In the lyrics to “The Ladies Who Lunch”, from the musical “Company”, Steven Sondheim roasts/toasts the rich, middle-aged, woman of leisure. Women who while away their days in meaningless pursuits (such as luncheons with friends). Women who will do anything but be productive, in their efforts to stave away what they know, deep in their hearts, to be bitterly true:
…Everybody tries. Look into their eyes, And you’ll see what they know: Everybody dies…
Cheery lyrics, aren’t they? But I digress: this blog is not about the ladies who lunch – it is a tribute to the opposite – the ladies that launch – women who spend their days turning their entrepreneurial dreams into reality. Independent, bad-ass women who are building a legacy for their future and their families.
These are the stories of women who are walking in the turn of the century foot steps of the Red Rose Girls (pictured above), four original bad-asses who thumbed their roses (I mean “noses”) at societal norms to begin their own graphic design and illustration businesses. Ahead of their times, these women also created an artist commune to share both the bills and moral support. Now that’s forward thinking!
And so, Let’s hear it for the ladies who Launch! Everybody rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!
In 2017, Thu Pham was approached by the founders of 12PLUS, the nonprofit organization for which she was working as a Fellow in Kensington. (12PLUS matches recent college graduates such as Thu with under-served Philadelphia high school students to provide mentoring and advocacy). They handed her a flyer advertising the application deadline for the upcoming Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge – a competition inviting small businesses to propose ideas to revitalize troubled Kensington Avenue. For the winning proposals, up to ten applicants would receive free rent for a year in the Maken Studios, and funding and mentoring from Shift Capital and its partners. Located in North Philadelphia, Maken Studios is a launchpad for makers that occupies the large, industrial building that used to be home to Jomar Fabrics.
“If you were to enter this competition, what business would you enter?” they asked. She thought for a moment and replied, “a café”. She had long been dissatisfied with her experience of cafes in Philadelphia. In theory, they seemed like a pleasant place to hang out with a friend or to use as a remote work space. Instead, they tended to be over-crowded and she often felt rushed and unwelcome. The right cafe had the potential to become the beating heart of a re-imagined neighborhood.
Thu was born in Vietnam and when she was four, she immigrated to Orange County, California, and eventually, to Northeast Philadelphia. Both places had large Vietnamese refugee communities. Thu had always been fascinated by the customs surrounding the drinking of coffee in her homeland. She remembered seeing men and women (but mostly men) sitting outside at Vietnamese restaurants on short stools, spending hours drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and chatting. She remembered the unhurried sense of warmth and community that she felt. What if she could recreate that feeling in Kensington?
Another powerful memory from her childhood was that of her sister lifting her up to sit on their kitchen counter while she brewed Vietnamese coffee. Her sister would pour hot water into the phin and together, they would watch it slowly run over the coffee and through the phin’s filter and into a cup. (It takes 4 to 5 minutes to brew a cup of Vietnamese coffee). Her sister would add condensed milk and shaved ice and then offer Thu a sweet spoonful. In American restaurants, Vietnamese coffee is usually made from inexpensive Café du Monde coffee beans, a nondescript blend roasted in Louisiana that achieves its smoky flavor through the addition of chicory. Coffee beans grown in Vietnam are naturally smoky. Volcanic soil, hot temps, humidity and high elevations give Vietnamese coffee beans their unique, nutty, bold flavor.
For the competition, she proposed the opening of a Vietnamese coffee roastery and eventually a cafe that would donate a portion of its profits back into the community to support 12PLUS. Within two months of entering, Thu found out that she and her partners (the founders of 12PLUS) had won and Caphe Roasters was born – the first and only Vietnamese roastery in Philadelphia.
There was one small problem – Thu had absolutely NO knowledge of roasting and/or brewing. She spent the next six months researching brewing and roasting techniques. In her parent’s poorly ventilated row home kitchen in Olney, she would experiment, trying to discover the perfect ratio of water and temperature. She used Rival Brothers beans (When Thu was studying Marketing Research and Psychology at Drexel University, class of 2015, she liked drinking Rival Brothers coffee from their truck located on campus), but, eventually, she switched to South Asian beans she sourced from a supplier. Over her family’s gas stove, she created her roasting profile by using a $20 Whirley-Pop popcorn popper that she had purchased at Williams Sonoma. She has come a long way from those days in a very short amount of time – she now operates a professional roaster that she considers her baby – a San Franciscan, manufactured out of Carson City, Nevada.
