As Kansas City extends mandates, local designers reflect on the last year

In the early throes of lockdown, we reached out to local designers to ask how they shifted from producing high-quality garments and even furniture to face masks for the Kansas City community.

Recently The Pitch reconnected with a few of those individuals: Jennifer Lapka of Rightfully Sewn, Nataliya Lucia Meyer of Lucia’s Sarto, and John Pryor of Madison Flitch and Madison Stitch. We wondered what it was like to pivot back into fashion and design, and—as the world debates reopening—if they’d taken any pandemic-era lessons or motivations with them.

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Seamstresses lay out masks for the community. // Courtesy Rightfully Sewn

Jennifer Lapka of Rightfully Sewn has always emphasized the importance of reciprocity. “The community stepped up to monetarily support us as we pivoted to mask production,” she says, referring to the encouragement she received as COVID-19 swept into Kansas City.

“Because of that,” she says, “we were able to shore up our staff and hire additional seamstresses to produce over 40,000 masks for donation to 35 hospitals and nonprofits in need.”

Rightfully Sewn seeks to provide burgeoning seamstresses with industry know-how and job placement assistance. The business also offers public sewing and fashion design classes, and ultimately, the chance to manufacture and market original designs.

Fortunately, Rightfully Sewn was eligible for and benefited from a Cares Act Grant through the state of Missouri.

“I’ll never forget the woman in the state office who championed us all the way through,” Lapka says. “It has enabled us to purchase equipment to produce more PPE and set us up for larger fashion sewing contracts in the future.”

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A student irons a garment as part of Rightfully Sewn’s Middle School Summer Intensive program. // Courtesy Rightfully Sewn

Lapka’s vision revolves around reimagining Kansas City in its golden age of garment manufacturing, so it makes sense that Rightfully Sewn would be community-based.

“A year ago this time, we had nine employees. Now we have 20,” says Lapka. “We are indeed creating jobs and opportunities in Kansas City through the business of fashion.”

There’s also the question of how small businesses should change due to the pandemic.

“All small businesses need to offer their employees health insurance,” Lapka says. “It’s imperative to people’s livelihoods in this country. Trust me,” she adds. “I know how intimidating, expensive, and time-consuming this benefit is to instate and maintain, but we need to rework our business plans and pricing structures to account for it. We are indeed a city of artists and makers.”

Even as Lapka thinks businesses should evolve to meet the needs of the pandemic, she celebrates how they got through 2020.

“It was the artistic, tenacious, maker-doer mentality in us and many other leaders that allowed for our businesses’ survival through this unprecedented time.”

Since the city just announced another indoor mask mandate until August 28, Lapka tells us she’s gone right back to sewing masks.

“With the Delta variant on the rise, we’d been cycling masks into our production starting in late June.”

And that’s not all. Rightfully Sewn has students and teachers in mind this August.

“We are donating 1,000 masks to KIPP KC charter school for them to start this autumn,” she says. “We’re also still selling masks online and are preparing a buy one, get one free promotion.”

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Nataliya Lucia Meyer in front of Lucia’s Sarto on the Plaza. // Photo by Pilson Photo Co-op

Nataliya Lucia Meyer of Lucia’s Sarto tells us her team of designers has been wearing masks all through the pandemic, and that they will continue to sell them amid new mask regulations.

“We have some disposable ones [in store] for clients who forget theirs,” Meyer says.

In an article from April 22, 2020, The Pitch wrote that Meyer—originally from Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine—shifted her business over to making masks last year, sometimes staying up into the wee hours to generate enough PPE for hospitals and individuals alike.

“These have been crazy times for us and our customers,” she says. “We’ve been growing steadily and working hard, even adding team members.”

The designer, who evolved her own aesthetic through a mix of formal college training and years of working with clothiers and artists, is interested in post-pandemic social habits.

