Watching Lisa Choules move through Elevé , her custom leotard boutique in downtown Kansas City, it is clear she is a classically trained ballerina.
With effortless grace she zips around sewing tables where seamstresses bend over their work, stitching colorful fabrics into custom leotards that are all the rage in Berlin, Japan, Hong Kong, Canada. She slinks past shelves of supplies and dress forms, and glides across the production room to the gigantic cutting table that makes her business possible.
“We’re to the point where our products are now copied by other designers, which should be flattering but …” she says, with her words trailing off as she surveys the shop. It bustles with 15 or so employees focused on their work: fulfilling the remaining custom dancewear orders placed on Black Friday, after last Thanksgiving. At the time of this interview, it is mid-February.
“It was a very successful sale,” Choules says. It usually takes them about six to eight weeks to fulfill an order.
“Right now we are at nine weeks. Our timeline is definitely restricted, the more orders we take.”
Choules gestures to the women whose sewing machines fill the store with a churning hum.
“We’d love to hire to more people. We’re looking everywhere: word of mouth, friends, Craigslist, Indeed — but we can’t find anyone.”
Clearly, Elevé is running at capacity and growing with every placed order. What started with Choules sewing custom leotards in her basement after retiring from the Kansas City Ballet five years ago has led to an international business so successful that the need to acquire more space is an annual concern. The store and production space now take up about 5,200 square feet — the entire second floor above Retro Inferno, a retailer of high-end furniture and housewares at 15th and Grand.
“Now we’re looking for outside manufacturing as we grow. We’ll still do our custom line here, but we’ll have to produce our ready-to-wear line somewhere else. I’d sew them right here, but where will I find 10 more people if I can’t even find two?”
One could, and Choules does, argue that seamstress work is a dying art, a claim with the potential to kill business for Kansas City fashion-minded entrepreneurs and designers.
Paris of the Plains no more
If Choules had opened her shop in the same location in the middle of the last century, her workforce dilemma would be a nonissue. At that time, garment manufacturing was a massive industry in Kansas City, which was dubbed Paris of the Plains due to the more than 150 such companies employing 8,000 people at the height of its success after World War II.
One in seven American women of the era wore Nelly Don dresses, designed by Kansas City businesswoman Nell Donnelly Reed, who manufactured her ready-to-wear line here. Her revolutionary company became the largest manufacturer of women’s clothing in the world, producing more than 75 million dresses.
But times were different then. According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, in the 1960s roughly 95 percent of footwear and apparel worn in the United States was made domestically.
“The pendulum swings,” says Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer, the creative visionary behind Rightfully Sewn, an organization with a singular focus on revitalizing the fashion industry in Kansas City. “While absolutely necessary to the workers, the unions raised production prices right at the time people began to dress more casually. And as small farms were bought by larger farms and corporations, young people left rural areas and moved to the city. The boutiques where they used to shop shuttered and lost business for Kansas City.”
Toward the latter half of the century, production moved overseas, and fast fashion took over the world. Hungry consumers wanted things more quickly and cheaply, discarding them when the items lost their appeal. Today less than 3 percent of what we wear is made in America.
Looking forward, however, the American Apparel and Footwear Association sees a trend going back in the other direction, slowly but surely: People are buying fewer garments, spending more per piece.
“Millennials especially are interested in how their purchases affect other people and the environment. This is the perfect petri dish for fashion to come online in Kansas City,” Pfeifer says.
She’s animated as she speaks on the subject, clearly inspired by the potential to invite a historically beloved industry back to the city.
“There is such pride in Kansas City, designers and store owners want to make their living here,” she says. “I believe it’s my vocation to create some sort of structure to give them the opportunity to stay here.”
This calling led her to create Rightfully Sewn, a multidimensional organization that at its foundation is a collection of local players in the fashion industry: seamstresses, designers, educators, manufacturers, and outside companies looking for sartorial services.
With a mission to elevate the work of local fashion designers, it hosts fashion shows and conferences, bringing in big industry names like Anna Livermore with V.mora to provide guidance for how to take a fashion design from concept to market. Last October, nearly 90 regional designers attended one such conference. Several of them, including Choules, then traveled to Chicago to tour manufacturing facilities for ready-to-wear designs.