Thu sells her coffee beans to local Vietnamese restaurants, and at farmer’s markets and coffee shops. In the not-too-distant-future, she plans to open her café in Kensington. Last summer, she partnered with Weckerly’s Ice Cream in Fishtown to create a popular seasonal Vietnamese coffee ice cream. Part of the profits from sales of this flavor went to support 12PLUS. Partnerships with businesses such as Weckerly’s that are working to transform the communities where they do business is in perfect alignment with her values.
Thu was raised a devout Catholic and taught, by her parent’s example, the value of leading a life of service. She believes strongly in the work of 12PLUS – how it empowers young people to continue their education and to become entrepreneurs like herself. No matter how delicious or potent it may be (Vietnamese coffee delivers a caffeine punch 3x greater than a cup of espresso), for Thu, it’s not about the coffee, it’s about community.
Join Thu and four other female Philadelphia food innovators for a panel discussion on November 14th at 12:30pm at Drexel University’s Food Innovation Startup Fest. To learn more and to register, click here.
Yesterday, I rode the wrong train – obliviously, to the end of the line, waiting to get off at a stop which never came. I felt like an idiot. It would take me over an hour to reverse direction. I decided to give up and call it a day. However, I could not stop thinking about the words of Michelle Carfagno, CEO of The Greater Knead: “failure is a choice”. So, instead of pulling down the shades, putting on my pjs and binge-watching Netflix, I took the bus home, got my car, set my GPS and drove to my original destination. I am so glad I went. I met some great people and made some excellent connections. And most importantly, I no longer felt quite so incompetent. I chose not to fail.
The number of failed startups is high – about 90% by some reports. Michelle Carfagno began her start up bakery, “Sweet Note”, in 2012 and over the years, her business has faced many near-death moments. Michelle credits her survival with a conscious decision to choose success over failure. And her ability to pivot.
Michelle has wanted to be a baker for as long as she can remember. When her grandfather and sister were diagnosed with Celiac Disease, Michelle began experimenting with gluten-free dessert recipes. The diagnosis of Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance had become widespread and the need for gluten – free foods was increasing. In 2011, she bartered a deal to use a local bagel shop’s kitchen after hours in exchange for baking gluten-free goods for the shop to sell. With access to bagel-making equipment in her test kitchen, it was a no-brainer for Michelle to hone in on baking gluten-free bagels.
Michelle wanted her bagels to taste like the traditional Jewish bagels that she grew up eating every Sunday morning. It took Michelle fifteen tries to perfect the sample that she then took to local cafes. She was elated when the Green Line Cafe placed an order for a whopping THREE bagels. As the popularity of her bagels grew, so did the size of their order (thankfully!) and eventually, Michelle was selling enough bagels out of her little night kitchen to garner the interest of the owner of the bagel store (and his lawyers).
Said, greedy, owner tried to claim proprietorship of her bagel recipe and Michelle was forced to shutter her operation. Another customer offered her their kitchen. This time, she signed a formal rental agreement that protected her against litigious claims.
Sweet Note continued to grow and from one employee it grew to five and from five to fifteen. At the start, she looked for a copacker to manufacture her recipe. She had a hard time finding a manufacturer willing to work with a business as small as hers’ who could guarantee no cross-contamination and a high-quality product. After a bad experience with the quality of bagels produced by one copacker, Michelle decided to manufacture her bagels herself. But first, she needed a bagel-making machine capable of working with gluten-free dough. Experts in the field told her it could not be done. Bagel machines were designed to stretch and shape dough, and gluten-free dough has no elasticity. Michelle changed direction and instead of buying a new, $25,000 bagel making machine, she bought a $3000 used machine on Ebay that she “McGuiver-ed” to work with gluten-free dough. She still uses that machine today.
Michelle outgrew her little rental kitchen and moved to a larger space in Manayunk and then to her current, much larger, space in Bensalem. The space in Bensalem was much more conducive to larger quantity baking and Sweet Note was able to increase its efficiency. What took five days to bake in Manayunk only took two days in Bensalem. Michelle now had time to take on the manufacturing of two other brands with similar allergen-free manufacturing needs. (A Gluten Free Brownie and Sweet Megan’s Cookie Dough, sold at Wawa Stores.)
