, Maynard views her role as growing the business.
“We’re essentially keeping talent here and providing opportunities for brands,” she said. “I just foresee brands actually succeeding.”
And the more local brands that succeed, the more opportunity that opens up for the region.
“There are so many graduates of DAAP who are interested in starting their own line and have no idea how to do it and where to start. And to go to New York and start your own line, you have to have a lot of money,” Clark said. “Hopefully this will create a nice little community and confidence in those graduates to stay here and start something locally.”
If that happens, it also would bring a slice of manufacturing back to Greater Cincinnati, a place that used to make more parts and pieces and things than it does now, Hodesh said.
“It’s building this community of doers,” he said. “This idea of urban manufacturing in a region where manufacturing used to matter more.”
For now, Sew Valley is starting “lean,” Kovacs said, buying well made, used equipment and hiring contractors to do patterns making, prototyping and other sewing work.
Even though Sew Valley is a nonprofit, Kovacs and Maynard want to generate a substantial portion of the venture’s revenue so they don’t have to rely on grants and donations.
Ultimately, she hopes Sew Valley’s manufacturing arm will grow so the nonprofit can hire more people and teach them the craft.
“It’s a dying skill,” Kovacs said.
Sew Valley also is working to introduce DAAP students to the space and what it offers and to get a better understanding of how the fashion business works, which should make them better designers, Kovacs said.
“Really we want to encourage them to stay and be a member and develop their lines and become entrepreneurs,” she said.
Increased demand would help Sew Valley grow into a bigger space and train even more people for the manufacturing side of the enterprise.
“Once we grow that side, we can train and hire people within the community and hopefully provide some stable, skilled jobs,” Kovacs said.
And those kinds of jobs are always in fashion.
Sew Valley’s first fundraiser and member showcase will be from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on May 11. More information about the event and about Sew Valley and how to become a contractor there is available online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 20 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.