Cleveland Business Connects

For immediate release (October 6, 2017) Media Contact: Judy Abelman Email: abelmancommunications@gmail.com Phone: 440.725.8861...

Tessa Reeves leaves the Big Apple to begin her own apparel business and employ refugee women

By Nina Polien Light  |  Photos by Doug Khrenovsky

While pursuing a degree in fashion merchandising at Kent State University, Tessa Reeves was certain she wanted to work at a couture magazine in New York. But after enlightening — albeit enjoyable — internships at Elle and Vogue during her junior year, she grew uncomfortable with her career goal.

“Being exposed to the industry that closely showed me the heart of it — about the materialism and celebrity,” she says. “That’s not what I’m passionate about. I wondered, what does it matter that all I did was tell people what to wear through the pages of a magazine? I didn’t feel like I was giving any value to anyone else or the world, in general.”

Reeves returned to her native Doylestown to reassess her aims. On a whim and through a connection at her church, Reeves began volunteering with Urban Vision Ministry, a nonprofit that worked with refugees in Akron’s North Hill area. She quickly embraced the refugee community, and inquired about joining Urban Vision’s staff. To her surprise, the executive director suggested she tap into her fashion background to launch a small business that would employ refugee women who sew, but cannot find jobs because of cultural barriers. Reeves was intrigued.

Thanks to seed money from Urban Vision’s incubator fund, Neighbors Apparel was founded in July of 2014. Ka Naw, a talented refugee from Burma, became the company’s first part-time seamstress.

A little over a year later, Neighbors Apparel’s four part-time employees represent Karen refugees from Burma and Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. The women, whose cultures value the art of hand-weaving, use fabrics imported from Thailand to fashion items for the American market. These include scarves, clutches, key fobs, purses, and T-shirts for adults and children. Recently, they introduced a hoodie.

Initially, the women visited cultural festivals to peddle traditional garments to the refugee community. “But we learned very, very quickly that their culture does not buy clothes like the American culture does,” Reeves says. “So we switched gears to design an American collection to pump out before Christmas. It was something I wanted to do anyway, but we moved it up.”

The ambitious project aims to do more than provide refugee women with a livable wage. The goal is to, “Love our refugee neighbors through apparel.” Reeves says she wants the women’s handmade garments to spark an interest in the refugees’ stories and educate the general community on the difference between refugees and immigrants.

“When you see one of their pieces worn or carried, you can see there’s something different about it,” Reeves said. “By telling the stories of our refugees, one of our customers can answer the question, ‘Hey, where did you get that bag?’ and talk about the refugees we have here in Akron.”

Reeves showcases the women at local pop-up markets and through social media. Although still incubating at Urban Vision, she hopes to move the business to its own space and offer the women fulltime employment.

“If we get a storefront, people can come in and chat and shake the hands of the women, so they know they are truly neighbors and they know who made the products,” she says.

While the business continues to grow, several of the women hold other part-time jobs. For her part, Reeves recently began a full-time job as a corporate merchandiser at Westfield Insurance. She maintains that Neighbors Apparel is her dream job and is showing increasing momentum, but, in the meantime, she needs a steady income that allows her to repay student loans. “I’m currently facing the challenge of juggling running a business while also striving to grow my corporate career at Westfield,” she says.

The business is beginning to show a profit and, based on last year’s holiday sales, Reeves holds high hopes for November and December. Admittedly, she attributes part of the profitability to low overhead and self-sacrifice.

“Management, aka myself, is not on payroll yet,” she says. “But it’s not about me. It’s about creating employment for others. Until then, I’ll just work extra hard.”

Reeves believes being a woman in a creative industry helps her reach out and be more approachable to vendors and potential customers because many of them are women. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old says she sometimes feels intimidated when dealing with potential investors or while speaking at young professionals events—even though no one has given her pushback.

Reeves continues to discuss her brand at various pop-up markets and with folks she meets at groups such as the Young Professionals of Akron and the Downtown Akron Partnership.

“I’ve never been scared to do this, but I know I have so much to learn,” she says. “It will take a couple of years to get over the initial learning curve of entrepreneurship. I count my youth as an extreme asset because I haven’t been burned by the world of business. I have extreme optimism that keeps me pushing. I have the time and energy to chase this dream as hard as I can.” 

For more information: neighborsapparel.com

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