By Holly E. Thomas
Sunday, August 22, 2010; W14
On a sunny afternoon, designer Dana Ayanna Greaves sits at a drawing table in her apartment, surrounded by racks of clothing, art supplies, jewelry and drawers overflowing with fabrics. In this tiny space, the elements of home disappear among the trappings of work -- a small kitchen is tucked away, out of sight; her bed is artfully concealed behind a sheer gray curtain.
"This is where I sleep, work, cook, sew. ... It's where I run my business, make my art," says Greaves, 29. "This is a very isolated career path, so you have to surround yourself with the things that inspire you."
Greaves is one of a small cluster of creative entrepreneurs who have chosen the District as their launchpad into the fashion industry, in spite of cash-strapped customers, limited resources and a recession that has left the cityscape dotted with empty storefronts.
The city's economic climate has taken a particular toll on those looking to start retail operations, says Jason Cross, director of the Small Business Development Center at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. "We're one of the highest taxed areas in the country," Cross says. "The trickle-down effect of real estate taxes and assessments has caused many store owners to shutter."
While largely under the radar, this community is united by a pioneering, do-it-yourself spirit, the same spirit that has propelled many of the region's underground endeavors, from the early '80s punk rock scene to the current community of boundary-pushing performance artists.
"Young designers have to continue their passion and be fearless about what they're doing," says Theresa Watts, owner of U Street boutique Lettie Gooch and board member of the MidCity Business Association, which promotes small businesses. "What will keep the industry going is the newness, the freshness of fashion, and we can't have that if people don't fall really deep into what they're passionate about."
For Greaves and her peers, that passion manifests itself in varied forms, whether late nights at a sewing machine or long hours devoted to consumer research. And while the designers' offerings differ as widely as their motivations, the District's fashion-minded entrepreneurs are united by an enterprising spirit. Here, Greaves and other emerging designers share their approaches to building success.
Growing up with the brand
Designer: Dana Ayanna Greaves
Business: Artistic Aya, ArtAya
Specialty: Jewelry, women's clothing
At times, Greaves, creator of the Artistic Aya line of jewelry and clothing items, considers herself a case study in what not to do as a fledgling entrepreneur. After launching her line in 2004, the Silver Spring native moved to the District in 2007, renting an expansive studio space. "I probably consumed 10 percent of the space and could afford about 10 percent of the rent," Greaves muses. "I had to scale back." A year later, she moved into a group house, then finally settled in her current space, a studio apartment in the Mount Vernon Square area.
Her clothing and accessories are an explosion of prints, patterns, textures and colors. A narrow table displays a collection of handmade paper-bead necklaces, bracelets and earrings, which sell for $30 to $300. Greaves describes her aesthetic as "deconstructed/reconstructed," brandishing a tweed blazer she turned into a motorcycle-style jacket with fringed shoulders and an asymmetrical zipper.
When Artistic Aya debuted, Greaves sold her wares alongside other local designers at fashion events throughout the city. But as the recession kicked in, the stream of shoppers dried up. To get by, Greaves turned to freelance work, doing visual merchandising for Trader Joe's and Jos. A. Bank stores, as well as creating logos and press releases for area boutiques.
Six years later, the designer has garnered mentions in Time and Lucky magazines, and counts soul singer Erykah Badu among her client base, but Greaves is still just making ends meet. She moonlights as a stylist for an e-commerce site and rents her custom-made clothing for use in area fashion shows. And being in the District presents its own set of challenges. "There aren't a lot of risk-takers here, and I don't make 'safe' clothes or 'safe' jewelry, for that matter," Greaves says. "People are afraid of color, and in that way, it's been harder."
After taking a close look at her business and marketing strategies, she pulled her handmade jewelry from local boutiques and is focusing on selling it, along with her clothing items, via a redesigned Web site. "I've started to think it's better to focus directly on reaching the customer base," she says. "There's just more brand loyalty when they develop that bond with you."
In June, she brought on an unpaid fashion marketing intern, a step that she hopes will let her focus on designing a spring 2011 collection. "Before, I was trying to find my way, figure out who my customer was, how to market my work," Greaves says. "Now, I know what I want an intern to focus on, and how I want to approach potential customers."
