Dianna Smith dons a pair of Svica jeans nearly daily, serving as a walking billboard of sorts for the patented design she created with her husband out of their Leawood home.
“When you have an idea and then are able to later put it on, it’s pretty thrilling,” Smith said.
When Michele Dawbarn of Olathe couldn’t find a bib or burp cloth that was absorbent enough, she made her own. Then she added twirly skirts and tops featuring unique characters designed by her husband until she had a “collection” selling at eBay and speciality stores. Hundreds of orders later, the Dawbarns are now expanding into children’s dresses and their own fabric line.
Brittany Davidson of Overland Park seemed destined to have a design career. She started sewing as a 3-year-old and by her teens was set on a fashion career. Sewing has now become her “lifestyle” as she gears up lines for women, men and children.
These new designers aren’t operating from the fashion capitals of the coasts, but from the heart of flyover country in Johnson County. Social media are enabling them to build their brands and attract customers from all over the country.
Take Baldwin Denim.
Founded just three years ago in Leawood and Kansas City, it now sells its American-made collection in Barneys New York and Nordstrom, along with 64 specialty stores internationally.
But before getting into design, Baldwin Denim’s owners, Matt and Emily Baldwin, fine-tuned their fashion sense through their Standard Style boutiques and Internet business. Matt Baldwin had a degree in apparel manufacturing from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, and the couple also sought advice from mentors in the business community and entrepreneurs in their family.
“The clothing industry is all I’ve ever done, my first love. If you have a passion and fill a need, you can do it from anywhere,” said Matt Baldwin. “Experience is the best teacher. It’s very tough if you are green in a lot of areas, no matter what you do.”
The path hasn’t always been so smooth for these three fashion companies, but like Baldwin Denim, they have been able to launch their designs on the national stage from here in Johnson County.
Dianna Smith wanted a new denim look — an embellishment running down the side seams, a style she hadn’t seen in stores.
Her then-fiance, James Utt, was in IT but was looking for a new career.
So one night in March 2008, they sat down in their Leawood home to toss around ideas. They had both been models when they were younger and they still keep up with the latest trends. Fashion was their first choice for a new business, and denim — a perennial fashion favorite — would be a good specialty, they decided, especially if they could come up with the embellishment Smith longed for.
“A jeans evolution , something that could be switched out and would go with any outfit,” Utt said.
He came up with interchangeable design that would allow the owner to zip in “links” that would run down the outside leg seams, links that could be changed out with different colors and fabrics. Now the patented Svica jeans are sold on the company’s website, in several California boutiques and a local shop, and new styles are being introduced.
But getting that concept from idea to market took tens of thousands of dollars and more than three years of work.
After sketching out a design, Utt did research just by talking to the staff at some of his favorite local boutiques. One shop recommended he talk to local designer Laura McGrew, owner of downtown’s Tomboy Design Studio, a retail shop specializing in custom clothing. McGrew also had been a denim designer at Merriam-based Lee Jeans.
“I thought they were crazy. That design is pretty specialized and poses a lot of technical challenges with all the zippers,” McGrew said. “Just getting the pattern engineered properly so it could be produced and produced efficiently. It’s a lot of labor putting those parts together and the different types of fabric.”
Although Utt and Smith had their first pattern in a couple of weeks, the design’s complexities had them revising it over and over for about a year. They did multiple fittings, many more than for a standard jeans design, with a model — a friend of the couple’s who happened to be the “perfect” fit model size.
A Kansas City seamstress who had sewn denim prototypes at Lee Jeans then made a Svica jeans prototype in her basement workroom.
The couple had been dubbing the jeans Links, but too many other companies were using that name. So they searched the Internet for something more distinctive, considering hundreds of possible names before selecting the word Svica, which can mean “switch” in Hindu or refer to a ski resort in Croatia. Utt and Smith also thought it had a nice, high-end sound.
David Barnard, a partner in Lathrop & Gage LLP who specializes in intellectual property, had them register the name and the logo with the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office and also apply for a patent for the jean design.
“If you have an idea that you think is going to make your product sell, then you need to protect it,” Barnard said.
It took two years to get the patent — for “pants having removable inserts” — and cost the couple about $10,000.
Even though expenses were adding up, they chose to have the jeans made in the U.S. instead of using cheaper overseas sources. They found an El Paso, Texas, jeans manufacturer through a contact on the social networking site LinkedIn.
“There also wasn’t a language barrier (with a U.S. company) and we didn’t have the shipping concerns,” Utt said. And if there is a problem, El Paso is only a short flight away.
They spent another $10,000 for the first run of jeans but declined to say how many pairs were in that order. A San Francisco company makes Svica’s care labels along with an embroidery design that goes on the inside waistband. Local Soli Printing makes the hang tags with the Svica logo.
Svica currently has two denim styles, the T2 skinny jean (T2 for tall and thin) and the F5 flare jeans (F5 because the company is in Tornado Alley and it also describes the bolder style of the jeans). Each pair comes with a black link called an LBD (after the basic little black dress). Customers also can buy six different colored links for each style jean.