“People have changed how they shop—they’re less likely to wander around in shops, and even less likely to go to multiple destinations,” says Meyer. “Folks are shopping with a purpose and going to a specific location. Events are scheduled with less lead time and coordination, which in turn gives us less time to complete orders.”

The most difficult part about filling orders now, she says, is finding folks to make the big stuff.

“We’re having the hardest time finding high-end sewing specialists with multiple years of experience sewing big gowns and wedding dresses,” Meyer says. “While hiring people is our biggest struggle, staffing shortages create pressure on remaining staff managers and owners, which forces us all to be more engaged with each other and ensure we’re being even more considerate than usual. It’s the silver lining.”

Meyer’s design team has been working double shifts more than five days a week to stay up on current orders.

“We’re shipping boxes to places we’ve never heard of and just down the street,” she says. “Seriously, you wouldn’t believe how many shipments we did to Kansas City.

“A lot of the boxes we shipped were donations,” Meyer adds. “I was able to grow a great business relationship and friendship with [Dr. Amber Botros], who owns Plaza Aesthetics & Wellness. She donated part of her proceeds to offset the cost of mask supplies and shipping, and her donations made all the difference in allowing us to continue our donations at the peak of mask use.”

Like Lapka, Meyer sees the benefit in connecting with fellow small business owners amid disaster. “I made another long-lasting relationship with [Missouri nonprofit organization] Volunteer KC,” she says. “They place passionate volunteers with nonprofits and unhoused outreach programs in Kansas City.”

“They were super involved in supporting the community and we were happy to supply them with masks for their team,” she continues. “Kansas City is extremely supportive of small businesses. We love the established fashion and glamour here—it’s strong now and growing stronger every year.”

As for upcoming projects, Meyer and her team are working 14+ hour days to meet demand. “Overtime and more overtime,” she says. “But each dress is more beautiful than the first.”

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A few master stitchers at work during the pandemic. // Courtesy John Pryor

We also talked to John Pryor of heirloom-quality furniture company Madison Flitch—he founded the handbag offshoot Madison Stitch in Spring 2020. This additional business was the direct result of making face masks, of which Pryor only expected to sell a few dozen. He ended up making over 15,000 in eight weeks.

Pryor then reached out to folks across the city, including master stitchers from Myanmar and Afghanistan, who knew how to create top-notch products. Together, Pryor and his team provided supplies to local hospitals during the pandemic.

The Pitch wrote a previous article about Pryor’s community-saving efforts mid-pandemic. Initially his business donated a mask for every mask sold, but as demand for PPE shrank, Madison Stitch started donating masks to local women’s shelters instead.

“We stopped producing and selling masks in February of this year after larger manufacturers caught up to demand, reducing our sales,” Pryor explains. “We have donated the remaining inventory to schools or shelters. We did not qualify for any stimulus money because our revenue grew during the pandemic, so we have bootstrapped the [handbag business] from the beginning. As such, our biggest challenge is scaling our operation while controlling for costs without capital from investors or lenders.”

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Madison Stitch specializes in handcrafted handbags. // Courtesy John Pryor

Finding folks with stitching experience has been difficult, too, Pryor says. “We’re struggling to grow the team, like every other business.”

In the age of COVID-19, it’s been difficult for some employers to offer health insurance to their employees, especially when small businesses like Pryor’s go without pandemic-related subsidies. He says his businesses offer benefits like unemployment and Social Security, but that the health insurance quotes he’s received would cost upwards of $10,000 a month. Pryor wants to pay workers a living wage.

Still, Pryor says he’s “grateful to the fact that we’ve survived and are still in business, despite the challenges.”

We’re deeply grateful to live amongst people who look out for each other, and applaud all the designers, artists, and makers who have changed their visions—and business models—to take into consideration the needs of a whole city.

Rightfully Sewn
1800 Wyandotte St. Ste. 204
Kansas City, MO 64108

Lucia’s Sarto
4808 Belleview Ave.
Kansas City, MO 64112

Madison Stitch
507 E. 16th St.
Kansas City, MO 64108

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