However popular Rightfully Sewn’s events may be, at the heart of the organization is a noble mission to fulfill a void in the workforce slowing down local designers and shops like Elevé : to launch a seamstress-training pilot program that eventually leads to a strong pool of skilled candidates crucial to re-establishing Kansas City on the national fashion scale.
“I see the big picture,” Pfeifer says. “Rightfully Sewn is perfect for Kansas City, because we are in the middle, we are nice people, because shipping makes sense and cost of living keeps production affordable.”
New visions for a bygone era
It could be said looking back on Pfeifer’s life that she was destined to take on such an adventure. She was born in a small Kansas town, and her mother and grandmother raised her and four sisters to dress in creative ways, always encouraging them to follow artistic pursuits.
She went on to pursue museum studies both in the United States and abroad, landing jobs at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art before taking a chance on a business development job for the Kauffman Foundation.
There she played an instrumental part in raising $350 million for the Kauffman Center of the Performing Arts. She then moved on to serve as an executive assistant at the H&R Block Foundation, where she plans to stay until Rightfully Sewn requires her attention full-time.
“Fashion is a perfect mix of art and business,” she says, recalling her foray into the Kansas City fashion scene several years ago, when she was the co-executive producer of the West 18th Street Fashion Show. “My brain exists in both of those spheres.”
Through the fashion show, Pfeifer began to build relationships with local producers like Choules and local designers like Sarah Nelson, who also works as a cutter at Asiatica, a local store for women’s apparel in Overland Park. After spending some time hearing about the obstacles in the way of their success, she realized that a lack of skilled labor was slowing down their creative process.
“It’s unfortunate Kansas City doesn’t have the reputation anymore (as a garment industry leader) when we were such a viable source for that years ago. We were the place,” Nelson says. “Now you can come up with a beautiful design, but if it’s not readily available, it will just be an art piece and not a wearable piece.”
Many of Nelson’s peers move to coastal cities for opportunities doing smaller, less creative jobs for big house names in the fashion industry, but she is determined to make it here. With the support of Rightfully Sewn, running a sustainable business would be easier.
“I love this city,” Nelson says. “I have opportunities to move every day to New York or Los Angeles where I may have more resources or connections, but I would be losing the friendships and connections here, the life I’ve made here. I want to make it here.”
Nelson, like Pfeifer and a growing number of others in Kansas City, thinks that if the city could support this industry before, it could happen again.
“Every time we buy something for $9.99 off the rack at H&M,” she says, “there is someone not making any money to put it on the rack.”
When Pfeifer hears designers speak like this, her mental gears start churning.
Part of Pfeifer’s vision for Rightfully Sewn is found in a four-story brick building on East 12th Street, a cheerful building in a worn neighborhood down the street from the steel yards. Home to dozens of women with substance abuse issues and their children, Sheffield Place will serve more than 100 families this year.
“A lot of these women have gotten by for years slinging dope. They’re smart and business-savvy — they just haven’t applied that skill in a way we as a community can endorse,” says Kelly Welch, executive director of Sheffield Place.
After the women complete an on-site recovery program that includes mandatory sobriety, life-skills classes and therapy, they move to an after-care program that places them in housing and helps them find jobs.
Employment is not always an easy pursuit. Many of these women are felons, though Pfeifer is not deterred.
“Working at the H&R Block Foundation, I’ve learned 67 percent of women head right back to where they’ve come from — addiction, battered homes, prostitution — unless someone comes in and intervenes and gives them some sort of trade and opportunity.”
With critical counsel from a panel of thoughtful, well-informed industry players and educators, Pfeifer’s plan is to work with several case managers to identify residents who would be good candidates for Rightfully Sewn’s seamstress training program.
“It’s such a good fit for us, because it’s outside the box,” says Welch. “You don’t need a high school diploma to learn to sew.”
Some of the moms, Welch adds, are artistic and already make candles or jewelry as a way to supplement their incomes, selling them at First Friday events or in local shops.