At a recent weekend-long event on H Street NE that showcased 10 area designers, Greaves sold six pieces of jewelry, ranging from $60 to $150. But more important, her one-on-one interactions with customers showed her that even though buyers liked her fabric jewelry -- a Georgetown boutique owner gushed over one bracelet made from fuchsia rosettes -- they were more likely to buy pieces crafted from paper.
The designer isn't one to hide her frustration -- she admits to feeling drained and being tempted to walk away from the industry at times -- but she's also optimistic. She plans to expand her company by launching a new clothing line, ArtAya, which will offer more sophisticated designs in a multicultural aesthetic. "Artistic Aya was 2004 -- it was all about having fun, experimenting," she says. "It doesn't represent where I'm going now. I'm trying to grow up with the brand."
Greaves is quick to point out that business savvy isn't the only requirement to make it as an independent designer. "You have to have at least a little bit of that do-it-yourself mentality -- you have to be able to think creatively to survive."
Connecting with the customer
Designers: Pranav Vora, Ernest Chrappah
Business: Hugh & Crye
Specialty: Men's shirts
In the small office he rents from a Georgetown architecture firm, Pranav Vora flips through fabric samples, weighing the merits of a pastel madras plaid vs. a turquoise windowpane check. Crisp button-ups hang on rolling racks and sit in neat stacks on metal shelves; one is draped across the small ironing board on Vora's desk, ready to be pressed, packed and shipped. An inspiration board covers part of one wall, papered with images of quintessential gentlemen, the likes of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy looking dapper and elegant.
But while the scene is straight out of "Project Runway," the Indiana native considers himself a product designer, not a fashion designer. Unlike those motivated by color, texture and form, Vora, 32, and his business partner, Ernest Chrappah, 33, approach their roles in the fashion industry from a strictly business standpoint.
Last winter, they launched Hugh & Crye, a men's shirting line that offers the professional 9-to-5 crowd an alternative to off-the-rack dress shirts. The two wanted to make a practical product in a market where Vora, whose background is in marketing and strategy, saw a genuine consumer need: a classic shirt that would stand out in a sea of ill-fitting, billowy cotton.
"I wanted to grow a brand from scratch and really do all these things I'd been advising other people on," Vora says.
"Ernest and I both had a hard time finding shirts that fit without paying a large amount of money, especially shirts that were classically designed, not trendy. The dress shirt is a fundamental piece in a man's wardrobe -- it anchors everything else."
Vora and Chrappah examined the measurements of 300 to 400 men, grouping first by height (short, average or tall) and then creating two categories for body type (lean or broad). The result? A company with a democratic approach to fashion, one that aims to outfit the short and stout as well as the tall and thin.
The duo formulated a business plan just over a year ago, letting family and friends test samples of the shirts before officially launching the brand in December. The shirts range from $85 to $115, and are sold exclusively through the Hugh & Crye Web site, which initially required a username and password to enter. Vora believes that this "members only" approach built consumer confidence during the brand's early days; the team opened the Web site to the masses in late July.
"Initially, it was about keeping [the Web site] controlled to a degree because we were garnering feedback about our brand and our product, and that meant we needed to know our constituency," Vora says. "We have a closer relationship in that way, and we like that."
One of those registered users, consultant Stephen Benedict, attended a Hugh & Crye event after reading about the brand on a local blog, and has since purchased four shirts. "Ultimately, it boils down to value versus price, and when it comes to fit, design and quality, they're hitting the mark on all those things," says Benedict, 36.
Vora has worked on the line full time for the past year, living off his personal savings. Chrappah works part time on business development and vendor relationships while balancing a full-time job as a program analyst; Philip Soriano, who was hired part time in May to handle customer service and operations, also works full time as a junior accountant at a school in the District. While the three are unpaid for now, Vora expects the company to break even this year and issue paychecks in 2011.
Vora traveled to India in May, where he met with textile companies in Mumbai and toured the Bangalore manufacturing plant that produces the shirts. At the plant, he discussed sketches, measurements and inspiration with the master patternmaker.
Along the way, he posted updates to Hugh & Crye's Facebook and Twitter pages, trying to connect with customers by inviting them into the day-to-day world of a small business. "Done with pick-pack-ship for the day. Back to my to-do list. Top item: managing cash flow. The fun begins ..." he told followers one afternoon. He posted photos from the airport in Bangalore, commented on the weather in Mumbai and, after the tour, assured customers that he thought the factory conditions were ethical.