Around this time, Michelle started to question her company’s direction. Sweet Note had shifted from being a small hands-on brand to a copacker. Michelle was not baking – her first love and creative outlet – at all. But, at the same time, she was proud of her path as an entrepreneur who learned everything she knew through trial and error and through a stubborn unwillingness to fail. She began to share her story, knowledge and expertise with other female business owners in the food industry. Through mentoring and soul-searching, she realized where her passions lie. She was passionate about helping other women realize their dreams and she was passionate about producing food that was absolutely safe for people with food allergies. Her manufacturing facility would not only be gluten-free, but wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish and shellfish – free.
With this realization, came the rebranding of her company. Sweet Note became “The Greater Knead”. Her business would focus on the food industry’s “knead” for an allergen-free manufacturing facility that would help other businesses with a similar mission get their products to market.
When I asked Michelle “what next?” her answer was wide open and includes continued growth of the contract manufacturing side of her business. Someday, she dreams of opening a food incubator to guide female entrepreneurs from idea to finished product. Whatever the future holds, Michelle is excited and open to any possibility – whether it be more co-branding opportunities such as the one she entered in 2018 to produce a sunflower butter and bagel chip snack, (“Sunsnackers”), or the expansion of her bagel sales nationwide or some other possibility that she hasn’t even considered yet. One thing is certain, for Michelle Carfagno, failure is not an option.
Michelle will be speaking at Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship on Thursday, October 24th at 12pm. The topic of her talk will be “My Start Up Journey: How I Funded by Start Up Using Non-Traditional Funding Sources.” To RSVP for this free event, click here.
Please visit The Greater Knead’s website: www.thegreaterknead.com to find where you can purchase The Greater Knead’s gluten free bagels and bagel chips.
Nicole Haddad had her “Aha” moment when she was 24 years old, two years out of undergraduate school and doing data entry at a law firm. She was unfulfilled and trying to decide her next move when a childhood best friend suggested, “Why don’t you become a fashion designer?” The light flicked on and within a week, Nicole applied and was accepted to the graduate program in Fashion Design at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. This is the story of Nicole’s journey to becoming a fashion designer and how she built Lobo Mau, her distinctive Philadelphia-based fashion line.
Nicole grew up in the town of Lansdowne, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her girlhood home was artistically rich and culturally diverse. Her father, Orlando Haddad, was born and raised in Brazil and studied jazz composition and guitar at the North Carolina School for the Arts. There, he met Nicole’s mom, Patricia King, who was studying voice. Patricia is 3rd generation Sicilian. Together, they are part of the Grammy-nominated Brazilian duo “Minas”. Nicole still lives in Lansdowne – in a house around the corner from where she grew up.
Nicole was a creative kid – she played the guitar and piano, and she was a maker who loved to draw. She especially liked to draw her own clothing designs. Not surprisingly, Nicole comes from a long line of dressmakers and clothing designers.
Her grandmother was a bridal and evening gown designer. Her great-grandmother, Annunziata, owned three clothing boutiques in her lifetime. The embodiment of the American Dream, Annunziata, an Italian immigrant, opened her first clothing store on Chestnut Street. Celebrities and socialites such as Grace Kelly shopped at Minissale’s.
At the age of 13, Nicole traveled to Brazil to visit relatives. Across the street from where she was staying, was a seamstress shop. Nicole boldly took her drawings to that shop and asked the dressmakers to turn them into clothing. Over a decade later, when she applied to Drexel, those clothes formed the basis of the portfolio that got her admitted.
In graduate school, Nicole learned the fundamentals of sewing – how to cut and make patterns and how to work with knits. She also developed her unique point of view and began her Lobo Mau line. After graduation, Nicole took a job at a costume jewelry factory. Her work there was mindless and she took advantage of what it offered – access to a multitude of women of different shapes and sizes who were willing to try on her clothes and give her feedback.
