Fashioned for success: Go behind the scenes with some of the District's most promising design talents

Some creative entrepreneurs are choosing the District as a launchpad into the fashion industry, despite cash-strapped customers, limited resources and a recession that has left the cityscape dotted with empty storefronts. Go behind the scenes with some of the city's most promising design talents.
By Holly E. Thomas
Sunday, August 22, 2010

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.

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