Mirror, Mirror: SA VA just could not make it work

The SA VA boutique on Sansom will close by Dec. 22. Van Aken wants up-and-coming designers to see her story as a cautionary tale.
The SA VA boutique on Sansom will close by Dec. 22. Van Aken wants up-and-coming designers to see her story as a cautionary tale.
Posted: December 04, 2013

As shoppers begin to grasp the reality that making apparel in America - or better yet, in their hometowns - is not just a matter of style but also a way to build local economies, the news of SA VA's demise is just plain bad.

Designer Sarah Van Aken, 37, let slip in a recent speech to the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs that she was on the "precipice of an epic failure."

In other words, SA VA, her work-appropriate dresses, roomy trousers, and slouchy sweaters, all manufactured in her Port Richmond facility, would be no more.

"I was really proud of what we've done," said Van Aken, whose 400-square-foot Sansom Street boutique will be a wrap by Dec. 22. "But I couldn't see a way to make it work that wouldn't have me working for free for two weeks out of the month and doing the job of 100 people."

Philadelphia's fashion community surely will miss Van Aken's presence. Her big ideas included overseeing a 15-person cut-and-sew team that assembled her private-label collection as well as uniforms for the top restaurants' waitstaffs, and hosting an annual block party/fashion show on Sansom Street.

But more important, Van Aken was touted as the city's fashion front woman, our best example of how to run a successful, vertically integrated business with every part of the supply chain locally sourced.

"I talked to Sarah early on," said Kristin Haskins Simms, a local Project Runway alum who is trying to make her version of a vertically integrated fashion business work in Philly. "She talked about the challenges, but I was still really surprised when I heard. It's just really tough out there."

"She was our poster girl," agreed Patricia Blakely, executive director for the Merchants Fund, a local nonprofit that gives grants to small businesses, including Van Aken. "She's been repping the house. If our poster girl can't pull it off, that's a damning statement."

When her business was two years old in 2009, Van Aken stopped having her pieces made in Bangladesh and brought her sewing operation home to Philadelphia.

Not only was she faced with increased expenses to make her clothes here - samples from her roughly 20-piece collections cost her $100 each, compared with $10 in Bangladesh - it also was hard to find quality artisan sewers and keep production humming.

"I wasn't doing just T-shirts and denim. We were doing dresses," said Van Aken, who needed to make $800,000 to $900,000 a year just to break even. At her peak, she made just $500,000.

"Private-label manufacturing can be a lucrative business, but you have to have the volume," she said.

In hindsight, the signs of SA VA's demise were clear. She put several pieces of manufacturing equipment on Craigslist late last year, piquing the curiosity of local designers.

When I asked her about it, Van Aken said all was well. She was in the middle of raising $400,000 to invest in the expansion of her wholesale business.

She just signed with Mary K. Dougherty, who owns two local Nicole Miller boutiques but also sells designer clothing directly to specialty stores as a wholesale rep. Dougherty sold the line, but Van Aken had trouble affording the fabric and keeping up with orders. (She had to lay off a quarter of her sewing staff to cut costs.)

There also were rumors that local designers weren't happy with the quality of apparel coming out of her factory.

"I was working with people who were green in the industry," said Van Aken, who said she spent a lot of time and money on training.

Van Aken, who plans to return to her roots of brand-building, wants up-and-coming designers to see her story as a cautionary tale.

And she's right.

The way it stands now, the made-in-America fashion story, playing out in almost every midsize American city, is on the brink of its own epic failure in Philadelphia if the manufacturing dilemma isn't solved.

That's a shame. After all, retailers want local. Specialty boutiques like Joan Shepp and Knit Wit have been hosting events all year highlighting local designers - meaningful moves considering Shepp is big on European designers, and Ann Gitter's bread and butter is in casual California-based brands.

And we have the talent: The number of local designers continues to grow, thanks to schools with quality fashion programs like Philadelphia University, Drexel, Moore, the University of the Arts, and the University of Pennsylvania.

FBH Philadelphia Fashion Week is going into its sixth year, adding an extra day for runway shows in 2014. This year's Project Runway winner, West Philly's Dom Streater, says she wants to stay in Philadelphia. But how can she if she can't find workers skilled enough to make her psychedelic-inspired print dresses?

The Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy's has worked with nine designers and "all are committed to made in the U.S.A., especially locally," said Elissa Bloom, the incubator's director. "We need good-quality manufacturing sources and contractors, and we need to create a community of sharing."

What we need is someone with big pockets - scratch that, huge pockets - who can afford to turn an old facility in North or South Philadelphia into a space where designers can make what they need, in the numbers they want, and not be charged an arm and a leg for it.

"Just like there are tech incubators, we need to find the capital for an incubator that can grow artisanal sewers into craftsmen," said Blakely of the Merchants Fund. "We need to start them out in midlevel production and grow them to a larger scale."

Great idea.

Meantime, designers like Simms are trying to get their collections cut and sewn in Philly, by any means necessary. In what might be the best illustration of our current state of affairs: Simms is trying to contract her sewing to inmates in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

"Designers are having to source our designs, our fabrics, and even find workers," Simms said. "But we keep pushing along."


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704

@ewellingtonphl

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