Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer’s Rightfully Sewn chooses its first class

Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer considers herself a “budding Garment District historian.” Sitting in the Tea Drops café at the H&R Block building downtown, where Pfeiffer works for the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation, she told me she’s recently gotten to know several women who worked as seamstresses when Kansas City was an epicenter of clothing design and manufacturing in the 1950s. Talking to them, she said, had led her to believe she still has a lot to discover.

“There’s so much to learn from them, and I feel like we have to hurry up and do it before we lose them completely,” she said. “Manufacturing and American-made goods are making a comeback across the nation. We need to learn from them so we’re not starting completely from scratch.”

Wearing a sleek black dress and matching jacket, her smooth blond hair grazing her shoulders and her skin glowing in the afternoon light, Pfeifer looked ready to play a prominent role in the Garment District’s resurgence. To do just that, she has founded Rightfully Sewn, an organization that aims to offer seamstress training for at-risk women while providing a manufacturing hub for local designers.

Through her work with the Bloch Family Foundation, Pfeifer has developed relationships with several area women’s shelters, most notably Sheffield Place in northeast Kansas City. With input from these organizations, and through partnerships with numerous others, Pfeifer plans to offer seamstress training later this year. Statistics say 67 percent of women in shelters return to harmful situations within three years, so she aims to augment the training with social education, community support and employment opportunities.

Born in central Kansas, where she and her four siblings grew up, she said, “simply,” Pfeifer learned from her mother to love art and culture — and, more embryonically, fashion. She recalled that her mother and grandmother always made sure the children were well dressed. Pfeifer wanted to be the director of an art museum, and she went to graduate school in England before moving to Kansas City with her husband. Later, she served as executive director of the West 18th Street Fashion Show, a duty that helped her realize her true calling.

“Getting to know that community and the designers, I’ve learned that there’s such vigor that’s attracting and keeping young people here, including fashion designers,” she said. “Knowing that they want to stay, how can I make it my life’s work to give them opportunities to stay?”

To ensure local designers have what they need to create and grow their businesses locally, Rightfully Sewn recently issued five scholarships to attend Kauffman FastTrac New Venture entrepreneurial training. The winners — Ami Beck, Heidi Herrman, Whitney Manney, Sarah Nelsen and Kate Nickols — were selected by a panel of judges who Pfeifer said “can recognize where designers are in their development.”

Beck, the sole owner — and designer and seamstress — of Dolyn Bags, told me she has degrees in psychology and apparel studies but lacks a business background. “I have been somewhat making it up as I go,” she said. She hopes the FastTrac program will help her grow her brand.

“Rightfully Sewn has been hugely influential in bringing resources to local designers and entrepreneurs and shining a spotlight on us,” Beck said. “It is like having a big sister looking out for us, eager to assist with our needs.”

As Rightfully Sewn has stepped in to support budding designers, Beck added, people from Kansas City have shown themselves just as eager to support local businesses.

“For a long time, KC has felt like an underdog,” she said. “Definitely, in terms of fashion, there just aren’t that many resources in the Midwest, in terms of sourcing and materials. But things are changing, not only in terms of our city’s sports teams but as a whole.”

Pfeifer, too, said she feels like Kansas City is the “right place at the right time” for small businesses and entrepreneurs in the fashion industry to thrive.

“That’s to do with the energy in our city, but also the reemergence and interest in American-made products, which is really driven by millennials who want a transparent supply chain,” she said. “They want to know what they’re buying benefits someone else in addition to themselves.”

All of these cultural elements align with Pfeifer’s plan to reestablish Kansas City’s Garment District. Many of the older people she has talked to didn’t think she could do it at first — but they believe her now. 

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