Iowa’s Fashion Industry Developing

By George C. Ford
The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

When Iowans think about the fashion industry, they typically associate it with Los Angeles, London, New York, Milan or Paris.

But several Iowa fashion entrepreneurs are determined to change that perception by raising the profile of the industry in the state and connecting those working in fashion through the Iowa Fashion Project.

“In the process of trying to get a brand off the ground, you run into a lot of different challenges,” said Simeon Talley, owner of Guns x Butter, a line of politically inspired T-shirts. “I needed to connect with other people in this business who know more and are willing to collaborate.

“We need to find a way to connect the dots within the community to mutually raise the profile of our projects.”

Talley met Amanda Lesmeister in May after a fashion show at EntreFEST, a three-day conference for entrepreneurs in downtown Iowa City. A Cedar Rapids native, Lesmeister works in digital marketing and owns Midriff Madrid, which showcases fashions in different areas of the world.

For the past six years, Lesmeister lived in Granada, Spain. She and Talley, an Ohio native, are working to develop the Iowa Fashion Project as a vehicle to raise awareness of Iowa’s fashion industry and connect its participants.

“There are people in Iowa working in fashion and being creative, but there’s not one specific place to check to find out what is happening,” Lesmeister said. “We believe it’s our responsibility to find out what is happening and bring them into the fold.

“The Iowa Fashion Project started in Iowa City, but we want to go into other areas of the state including small towns. We can position ourselves so the Iowa Fashion Project is all encompassing and inclusive, knowing what is happening in fashion all over the state.”

On Dec. 11, the Iowa Fashion Project staged the inaugural Frost the Runway fashion show at Merge, 136 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City. It is preparing for the first FlyOver Fashion Festival May 6 and May 7 in Iowa City.

Among the exhibitors at Frost the Runway was Gentlemen Care, an Iowa City men’s accessory leather goods retailer.

“All of our products are handcrafted in Solon from start to finish using American leathers and tools,” said Conor Paulsen, founder and CEO of Gentlemen Care and a student at the University of Iowa majoring in entrepreneurship.

“We have products like shaving kits, belts, notebook covers, messenger bags and short box duffel bags that we guarantee for life. We wanted to revive the quality that you can’t find anymore.”

Paulsen said Gentlemen Care, which sells its products online at, works to provide a premium experience.

“You start by signing up for a reservation,” he said. “We will call you within next couple of days and get to know you before we start talking about products. Once we understand that, we can discuss the kinds of leather you want and what you are looking for in a product.

“We want to revive the kind of gentleman who would make eye contact and stay off the phone while they talked with you. They tended to purchase products that were made to last.”

Paulsen said Kevin Tompkins of Solon, a co-founder and director of product development at Gentlemen Care, is a leather craftsman who makes the products in his basement workshop.

“We were introduced to Kevin to have a prototype built,” Paulsen said. “His expertise in leather and formidable business background (as owner of Labor of Love Leathercraft) took us in a better direction. After a few meetings, Kevin invited us out to his place to show us his leather shop and the rest is history.”

‘The biggest hurdle’
An interest in clothing design that began when she was a child laid the foundation for Emily Carlson’s company, Peplum & Paisley.

“I started drawing sketches of dresses when I was a little girl,” Carlson said. “Instead of putting paper dresses on paper dolls, I enjoyed drawing my own dresses.

“Fashion was something innate for me. I always enjoyed dressing somewhat unique as a form of expression.”

Carlson, a Cedar Rapids native, tried two years of traditional college study before deciding to pursue what she really loved.

“I decided to go back to school at Kirkwood (Community College) for apparel merchandising and design,” Carlson said. “I got my associate degree and started working in retail management thinking I would work my way up the corporate ladder to get to a design level.

“After talking with some mentor at the company, they said I would need to put in a lot of years and there was no guarantee that I would get a design position.”

Carlson decided to turn her hobby designing women’s clothing into a business. Peplum & Paisley, launched about 18 months ago, will begin marketing her initial collection of pencil skirts in late February.

“It has all been designed and I have sourced all of the materials,” she said. “The biggest hurdle has been trying to find a manufacturer.

“I visited with manufacturers in Chicago, Denver and New York, settling on Chicago because of the close geographic proximity. I found they don’t have a market that support production like New York or Los Angeles.”

Carlson recently received a lead on a production house in Detroit. After visiting the business in mid-December, she was able to conclude a tentative manufacturing agreement.

Peplum & Paisley initially will sell its pencil shirts online as well as wholesale to independent local boutiques and in Denver. Carlson said her customer demographic will be a professional woman who values quality and wants to wear something unique.

Mike Draper’s company, Raygun, also offers a product that appeals to someone wanting to own and wear something unusual.

Des Moines-based Raygun is known for its irreverent, snarky slogans on T-shirts and other screen-printed items. Raygun has designers and a screen-printing operation in Des Moines that supplies stores in Iowa City, Des Moines and Kansas City, Mo.
Draper said the company strives to get its products from American suppliers.

“Our T-shirts are cut and sewn in California,” he said. “We get our paper from Wisconsin and any of our paper products that we don’t do — like books or postcards — are printed by union labor on the north side of Des Moines and bound on the east side of Des Moines.”

Draper, who will open a Raygun shop at the end of March in Cedar Rapids’s NewBo Station, handles the screen printing of Simeon Talley’s Gun x Butter T-shirts.

“Mike has spun off his screen printing operation to provide other entrepreneurs with a production house,” Talley said. “He would like to eventually have a full-scale production facility in downtown Des Moines.”

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