Vora emphasizes social media -- and social interaction -- as key marketing tools. To connect with his 500-plus followers, he updates the brand's blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed with photos of new products, announcements about events and behind-the-scenes peeks at photo shoots. In June, he and Chrappah set up a stand at Eastern Market -- a relatively simple step, given their lean operation, but one that Vora hopes will garner more face time with potential buyers.
For their first collection, Vora and Chrappah commissioned 900 shirts. After the most recent trip to India, they ordered 1,600. They're in the midst of designing a custom fabric; when the fabric is ready, the duo plan to ramp up their business and order from 5,000 to 8,000 shirts for the fall.
"It's always started with stuff we like ourselves, and we always favor modern classics over trends. That's why you won't see floral contrast collars and cuffs, because the shelf life of a shirt like that is not very long," Vora says. "The shirt shouldn't speak louder than your own personality -- it should be a complement to who you are."
Designers: Cathy Chung,Katerina Herodotou
Business: Treasury, Ouroboros
Specialty: Vintage clothing
Willowy models drawn in black ink gaze up from sketches spread across a table inside Treasury, the 14th Street boutique owned by Cathy Chung, 32, and Katerina Herodotou, 26. A few hours before the shop opens on a sweltering Friday morning, Chung is thumbing through drawings of draped tank tops, breezy skirts, dainty-yet-daring tap shorts -- the culmination of a dream she has shared with Herodotou since 2007, when the two began selling secondhand clothing and accessories at bars and boutiques under the banner of their now-defunct blog, Listopad.
Chung and Herodotou peddled the treasures they scooped up at thrift stores and estate sales, and cultivated a devoted customer base. In March 2009, they found a permanent home for their hobby in a second-floor space on 14th and T streets NW, opening a year ago after months of renovations.
"Starting out with Listopad allowed us to test the waters with a product, instead of a space," Herodotou says. "It gave us the inspiration and motivation to do a stand-alone retail store."
Megan Barnes, 28, a bartender, has patronized the boutique since it opened. "They know what's in style before it becomes trendy. They think about women and look for solutions to problems."
Before they went to work on their own line, the vintage aficionados turned to their closets to pinpoint those hard-to-find but essential pieces that would become the basis of their first collection. By early spring, they had enlisted two skilled tailors to take their ideas from sketch pad to store shelves.
"I think of D.C. as being always on-the-go, and these pieces would be great for people like that to be able to get ready quickly," Chung says.
The tailors -- Kristen Swenson, 24, and Erin Derge, 27 -- set to work designing a thigh-grazing skirt, a sleeveless top and blousy, high-waisted shorts. Once Chung and Herodotou signed off on the final looks, the two seamstresses began making patterns and sewing sample garments in an extra bedroom in Swenson's apartment. Now, inside the quiet, sunny boutique, Swenson shows off two samples of the miniskirt, one in a summery striped cotton broadcloth and another in a bright turquoise printed silk. The items are simple yet style-conscious, a collection that could easily mesh into a downtown Urban Outfitters. The prices follow suit, ranging from $68 for tops to $92 for a pair of shorts.
The line is called Ouroboros, after an ancient symbol of a serpent swallowing its tail. Chung says the symbol represents "a cycle of eternal return and renewal," and the team relates it to the practice of turning vintage materials into modern garments. The line merges recycled textiles -- usually from damaged clothing found in thrift stores -- with silk and linen gathered from estate sales and vintage fabric suppliers.
Herodotou, who recently returned to the District from Brooklyn to attend law school, predicts that it will be at least a year, maybe two, before she and Chung, a consultant at a retirement planning company in the District, can focus full time on running their business.
"Opening a small business has been a great learning experience -- there are so many opportunities, so many empty storefronts waiting to be filled," Chung says. But she's quick to note that launching a business in the District hasn't been easy -- a sentiment that is routinely echoed among their peers. "We could benefit from a better infrastructure, some sort of advocate who can guide you through licensing and all the other hurdles to starting a business," she says.
"It's too much work, really," Herodotou adds. "But we're invested in growing the business, and it's worth it at the end of the day, like anything where your dream is involved."
Holly E. Thomas is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.