Rightfully Sewn “would give them purpose, something to do every day. For an addict, that is huge. Idle time and boredom are not good if you’re an addict. To have a job, a responsibility, to be able to take care of your family, to be a part of the fashion community, of the larger Kansas City community — it’s a big concept.”
Though the pilot program has not yet launched, interested companies are already contacting Pfeifer looking for seamstresses: Halls, Weave Got You Covered, Kansas City Sewing Co., WomenSpirit, Fatma’s of Overland Park, Elevé and a growing list of designers like Sarah Nelson looking for seamstresses to help them produce everything from purses and wedding veils to surgical gowns and T-shirts.
The finest practical art in the building
“When I first saw this, I thought it looked like something my grandmother would have in her house,” 17-year-old Da’Rae Farmer says of a pale blue brocade and sheer cream ensemble she has pinned to a dress form.
Even though she is only in her junior year of high school, she has already launched her own fashion line, inspired by a Rightfully Sewn conference she attended in October.
“Then I did panels and started draping,” she said, “and I actually made this in one day.”
The aspiring designer stands in a classroom filled with sewing machines at Paseo Academy, where she learns sewing and fashion design from Pamela Lucas, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Lucas worked as a technical designer at Lee Jeans until her position was outsourced to Mexico. Now she teaches fashion at the magnet school.
Lucas watches with pride as Farmer adjusts the skirt.
“We were talking about the collar,” she says. “She doesn’t like it long, but we think it looks nice!”
Farmer and Lucas’ other students — she has 90, an impressive increase from the nine she began with several years ago — are preparing for an April fashion show, developing storyboard concepts into wearable pieces.
Students like Farmer can’t get enough.
“I want to make more,” Farmer says. “There’s just no time.”
A bell rings, and other students begin to filter in, retrieving the fabrics and half-sewn garments they will work on in class.
“People say: ‘Oh, you teach sewing? Home economics? It’s such a lost art. We don’t need that anymore.’ And I say, ‘You get up and put clothes on every morning, right?’ They don’t realize that sewing requires a higher depth of knowledge. I like to say this is the finest practical art in the building.”
Her students learn a variety of stitches on several machines. They study book work and styling, colors, storyboards, fabrics. They go on to attend fashion-design schools around the country. Lucas hopes that some may find success with Rightfully Sewn once they graduate.
“We even talk about product development. I ask them to think about why we have to go to China to make the clothes on our backs. I want to do it right here!”
This thinking and her passion for her students earned her a spot on the Rightfully Sewn panel, where she will help develop curriculum for the seamstress-training program. From there her involvement could scale up as more needs manifest themselves.
“This is a very necessary program,” Lucas says, and class begins, much in the same manner as it will once the seamstress pilot program is up and running before the year is out.
It takes a village to move the needle
If Pfeifer has her way, a Rightfully Sewn scale-up is inevitable. Ask her how big she thinks it could get, and she laughs for a moment, partly because it’s still in its infancy. Then she gets serious.
“Twenty years from now we’ll have farm-to-fashion, much like farm-to-table, where throughout Kansas and Missouri we have alpaca and sheep farms, organic cotton farms, non-narcotic hemp farms,” Pfeifer says of the long-term plans. “The fashion industry could employ farmers, harvesters, shippers who bring in product to Kansas City, where we have the machines to turn it into real textiles for looms. Designers, manufacturers, retailers — it can be a closed-circuit system where everything is grown, made and purchased in this area.”
It’s a lofty dream, laying a path to a modern version of Kansas City’s golden era of garment design and manufacturing. But with Pfeifer’s track record and the passionate players she invited to sit around the table with her, it could very well be a vision that comes true.
Which is excellent news for shops like Elevé , and really for anyone in the city who pays attention to the clothes they purchase and where they are coming from.
“I say go for it,” Choules says.
She sits in the front atrium and looks around at how hard her employees are working around her. Phones ring, machines hum, assistants scurry back and forth carrying fabric and plans and stacks of paper, working hard to keep the orders rolling out the door.
“I’m ready to hire some people from her right now.”
Kansas City Fashion Week
Rightfully Sewn is the charity partner for KCFW, which runs through Saturday. For more info and tickets, visit kcfashionweek.com