A Passion for Fashion

Improbable as it sounds, clothing designers in metro Grand Rapids are creating and selling their works of art to customers in California, New York City, even Paris. And while it's safe to say West Michigan won't become a hub of apparel design like Milan, that hasn't stopped a homegrown group of creatives from making their statements on the fashion runway.

“Tonight we have the fun, the fantastic and the freakin’ creative,” said Mike Dollar, Kendall College of Art and Design instructor and master of ceremonies for the school’s Carnivale Burlesque-themed fashion show, as he introduced the audience to inspired designs produced by nearly 40 students.

From garments fashioned from license plates and maps to the more understated gold lamé, creativity was on full display at Wealthy Theatre as the Kendall’s Fashion Club presented its fourth annual Bodies of Art show. Fashionistas and families packed the theater to take in the student production, which included performances by Super Happy Funtime Burlesque, Chip Fundy and Selectronics to keep the crowd engaged during costume changes.

One of several fashion shows that has taken place recently, West Michigan seems to be cultivating a talented crop of up-and-coming fashion designers hoping to follow in the footsteps of homegrown designers Pamella DeVos and Daniel Vosovic.

“There are opportunities locally, but you really have to use your online environment if you want to make some money,” says Marianne Bockheim, who teaches fashion merchandising courses at Grand Rapids Community College.
 
Rachel Six, 26, and Joleen Rumsey, 34, each pursued creative paths at Grand Valley State University before co-founding Flutter, a whimsical line of women’s shirts, jackets, dresses and accessories that often incorporate vintage fabrics and unexpected flourishes.
 
The pair, who met while working at Field’s Fabrics before launching Flutter in 2006, found an international market by selling their collections online. Flutter’s website directs visitors to Etsy.com for purchases, which is a site that allows artists to sell their handmade items to consumers around the world through a virtual storefront. Rumsey and Six typically spend three to five hours constructing a piece before photographing it, crafting a description and uploading it to their Etsy site.
 
“It’s an awesome site for artists and crafters to get their work out there,” says Six. Though their pieces are typically purchased on an individual basis, several boutiques have also found Flutter online. “We have some stores in Singapore, Seattle and Texas that that have bought wholesale after finding us on Etsy.”

They have been selling their garments online from the start, and say it was very easy to get started. “All you really need is a computer, a digital camera and a checkbook,” says Rumsey.
 
Rumsey and Six spend up to 20 hours a week designing, constructing and operating the business. In a busier month, the pair might sell 30 pieces, which range in price from $35 for a scarflette to $130 for some of the dresses.
 
“Sometimes we’ll get more than 2,000 views on an item,” says Six. “Others sell the minute we put them up on the site.”

The women do not relying on Flutter for their entire income; Rumsey is an assistant manager at Field’s Fabrics and sings and plays the keyboard for indie-pop band The Icicles. Six is an esthetician at Jupiter Medical Aesthetics and recently launched a jewelry line, which she also sells on Etsy.

They found their niche by primarily focusing on women’s tops, allowing them to focus their attention on the details. Their garments are all made from soft fabrics with stretch, including cotton and rayon knits and matte jersey, and often combine several unexpectedly complimentary designs.

“We wanted the clothing line to be fun and spontaneous, with movement,” says Rumsey, which is why the duo selected the fitting name Flutter. “And there’s nothing like the feeling of making something beautiful. It’s functional art that you can wear and enjoy.”

For now, Rumsey and Six are happy with keeping their business on the smaller side so they can manage it and still be involved. “On one end of the spectrum, it can be scary to grow too fast and have to worry about additional employees and factories,” says Rumsey. “We still want to be able to manage it ourselves and have fun.”

For the volume that Flutter produces, they don’t think that being based in Grand Rapids poses a hindrance. “I don’t think it matters where you live when you sell online,” says Six. “We get a lot of business from customers in New York, and some in California, Australia and Paris.”

Another local apparel designer who uses Etsy is Sarah Jo Saunders, who creates original clothing designs and sells them through her online shop, joclothing.etsy.com. Saunders works mainly with stretch cotton jersey fabrics and some recycled materials to create her collection of about 30 pieces of casual apparel that are priced under $60.

GRCC’s Bockheim says that for designers trying to make it big by producing mass quantities for retail sale, it can be more difficult due to a lack of local resources. “If you want to stay in Michigan, you have to really do your homework,” she says. “A designer could establish their office here easily, but many designers move out of the area to have manufacturing facilities close to them.”

Bockheim is also a regional co-director for the Detroit chapter of Fashion Group International, a professional fashion industry organization that offers resources and networking opportunities for its 5,000 national members.  She says that West Michigan could benefit from establishing a similar collaborative group organization to connect fashion professionals and advance the local industry.
 
“There are some hardcore professionals with a passion for the industry who are here, but have no one to talk to about it,” says Bockheim. “It would be nice to bring that community resource and networking here, so we could all come together as an industry and establish a fashion district.”

For those just starting out, like the budding designers from Kendall College’s Fashion Club, Rumsey agrees that getting out in the community to network and learn from others is key. “There are great classes at the local colleges and at fabric stores,” she says. “And you can’t be afraid to make mistakes, because that’s when you’ll get some of your best ideas.”


Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in West Michigan. She most recently wrote a story on People Design for Rapid Growth. She is also the marketing director at Ada-based CUSO Development Company.

Photos:

Kendall's fashion club showcase original clothing designs at fourth annual Bodies of Art show - Wealthy Street Theatre (5)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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