“Can we create jobs in Kansas City through fashion? I do believe so,” says Jennifer Lapka, founder and director of Rightfully Sewn.
The nonprofit seeks to provide seamstress training for at-risk women, reestablish KC as a manufacturing center of high-quality, American-produced garments, and help propel local designers to market.
“A lot of people say it’s frivolous,” Lapka says, “but fashion, if you really think about it, it is jobs. It is craftsmanship. It is tax revenue. It’s the identity of a city. It’s a $250 billion industry in America.”
Not so many years ago, garment production was the second largest employer of any industry in Kansas City — only New York’s garment industry was bigger. Throughout the 1940s, fashion employed more than 4,000 people, and it was said that one of every six women in the country purchased a piece of clothing made in Kansas City. The Donnelly Company was the largest dress manufacturer of the 20th century.
Lapka takes heart in that success and feels we should “take a look at our past in order to inform our future.”
Lapka, who has a background in museum studies, non-profit fundraising and fashion show production (including as co-director of the 18th St. Fashion Show), conceived the idea for Rightfully Sewn while working as executive assistant for the Bloch Foundations. It was then, while working with homeless shelters and other nonprofits, that she met a woman resident who made incredible handcrafted items while minimally employed at Starbucks. Lapka saw the untapped potential. Fair trade projects were being promoted all over the world — why not here at home?
After three years of research, focus groups, curricula development and fundraising, Rightfully Sewn was launched in May 2017 and was one of eight recipients of the Kauffman Foundation’s KC Accelerator Challenge for its promise to “provide critical mentoring, access to resources and services that enable entrepreneurs to grow.” The program encompasses competitive two-year residencies, access to trade shows and events, prep and production services and extensive networking, in person and online.
The first class of seamstresses graduated last summer. It was dubbed the “United Nations of Sewing” as the six women were Iranian, Afghani, Congolese, Syrian and American. Two were previously homeless, four were asylum seekers, three had children and two were the sole income earners in their households. Their dedication and progress were exemplary, Lapka said, and she “cannot wait to watch them on their career paths.” The second class of five trainees will be introduced at Powell Gardens’ “Spring Fashion and Flower Reveal” event on March 29. New fashion and floral designs will be presented accompanied by music, cocktails and appetizers.
“It’s been amazing to watch,” said mentor Carrie Habib of the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City. Sherry Turner of Women’s Employment Network describes Rightfully Sewn as “timely and promising.” Local manufacturer Lisa Choules of Eleve Dancewear greatly values their services. “I started sewing dance leotards in my basement . . . fast-forward five years, I’m shipping them worldwide from my Crossroads location.”
The “Shop” section of rightfullysewn.org makes clear the quality and high-level design of the product. The site promotes and sells the creations of local designers: bags by Ami Beck, fashions and accessories by Heidi Herrman, Whitney Manney, Kate Nickols and Sarah Nelsen. These are some of the brightest rising stars of the local fashion scene. Lapka states, “There is such pride in Kansas City, designers and store owners want to make their living here. I believe it is my vocation to create some sort of structure to give them the opportunity to stay here.”
Rightfully Sewn’s sold-out Golden Gala fundraiser in December 2017 was a glittering event and possibly the most flamboyantly attired of the season. Lapka described it as “Kansas City’s answer to the Met Gala in New York City, making it the most opulent, fashion-focused event our city has seen in decades!”
It is expected to be the first of many. “Fashion is a perfect mix of art and business,” Lapka says, adding, “Rightfully Sewn is perfect for Kansas City, because we are in the middle, we are nice people, because shipping makes sense and cost of living keeps production affordable.”
“Keep Moving the Needle” is the tagline. Rightfully so.
Above: Rightfully Sewn founder Jennifer Lapka (left) with Seamstress Training Program graduate, Liliane Lemani, at last July’s graduation ceremony. Lemani, originally from The Republic of Congo, made the dress she is wearing as well as some of the garments her family wore to the event. (photo by Jeff Evrard)