Monday, May 11, 2015

Neighbors Apparel

Have you seen people wearing the Ohio Tee around Akron yet?

Neighbors Apparel: Fashion Forward in North Hill
by Joanna Wilson

I'm super excited about the upcoming Akron Better Block in North Hill--aren't you?  When I found out my new friend Tessa Reeves with Neighbors Apparel was setting up her clothing company in a pop-up market within Better Block, I asked her if she'd be willing to talk with me about her less-than-a-year-old venture.  I first became aware of Neighbors Apparel through their vendor spotlight on the website for Crafty Mart.  I ended up meeting Tessa in person for the first time during our Akron2Pittsburgh trip.  And, now it turns out, we're both playing on the same team in a summer softball league!  I love how Akron often turns out to be a smaller town than it often feels.  In our conversations prior to this, I've been extremely impressed with Tessa's vision of Neighbors Apparel.  If possible, I think I'm even more impressed by her strong character.  See if you aren't too after reading our conversation:

Joanna:  Please tell me about yourself. How did you come to start Neighbors Apparel?

Tessa:  Fashion was always something that made my heart beat fast. The passion really developed in high school, and I found myself diving into copies of ELLE or Vogue in between classes, dreaming of landing a job at such a publication after college. Naturally, I went to Kent State for their renown fashion merchandising program. There I had the opportunity to study and intern in New York City — the heart of the fashion industry. I thought I had officially “made it” when I finished up a junior year internship at ELLE magazine, my senior editor there (also from Kent State!) telling me to contact her personally when I needed a job post graduation.

But within a couple of weeks, I experienced a pull that led me to make a complete 180 from the industry. Maybe it was hindsight, maybe it was my continued exposure to the heart of the industry, but I soon realized how ugly my own selfish ambition to simply climb the masthead was. It benefited nothing other than my own name and my bank account; it gave no real value to anyone or anything else. This was also during a season where I was growing in my faith and really learning about the example Christ set for his followers. Not to sound religious-y, but this was an integral part to my suddenly huge desire to give my life (and entire career) to something other than myself. The call to love our neighbors, and the reason behind that call, became the thing I wanted to pursue through my career. I didn’t know how quite yet, but I didn’t feel that I could best do that in the magazine world.

Neighbors makes more than t-shirts.  Here's Tessa herself modeling a headband and infinity scarf made right here in Akron from Karen fabrics.

Fast forward a couple of months and I find myself as a volunteer at Urban Vision, a community-development ministry in North Hill. I had never really volunteered anywhere; this was just one step towards figuring out what it was that I wanted to with my life. I immediately fell in love with their mission of holistically developing the North Hill neighborhood, and had to join in. Plus, I was extremely inspired by the people already doing work there; the UV staff moved into the neighborhood to do life there in order to better hear ways to solve problems, and simply be able to love people already living there. Within a few months of volunteering there, the Executive Director caught wind that I both had a fashion degree and wanted to be a part of the mission at UV. He came up with the idea that UV would fund a small business that employed refugee women to use their seamstress abilities…if I wanted to head up the business. I of course said yes!

Bringing joy to their work.

Joanna:  What motivated you to start a business working with refugee women? What have you learned from them along the way?  Do they do more in the business than sew?

Tessa:  This opportunity really fell into my lap. I never thought I’d become an entrepreneur. But my passion for the North Hill community was a gateway to being handed the opportunity to start this business, and I can’t think of a better outcome for all of my passions to come through in my career!

I have had a huge change of perspective ever since working with the refugee community. I’ve become much more aware of the refugee crisis that we have going on in so many parts of the world. When I started learning about the refugees we have here in Akron, I was appalled that this was something that I hadn’t heard talked about before. I grew up 20 minutes from Akron and never once heard someone talk about the refugee neighbors we have living here among us, nonetheless WHY they’re here. It’s such an important story people need to be hearing, and I’m very thankful to have the platform of a business to help garner social conversation around the topic.

It’s been humbling to work alongside such hardworking women who have experienced things in life I will never come close to facing. As I continue hearing bits & pieces of their stories, I admire them more and more for their strength. I have so much respect for many in the refugee community, because I haven’t once seen anyone operating off of self-pity. The refugees I know are not only hardworking, but HAPPY. They put so much value on family and community relationships, and I have a hunch this is why they’re so content despite being torn from their homes across the world. They are a tight-knit community that looks out for each other day in and day out, especially here in their new Akron home. Observing this has taught me to live a more thankful life — how could I not, seeing their contentment with the cards life has handed them? I also feel very lucky to be able to experience new cultures so up close in so many different ways; it literally enriches my life week to week in countless ways. And, my employees are hilarious; I have so much fun with them in the shop. We all have a great relationship with each other despite coming from three different cultures!