Svica went live on its website, www.svicajeans.com, on Sept. 11, 2011, and also publicizes its products through social media sites and advertisements in fashion publications.
“It was very exciting, everything came into place,” said Utt, who married Smith on Nov. 11, 2011.
In August, Svica jeans had a booth at Magic, a trade show for apparel, accessories and footwear professionals that is held in Las Vegas twice a year. Tens of thousands of people from more than 80 countries attend the shows.
“It’s so competitive without the brand-name recognition. We caught their attention by showing something different,” Utt said. Several California boutiques placed orders from the show.
Now the couple also has their jeans in Posh R Showroom in Los Angeles, where retailers come to order inventory wholesale. The jeans also are sold locally at the Alysa Rene Boutique in Leawood’s Park Place.
The price of Svica jeans recently dropped from $280 to $175, mostly through better production efficiencies. In the next few months, leather and suede links will be introduced, along with a new style called the Eleven11 split jean (after the couple’s wedding date). The Eleven11 features one denim color or pattern on the front, another on the back.
Utt has a 9-year-old daughter, Lily, and Smith has 12-year-old daughter, Maddie, and the girls want Svica jeans of their own. So future plans also call for teen and tween sizes, as well as women’s plus sizes.
“A business takes 10 times as much money and 10 times as much time as you originally planned for. But ‘pushing forward’ is our motto,” Utt said.
When it comes to family traits, Michele Dawbarn is most like her maternal grandmother, Joyce Kelton, in appearance and in her easy-going attitude, she said.
So it’s no surprise she also picked up on her grandmother’s sewing hobby, even though it skipped her mother’s generation. Kelton first helped Dawbarn make a quilt for her daughter’s bed — using a vintage animal print.
But the new sewing skills were soon needed for an even more practical application. Her infant son, Jasper, now 5, suffered reflux, spitting up constantly, so much so that no bib or burp cloth on the market would suffice. Even cloth diapers (a solution recommended by her pediatrician) just weren’t absorbent enough.
“I wanted something super-thick and something my husband wouldn’t be embarrassed to have on his shoulder or that I would be embarrassed to put over the couch when company came over,” she said.
So she sat down at her Janome sewing machine and whipped up her own plush bib and burp cloth designs, but made them more stylish than some on the market by using bright colors and patterns. Once friends and family got a gander, they wanted some for their children.
Within weeks of making her first products, Dawbarn decided to see how the rest of the country would respond and set up an account on eBay, also adding nursing covers to her new “collection.”
She dubbed the company Squeaks and Beeps. Squeaks after her daughter’s collection of vintage squeaky toys that line shelves in her bedroom, and beeps after her son’s preference for robots.
“I thought I could sell one or two at a time and make 10 bucks here and there,” she said. “I didn’t think it would become as big as it is now.”
Squeaks and Beeps started as a hobby that quickly took over the Dawbarns’ kitchen table. Then its unique designs and fabrics turned it into a business. Dawbarn has now sold hundreds of Squeaks and Beeps products, mostly online but also in specialty stores. The couple hopes to turn it into a business enterprise they can pass on to their children one day.
Like Svica’s owners, the Dawbarns tapped into resources where they could find them.
A Chicago boutique saw their line on eBay and ordered 50 pieces, selling out in two weeks.
The shop owner “taught me the lingo — wholesale versus retail. The importance of branding. So we printed a woven inside label with our logo,” Dawbarn said.
Six months later, Dawbarn wanted to move into clothing and taught herself through YouTube videos. First she did simple “pillowcase” dresses — a piece of fabric with shoulder straps. Then, after her daughter Hazel, now 7, complained that the waistbands on her store-bought twirly skirts were twisting, Dawbarn came up with a ruffle design to keep the waistbands straight. The ruffle — at the top of the waistbands of Squeaks and Beeps’ twirly skirts — is now dubbed the Hazel ruffle and is a signature of the line.
Dawbarn is drawn to vintage pieces, and they pop up here and there throughout her modern Olathe home — old toasters displayed atop kitchen cabinets, a 1940s-era metal kitchen table and vintage clothing patterns on a shelf in her workroom.
The Squeaks and Beeps collection also mixes a little of the old and new — vintage style cuts with modern colors and often unexpected color and pattern combinations, such as a turquoise/lime green/brown twirly skirts or multi-striped ones with polka dot borders.
“They can wear them whenever they want to really stand out. They don’t look like anything that comes from Wal-Mart or Target,” Michele Dawbarn said.
When new customers became regular customers, Michele’s husband, John Dawbarn, was convinced the hobby could be turned into a business.
John Dawbarn, an executive at a local corporation, is a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and decided the Squeaks and Beeps line needed to be more distinctive to be a big success. So on weekend mornings, he takes his laptop to a nearby Starbucks and churns out cheerful characters for the line’s shirts — ice cream cones with four smiling scoops, a rabbit cradling a bright orange carrot, and a glowing smiling sun.
