By Kathleen Cooper
The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)
When the rains return this fall, a made-in-Tacoma original raincoat could take its place among the sea of slickers around town.
An idea that started with longtime clothing boutique owner Sonja Silver now connects more than a half-dozen female entrepreneurs including an illustrator, a custom sewer, a photographer, a filmmaker, and the owner of a factory that produces clothing for first responders around the world.
“I’m the perfect person to make this coat,” Silver said. “I’m a Northwest person. I’ve been watching women and how things fit” for years through her shop Sonja — Clothes to Live In.
Silver described the coat as a “mashup” of nine of her favorite coats. Essentially she wanted to bring a little swing back into what has become a very functional, but not very fashionable, garment. The coat’s qualities are inspired by her grandmother: It’s useful, beautiful, hardworking and has your back.
She has noodled on the idea of a better raincoat since 2000, Silver said, but began working in earnest more than a year ago after seeing a raincoat advertised in a magazine for $385.
“I thought, ‘what?’ I bet I could make it for less than that and make it something’s really useful,” she said. “I’m a big believer in taking something useful and making it beautiful.”
Silver’s online campaign to raise $20,000 to launch the raincoat’s production ends Tuesday (June 16), and it already has raised more than $18,000. At least 60 people have pledged at least $240 on Kickstarter, which will buy one of the coats.
If that still seems pricey, it’s because most Americans don’t factor in the “price per wearing” of any given item of clothing, Silver said. For example, a woman might not blink at spending $300 for a party dress she’ll wear one time. But a good coat that lasts for years could be a steal at twice the price.
Silver also laments that Americans have gotten used to cheap clothing because most of it is made overseas, where the cost of labor and materials is much lower. “If something’s really cheap,” Silver said, “someone’s being exploited.”
Her raincoat, from the water-repellant shell to the buttons to the labels, will be made in America then sewn in Tacoma.
The first production of the coats, up to 200 of them, will be made at a factory just off South Tacoma Way that belongs to Sally Swanson and her Bratwear line of clothing. Bratwear started in 1992 and expects to have $3 million in sales this year of her custom apparel designed for police officers, firefighters and paramedics.
Producing a line of raincoats will be a first, Swanson said. She said she “has no idea” how the finances will work out on the run, and she doesn’t intend her factory to be a destination for boutique apparel production. But Silver’s enthusiasm was contagious.
“Sonja is a very engaging person. She makes you want to get involved,” Swanson said. “Mostly my satisfaction will come from saying, ‘Look, we did something that didn’t have to go on a cop.’ Just for something fun to do.”
Another unique aspect of the first batch of coats will be the lining: a custom creation by Tacoma-based letterpress artist and illustrator Chandler O’Leary, in her first work on apparel fabric.
The lining will be digitally printed fabric using a pattern of Zodiac constellations in a print used exclusively for Silver’s coat.
“I didn’t know how local this was going to be,” she said. “As it progressed, and then (Silver) ended up making this incredibly local, I was really happy about it. I really support local businesses and women-owned businesses.”
To make her services affordable, O’Leary said she approached the business deal as though Silver was paying a licensing fee for an illustration instead of buying a brand-new commissioned work. That made the up-front cost to Silver much lower, and O’Leary still will earn royalties on the sales of the coats featuring her constellations.
Since Silver started on the journey of designing a raincoat, she’s involved the services of filmmaker Emilie Firn, custom pattern maker Emilie Stevens, custom sewer Gay Springer, final prototype maker Anna Moebus, photographers Kathy Halli Chakerian and Summer Briggs, and model Melissa Ellis, who also owns a salon in the North End.
Some have been paid; others volunteered their time to help Silver get the idea off the ground. If the raincoat is successful, Silver would consider a business loan for the next round of production.
For now, she’s waiting to see if the Kickstarter is successful. More than half the backers so far are “people I’ve never met,” Silver said. “It’s a leap of faith.”
One not unlike the leap she’s taking now, with so many other Tacoma women who have her back.