After moving to Raleigh in 2013, California native Jenny Hwa immersed herself in the Triangle food scene. While volunteering at Raleigh City Farm downtown and eating at restaurants like Mandolin in North Raleigh and Capital Club 16 downtown, the fashion designer noticed a disconnect.
“We’re either given information or seek out information about the entire growing or rearing process of a lot of ingredients that we’re consuming,” Hwa said. “We’re at a restaurant where they share that information, or we’re working with farmers’ markets. ... That’s where I saw a disparity happening with fashion.”
Hwa decided she wanted to start a clothing company where the clothes would be made in North Carolina of “quality products with a transparent background.”
The result: Loyale, which offers just two styles, a tunic tee and ballet tee. The tops are made of fabric from Japan that’s cut and sewn at Opportunity Threads, an employee-owned factory in western North Carolina. Both are available in solid black or white-and-gray stripes and are sold online for $90-$134, with part of each purchase going to nonprofits.
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Hwa said cost and quality is why the fabric is coming from Japan rather than the United States as she had hoped to do. But that disappointment was tempered by the excitement of partnering with the 24-employee factory in Valdese, a town an hour east of Asheville.
“Finding that on Google was one of those aha, Oprah moments,” Hwa said. “Hopefully we can partner together for a very long time and grow together.”
Opportunity for employees
Molly Hemstreet founded Opportunity Threads in her hometown of Morganton (it’s since moved to nearby Valdese) in 2008.
“The general principle is that if you’re a worker here, there is a path for you to ownership, which is based on your performance (and) on you buying in,” she said. “The people that put the energy into building the company are the direct beneficiaries of it. ... Most of our employees are Mayan Guatemalans (who) grew up sewing.”
Of Opportunity Thread’s 24 employees, 14 are worker-owners or candidates for ownership. Six employees are on the board of directors.
Loyale is just one of Opportunity Thread’s many clients – the factory is making socks for Maggie’s Organic, garments for children’s apparel companies Chasing Windmills and Noni Bee, and quilts made out of T-shirts for Project Repat.
“We talk about a triple bottom line where there’s an environmental, social and an economic benefit to it,” Hemstreet said.
Nonprofits receive $2 from each Loyale garment. Right now, customers can choose whether their purchase benefits animal rights nonprofits The Livestock Conservancy or Farm Sanctuary.
This is Hwa’s second try with Loyale. She first launched the company in 2005 while living in New York. She refers to that as Loyale 1.0 – an “eco-chic” line that offered organic dresses, jackets and even bikinis. Giving back was a big part of Loyale 1.0, too, she said. The company gave more than $15,000 to nonprofits, Hwa said.
The company did well operating out of New York, and Hwa even received an Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business grant of $10,000. But in 2009, she moved to Winston-Salem and the company took a hit.
“That’s really when a lot of the challenges took place,” she said. “The recession was really beginning to bear down on everyone.”
Loyale 1.0 faded out, but Hwa kept thinking about how to revitalize it as she moved to the Triangle and worked for the Raleigh-based Hopscotch Music Festival and entrepreneur-focused nonprofit Innovate Raleigh.
“Working with these organizations did help me see there’s no shame in retooling or pivoting from ... roadblocks that came up,” Hwa said. “Whether it be that the mill I wanted to work with went bankrupt, or the factory I wanted to partner with ended up closing their doors two months after we had agreed to work together.”
Now the plan is to gather customer feedback. While working at Innovate Raleigh (where she was executive director) Hwa read “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries.
“The foundation of that book is getting your concept out to the consumer as quickly as possible without overdeveloping your collection before you can get your feedback,” she said.
She’ll be reaching out to customers and organizing focus groups in the coming year so she can start designing a second collection.
“We’re definitely still getting the word out about it,” Hwa said. “When people ask us what’s next or what’s on the horizon, that’s really what we are looking to.”
Evie Fordham: @eviefordham 919-829-4654