The main job of our refugee women is sewing. Some of them have helped with the design of products, which is always cool to watch. But mainly, they execute the making of the product — and they do it darn well!

Neighbors Apparel also makes bags and purses in all sizes, from wristlets to crossbody bags, and totes.

Joanna:  How and where do you sell your items? What has the response been from the community?

Tessa: We’re in about 10 local shops between Cleveland and Columbus, our main retailer here in Akron being The Market Path in Highland Square. Neighbors Apparel also travels to as many Ohio craft shows/maker’s marts we can fit into our weekend schedules! And of course, is always open for business. Our website also allows for custom EVERYTHING, which makes it a fun way to shop our stuff.

Last week, on behalf of Neighbors Apparel, Tessa Reeves accepted the Innovation Award at the Zenith Awards ceremony from the Akron/Summit Convention and Visitors Bureau. Congrats to you!

The response has been…overwhelming. Every time I think about how Akron has responded to our mission here at Neighbors, I don’t know how to be thankful enough worthy of the response. People get really excited when they find out that our product is made right here in Akron. It’s also been amazing to see how customers actually listen to our story, ask questions about our mission, and decide they want to become a Neighbor through our product. We are so thankful for each and every interaction we have. Another cool thing is that our audience has become very diverse; we have men, women, young and old from a diverse array of backgrounds, whether business men or fashionable twenty-somethings.

Poster art from 427 Design.

Joanna:  Tell me about your participation in Akron Better Block. What is your connection to North Hill?

Tessa:  We’re stoked for Akron Better Block because part of the purpose of the weekend is celebrating the potential of little guys like us. We’re based in North Hill, where there is a large refugee community, so we’re a perfect fit to have a pop-up storefront over this weekend. We’d love to one day have an actual storefront and be a catalyst for the development of North Main St. in our neighborhood, having other small businesses join alongside us there.

And, for a plug: Neighbors Apparel at Better Block is going to be a BLAST! I won't give away all of our surprises, but the store will have many interactive activities going on besides just shopping. One of them will be getting the chance to design your own t-shirt and take it home, hot off the sewing machine and after a handshake with one of our refugee seamstresses.

I see I'm not the only one looking forward to Akron Better Block!

Joanna:  Tell me about your plans to grow the business?

Tessa:  There are quite a number of growth strategies we could (and I’d like to) try. Coming from a background in fashion, I realize that the industry is huge. So, my plan is to take as large a chunk out of it as possible. One strategy we’re obviously currently implementing is going the wholesale route, and trying to create an organic following through local customers in Ohio. We’d also like to expand our product line in the near future to things like toddler, baby, home accessories & more. There are other things like potential collaborations, and a huge step would be securing spots in industry trade shows, where buyers would come to us. However if we do get there, I’m sure it’s going to take a few years. But, like I said, our industry has so much potential!

Neighbors specializes in making Ohio Tees but they can make other states as well.

Joanna:  What should people know about Neighbors Apparel?

Tessa:  What should people know? Don’t put us in a box, as I feel many people tend to do. Just because we have a social mission doesn’t mean we’re non-profit, and doesn’t mean we’re a “training program” that’s set to be that and only that. We strive to be innovative with our product, fashion-forward, and we want to be one of your favorite brands that you use in daily life. We’re in this to create as many jobs — and Neighbors through our product — as possible. And, while we are extremely Akron-proud, we want to grow past our borders. It will help that much more if people catch that wind and get excited with us, and tell our story in THAT way — make sense? We can grow as big as our following lets us, so jump on board and let’s do it!

Joanna:  Thank you Tessa Reeves.  I'm proud to know you and I'm inspired to be a Neighbor too.

Show your support this weekend: #supportlocal  #iamaneighbor

You can find more information about Akron's own Neighbors Apparel on their website:
and on Facebook: Neighbors Apparel

And, don't forget: you can find Neighbors Apparel this weekend: May 15th-17th at
Akron Better Block
their website:
and the event on Facebook: Akron Better Block

See you in North Hill this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday!

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