He also took his wife to a Lawrence fabric shop and spent several hours teaching her about the basics of color theory and how to put prints together. Michele Dawbarn was formerly a bank executive and had marketing and sales training.
Squeaks and Beeps is headquartered in the couple’s basement, in a room with a hot pink ceiling, soft green walls and a pair of giant wooden scissors (handcrafted by her father-in-law) hanging over her workstation. Seamstresses are local, from Basehor, Grain Valley, Kansas City, Merriam, Olathe and Overland Park — all stay-at-home moms who use the income to help support their families.
“It’s a true art. Each piece that we sew matters, the details are important,” she said.
The label on a twirly skirt not only has the words “machine washable” but “Wear fun! Twist and twirl! Ready to Go!”
They sell their line on their website, http://squeaksandbeeps.com/, and in April 2011, the couple opened a store and event space at the Olathe’s Great Mall of the Great Plains that they call Big Day Boutique and Events. They got a good deal on the rent, and it allows them a place to showcase their collection, as well as other local children’s products, and host children’s parties, which they feel is a business that compliments the core company.
In mid-July, daily deal site Zulily featured the line nationally for three days, resulting in 2,000 orders. The downside? Dawbarn and two of her seamstresses only had three weeks to make the clothes.
She sought encouragement from her favorite Chinese fortune, which is framed and hanging on the wall of her workroom: Believe it can be done. (And they did.)
Zulily is scheduled to feature the line again starting Oct. 28. Squeaks and Beeps’ fall line features special touches like bows, lace overlays and polka dot Peter Pan collars. A skirt and top set sells for $60. Two new dresses that will be introduced for the holidays will sell for $75 each.
The Dawbarns also hope to get the line in Nordstrom and some small boutiques. They also have started their own fabric line with a new holiday pattern of vintage ornaments with, of course, signature smiling faces.
Maybe it’s in the DNA, but Hazel has shown a knack for picking some of the line’s most popular prints and putting different pairings together. For Christmas, she wants a sewing machine that she can set up next to her mom’s.
“We have put everything we have in this, financially, emotionally,” said Michele Dawbarn. “But we want this company to be successful. We want to leave a nest egg and the business for our kids someday.”
Like Dawbarn, Brittany Davidson picked up her sewing skills from her grandmother. But she started much earlier, learning to make stuffed animals and dresses for her dolls as a 3-year-old.
Later she would experiment by remaking clothes her parents purchased for her off the rack, and then making outfits from scratch. By the time she was a high school freshman she was not only making many of her own outfits, she was making some for friends and was planning a career as a fashion designer.
She took professional sewing classes from an area seamstress, along with a yearlong class in fashion design and construction at a secondary technical school while she was also attending Blue Valley West High School.
After graduating in 2006, she attended the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., before transferring to the American InterContinental University in London (her father wanted her to experience his native England). She also spent a summer studying fashion at the American University of Paris.
By 2009, she was ready to start her own women’s clothing design company, dubbing it after her initials — BMDesigns LLC. But before she got too far along, she got sidetracked. In March 2010, Davidson and her parents, Colin and Julie Davidson, purchased the Chocolate Soup children’s clothing line and its remaining stores. Chocolate Soup was founded locally and still has a strong following.
The stores, including a new one the Davidsons recently opened in Overland Park, currently sell other children’s clothing lines. Davidson is slowly bringing back the Chocolate Soup line with two new dresses — one with a stylized rosette at the collar, another with a paisley pattern and bow.
Many clothing manufacturers want a 10,000-piece minimum order, she said, so she tried using a local company. But that company didn’t specialize in fashion apparel, and orders also were months late. She’s hoping to hire individual seamstresses in the area to keep the lines local.
For now, Davidson is making most of the garments herself, working out of her four-car basement garage. Her Brother sewing machine is surrounded by bolts of fabric, dress forms and racks of finished clothing. The BMDesigns women’s and men’s clothing is on one side of the garage, the children’s Chocolate Soup apparel on the other.
“Controlled chaos,” she calls it.
BMD offers classic designs with a twist. So a dress may appear conservative from the front and then drop daringly low in the back. With a jacket it can work for the office. Without a jacket it works for after-hours events. Shear Boutique in The Fountains shopping center in Overland Park has mostly carried national clothing brands but has been offering the BMD line for a few weeks.
“Her Chocolate Soup shop is right next door so she can come in and refresh her inventory regularly,” said Lori Shearer, owner of the boutique. “Customers have specifically come in and asked to see her line, but they may want something longer or of jersey knit, and she’s working on that now. She only makes a few pieces of each thing.”
Chocolate Soup’s dresses are $42, and BMD clothing runs anywhere from $40 to more than $100, depending on the style. Davidson’s goal is to keep expanding both lines.
“I work until I go to bed and I don’t sleep that much,” she said. “It’s definitely a way of life and not just a hobby.”
To reach Joyce Smith, call 816-234-4692 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at JoyceKC.