By Erin Negley
Reading Eagle, Pa.
Working on her first big restaurant uniform order in Bangladesh, Sarah Van Aken found herself in the middle of the global apparel market.
Even though she made custom men’s shirts, Van Aken agreed to the chance to make uniforms for the restaurant of a celebrity chef.
Now she had to try to communicate sizing to the people at the factory, who didn’t speak English, while figuring out licensing and paying off customs workers so the order wouldn’t be stolen.
The order was late, and Van Aken thought she’d never go through that again, but she continued to get calls from celebrity chefs hunting for uniforms. So a business was born and began to grow. For Van Aken, the work was stressful, especially handling the minutia of making clothing overseas.
“I started to realize that the impact of global apparel sourcing was huge. I never had any idea that there’s over 200 million people in the world right now living in slave labor conditions in manufacturing,” she said. “The apparel industry is one of the biggest polluters of the environment in the world, from dyes and textiles and water pollution, shipping, garments disposed into trash. And I’m saying this as I’m trying to sell clothing. I want to sell them, but I want to do it differently.”
Van Aken talked about her businesses, including Sa Va, the socially motivated brand made in Philadelphia, to students in Albright College’s fashion department. She was the keynote speaker for the college’s Business of Fashion Forum and Career Fair. Students heard from people working at Boscov’s, New Holland Apparel, Sorrelli Jewelry, Donna Karen New York and more. They learned about online sales, visual merchandising, private label manufacturing and how music can boost sales.
Van Aken started her career working for a denim wholesaler in the late 1990s, the era of embellished jeans. Her team managed $5 million in production every season. At $5.99 a pair, that’s a lot of jeans.
The job was a great lesson in apparel sourcing, but Van Aken said she wanted to design. After the death of a close friend, she rethought her career.
“It changed me forever. Life is too short. I have to do something that has meaning,” she said. “I had made my own clothes growing up and I thought, ‘I think I’m going to start making clothes.'”
So, Van Aken started taking business classes at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and with a $10,000 investment, she found a factory in Tennessee and started a men’s bespoke, or custom-made, shirt company in 2006.
The company was successful, and then another opportunity popped up at a cocktail party. Chef Alfred Portale asked her to design the uniforms for the 20th anniversary of his restaurant, Gotham Bar and Grill.
Van Aken thought of someone she knew who had a connection to clothing manufacturers in Bangladesh. She gave him some money, gave him three months to set up a factory and crossed her fingers.
It wasn’t long until Van Aken shiftted her focus again, this time to creating clothing in Philadelphia. She bought a building and set up a retail store on the first floor and a garment factory on the fourth floor in 2009. Sa Va was a vertically-integrated, socially-motivated fashion brand geared toward career women, with accessories and casual wear. The company added a wholesale line and did private label manufacturing for other customers, but money was always tight.
“It was never easy, but it was often amazing,” Van Aken said. “We had a great ride, built an incredible customer base. But a tiny little 500-square-foot store on Sansom Street wasn’t enough for the overhead of a 25-employee factory.”
As the company grew to be in 40 stores across the country, raising capital took up more time than designing. Van Aken created an advisory board with a balance of experience and made dozens of investor pitches. She raised $500,000, which gave the retail store a boost, but it wasn’t enough to grow the wholesale side of the business. To do that, a major investor demanded Van Aken fire half of her staff or drastically change the business model.
The other options weren’t better, so she sold parts of the business and closed at the end of 2013. When news spread, Van Aken got email after email from customers, sharing how her clothing jump-started their own personal style or her story encouraged them to start their own businesses.
After a little time off, Van Aken connected with Cathy Davis Studios, a Horsham, Montgomery County, company that produces greeting cards. She’s now helping the company branch out from cards. In the past six months, the company’s signed eight new licenses in the lifestyle area, including home decor, candles, jewelry and scarves. Van Aken also has a chance to design art and textiles as well as build the brand.
This business is licensed, so it doesn’t manufacture products. That’s a welcome change for Van Aken.
“It’s really interesting for me to be back in design in the art business without having to have the stress of changing the light bulbs and making sure the light bulbs turn on every day,” she said. “It’s been kind of a crazy ride.”
There are customers committed to buying local and making choices to help the environment, but people are still compulsive buyers.
Sa Va produced clothing with varying levels of sustainability, including locally-made, organic, recycled materials.
“People loved the fact that it was made in Philadelphia. They loved the fact that it was made in the United States,” she said.
“They didn’t really care whether it was organic or sustainable. So I think people like it but they don’t want to pay for it.”
Van Aken said she would love to see that attitude change.
Creating the clothing in the U.S. is possible, but most domestic vertical operations focus on categories such as denim and knits, where manufacturers can create large amounts of the same item of clothing. Sa Va’s factory didn’t have those efficiencies because workers made small amounts of a wider variety of clothing, she said.
Van Aken said she expects to see more domestic manufacturing before customers demand sustainable practices.
In the meantime, some fashion incubators and companies are making the commitment today. Eileen Fisher has several initiatives for sustainability and ethics, including rethinking the company’s supply chain.
“If companies that are that big can start to rethink it and show that it can work, it can get a lot more people on board,” Van Aken said.