Models are often foreign faces, but these beauties — NBC10 anchor Dawn Timmeney, New York Life agent Jennifer Hall, and Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. vice president Patricia Washington — were familiar to the dozen or so professionals watching them walk the makeshift runway in six key pieces from Sarah Van Aken's spring collection.
But the sense of community at last month's fashion event went beyond local celebrities, the venue at Sofitel, or Van Aken's bricks-and-mortar Sansom Street boutique.
Van Aken has built her design business with, and within, the local community, becoming a national example of how all things chic are shifting toward the homegrown. Not only does her made-in-America mantra serve as a bit of a boost to the local economy — she employs 15 workers — but it also fosters a dialogue promoting better-made clothing and more unique looks. In her own way, Van Aken is leading fashion back to its roots.
"My goal is to run a business that's economically, environmentally, and ethically sound," Van Aken told me one recent Friday. "I realized it's more than having clothing that's sustainable. It has to look good. There has to be livable wages. Everything trickles down."
Van Aken, 35, designs and manufactures her easy-to-wear-yet-right-on-trend women's line from a 3,500-square-foot studio space equipped with 29 industrial sewing machines on the fifth floor of the building she co-owns with real estate guru Wayne Zukin. She pays her workers — including a highly coveted patternmaker and equally hard-to-come-by manufacturing manager — from $10 to $20 an hour, as well as a portion of their health insurance.
Most of her pieces — which this season include a selection of wide-legged and skinny trousers, and vibrant maxi and wrap dresses, costing from $100 to $300 — are made from fair-trade fabrics sourced in the United States, if not Philadelphia. (The leftover scraps are used to make soft shoulder bags in which shoppers can carry their purchases.) A sparkling array of dangling earrings and beaded necklaces she sells are made from vendors who use recycled material.
For the fabric she uses and the accessories she carries, Van Aken first assesses the companies' supply chains, making sure the vendors are as green as possible — organically sourced with a low carbon footprint.
Right now, she's working with TS Designs in Burlington, N.C., for dibs on the company's cotton crop.
"We want to be sustainable and still remain profitable," Van Aken said. "Socially conscious, but not granola-looking."
Beyond designing her fall and spring collections, Van Aken designs and manufactures more than 20 uniforms for restaurants and hotels, including Stephen Starr's Dandelion, the Wayne Hotel, and Jean-Georges restaurants including Spice Market in London and the J&G Grill at the St. Regis Bal Harbour hotel in Florida. She manufactures clothes for a handful of private-label brands, too, including the Toggery, a Philadelphia-based line of organic clothing sold in independent boutiques nationwide. All of these endeavors constitute a local way to finance her independent line and pay the overall bills. Other designers might do the same by creating a line for Target or H&M — but then, the clothes would be manufactured overseas.
After only five years in the business, Van Aken has generated clout leading to seats on several influential nonprofit boards, including the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy's and the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia. She was a guest speaker at the annual regional breakfast of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce (focused on all things made in America), and last month, she was invited to speak in Grand Rapids, Mich., at the conference of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.
She counts as her mentors Philadelphia University president Stephen Spinelli Jr., as well as White Dog restaurant founder Judy Wick.
"It took me about 11 seconds to figure out that she was not just a designer, but an entrepreneur," Spinelli said. "Her business is local, she's globally conscious and inspired by her community. That is her mantra. She's said it so much, I have it memorized."
Karen Randal, director of Philadelphia's Office of Business Attraction and Retention, agreed.
"Sarah is a driving force in local business," said Randal, who in 2008 helped Van Aken secure her first grant to train local tailors. "Once she became aware and realized what she could do to not impact the environment in an industry that does so much to pollute it," referring to the tons of scrap wasted and emissions produced from airplane travel and using dyes, "she went with it."
After a few unsuccessful attempts to go wholesale, the fall 2012 SA VA collection will be sold in boutiques in New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina, thanks to Nicole Miller franchisee Mary K. Dougherty, who has taken on the responsibility of introducing Van Aken's line to stores nationwide.
Labor costs in Asia continue to grow, and manufacturing plants in America are hard to find, but Van Aken has been able to control her budget thanks to her vertical-integration approach to business: She controls every aspect of the supply chain from start to finish. Yet it's been a challenge finding people well-versed in pattern-making and detailed tailoring.
Unlike Main Line-bred Tory Burch or University of Pennsylvania graduate Stacey Bendet of Alice & Olivia, Van Aken did not marry a wealthy guy or inherit the money to start her fashion brand; her mom is a manager at Macy's, her dad is an engineer, and she earned a degree in fine arts from the University of Delaware in 1998.
After graduation, Van Aken worked as an executive manager for Marathon Grill until the end of 2004, when she started to design bespoke men's shirts. She met Zukin through a mutual friend and began selling and investing in real estate. That relationship led to co-owning her current building. She started her women's line, SA VA, in 2007, and while she fashioned all of the pieces from sustainable fabrics, the clothes were made at a plant in Bangladesh.
"Eventually, it just became too much," Van Aken said. "I couldn't keep up with the quality control, the flights were long and difficult. This just wasn't the way to run a business."
She opened her store and manufacturing facility in 2009, immediately taking on restaurant clients. She has managed to grow her business through word of mouth and through her annual outdoor fashion show on Sansom Street, which generates lots of local fashion buzz.
Over the years, she's dressed Timmeney and Jennifer Carroll of Bravo's Top Chef. Even I've bought a few SA VA pieces, including a pair of orange-and-white wide-legged trousers and a coral tank dress.
Van Aken realizes she's on the cusp of change in fashion where quality will be valued more than quantity — no small moment.
"It's a really exciting time," Van Aken said. "It's less about impulse and more about value-driven purchase. My hope is that by educating consumers about the impact of apparel, we can change the industry and the local economy."