A new studio space in the heart of Kansas City’s creative community will thread the needle for expanding capacity for Rightfully Sewn to help diverse, at-risk women, as well as support its nonprofit mission, said Jennifer Lapka.
The program, which trains women to be seamstresses for local designers through a two-year experience, is set to move this summer from borrowed space at Paseo Academy to a 2,200-square-foot atelier, or design studio, at 1800 Wyandotte St.
“In this space, we’re going to be able to take contracts from local and regional fashion designers. It makes sense for us to offer small batch production,” Lapka said. “That will be a great income for us. It will pay the seamstresses.”
“Nonprofits really need to be thinking about sustainability,” she added. “No nonprofit can fully rely on grants, donations or putting on events. They have to find some sort of revenue stream.”
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With its second class debuting June 4 in the new space, Rightfully Sewn is expected to serve 10 seamstresses — up from six in the organization’s first class, which launched in 2016. Candidates for the program are discovered through relationships with various social service agencies, Lapka said.
All of the women in contention for Rightfully Sewn’s next class are refugees, Lapka said, noting candidates from the Congo, Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iran.
“They are so hardworking,” she said, referencing women in the first class who were either homeless or refugees. “One woman in particular, she would come to our class in the morning, and she was working somewhere else part-time and learning how to drive. She also was teaching other French speakers how to speak English and she was sewing garments for her family and then for other people in the community. Oh, and she had 10 kids … And you think, ‘Oh, I’m not so busy after all.’”
“Our first class, we called the ‘United Nations of Sewing’ just because it was so diverse,” she added. “It was such a warm, cohesive group of people.”
Potential seamstresses face comprehensive evaluations to take part in the program, Lake said. The process involves a skills assessment, an interview, a ruler test, English comprehension test, and a mathematics test, for example.
“Our requirements are very simple: They have to be motivated. They have to be interested in full-time work. And they have to either already have sewing experience or demonstrate the dexterity to be a strong seamstress,” she said.
The space additionally is expected to be home to five resident designers who also are selected through a competitive process, Lapka said. It’s a relationship that helps designers grow their business plans and acumen through access to cost-prohibitive equipment and space where they can bring clients, she said.
One key amenity is use of 3-D fashion design and scaling software, Optitex, Lapka said.
“If you put a dress down the runway, it’s a sample size. Say, size six. But if you get an order from a store, you have to have the acumen to scale that pattern down to zero and then up to 20-plus. The software to do that is very expensive,” she said, referencing Optitex. “It’s $20,000 just to have the original license. Our resident designers can use it for free.”
The size of the open-concept atelier is similar to the square footage borrowed at Paseo Academy, Lapka said, but it’s a better use of the space for the organization’s needs.
“We’re very pragmatic. We didn’t want to go into a huge space,” she said. “We just wanted to get into something that was comparable and that we knew would work for us.”
The move is the latest development in Rightfully Sewn’s ongoing growth since its founding in 2015, Lapka said. She was able to go full time with the organization in September, leaving her position as executive assistant at the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation/The H&R Block Foundation after more than four years.
Rightfully Sewn also is celebrating the April 23 addition of Godfrey Riddle, formerly director of development for the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey. Riddle previously has served as a fundraising advisor for the organization, but now is set to join as its second full-time employee.
Selecting 1800 Wyandotte for the next season of Rightfully Sewn’s story came down to people, Lapka said, noting a good fit with the building’s owners, Dan Meiners (of Studio Dan Meiners) and his life and business partner, David Brinkerhoff (RT Specialty).
“We looked at Troost, north of the river, the East Crossroads, the West Side. We looked at 63rd Street,” she said. “But it just happened that everything boils down to timing and relationships.”