Eventually, Nicole was offered an opportunity to join a fashion co-op in Olde City, where she and other fashion designers could sell their work in a storefront boutique and fabricate their designs in its communal basement workroom. When her business outgrew the co-op, she moved her studio to the Bok Building, a former vocational high school located in South Philly, becoming its very first tenant. At Bok, Lobo Mau has continued to grow and evolve. Three years ago, Nicole’s younger brother, Jordan, joined Lobo Mau, and as its CEO, he has pushed the business forward. This fall, Lobo Mau will open its flagship boutique in Queen Village.
What is behind Lobo Mau’s success?
First, Nicole and Jordan are warm, welcoming, and down to earth. They genuinely care about the happiness of their clients – they want them to look and feel good about their purchase. And the Lobo Mau line of clothing does both those things.
Lobo Mau clothing is for every woman (and man) – any shape, size, or age. It is fun, contemporary, and functional (and machine-washable) with a nod towards the evolution and history of fashion (Nicole has her undergraduate degree in Art History to thank for that.) Its silhouettes are flattering and the unique textural combination of original monochrome patterns with colorful, linear ribbing sets the Lobo Mau collection apart.
This year, Lobo Mau was named Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly “Best Sustainable Local Brand”. The fashion industry, and especially Fast Fashion, are a huge threat to the health of our planet. Out of six of the largest industries in the world – coal/oil, tourism, beef, transportation, fracking and fashion – fashion is the largest polluter after coal and oil. The process of producing new fabric, especially cotton, is the main culprit. The amount of water required to grow cotton is exorbitant – it takes 4000 gallons of water to grow the cotton for one pair of jeans! Additionally, pesticides used in cotton farming and toxic dyes contribute to the problem. (Check out BBC1’s “Fashion’s Dirty Secrets”.)
Lobo Mau’s “Slow Fashion” ethos is a reaction to the un-sustainability of Fast Fashion, where quantity and low cost is valued over everything. Nicole and Jordan intentionally consider the resources required when making decisions regarding the production of their clothing line. They use higher-quality leftover or “deadstock” fabric that lasts longer, they utilize scraps, use inks whose pigments do not contain heavy metals and buy eco-nylon thread. They support the local economy by working with Philly family – owned businesses, including the company that supplies their signature ribbing material. Becoming zero-waste (they are almost there, but not quite) is a goal for the future.
On Thursday, August 29th, I will be co-hosting a party at Lobo Mau’s studio. Nicole will share her fashion line, the story behind her business, and her passion for “Slow Fashion.” Join me for a light bite to eat, a glass of wine and a chance to learn how you too can make a difference by supporting local sustainable brands such as Lobo Mau.
Lobo Mau is located in the Bok Building, 1901 S. 9th Street, Suite 501. 610.316.9821. If you would like to come to my Lobo Mau party, please do! Everyone is welcome. Message me and I will add you to the guest list.
we don’t completely understand that we are raising these creatures to leave us.
They have to. But you don’t get that until it happens. –
When you are in the trenches of parenting, it feels like it will last forever, but then, poof! One day, your kids are grown and out of the house. And you mourn the time when you felt like you couldn’t catch a break.
As Julia Louis-Dreyfus says, “we raise these creatures to leave us” and a big part of raising successful children who can leave us, is the fostering of their entrepreneurial spirit.
There are many desirable qualities that constitute the entrepreneurial spirit: independence, adaptability, risk-taking, resiliency, creativity, curiosity, among others. These qualities, though mostly innate, can be nurtured through encouragement and example. Setting an example is one of the most important things a parent can do to nurture an entrepreneurial mindset.
Last weekend, I stopped by my sister Deirdre’s house. She was outside with her daughter, Nora, having a driveway sale. Deirdre is the epitome of a parent who leads by example. Nora is in the 3rd grade and this spring marks her second year in business with her mom. Together, Deirdre and Nora browse thrift stores to look for vintage vases that they can re-sell, with flowers or plants that they purchase for cheap at Produce Junction or cut from their garden.
One cannot minimize the value of their little cottage industry. Nora is as invested in this business as is Deirdre. The positives are numerous: Nora is learning the value of earning money through work; she is earning the reward of selling beautiful things that brighten a person’s day (and seeing their reaction) and she is learning resiliency. As in any retail business, there are good days and there are disappointing days. Sometimes, hardly anyone stops to buy what they are selling – that doesn’t deter Nora and Deirdre from showing up. Another important benefit of their entrepreneurial pursuit is the time spent together.
Deirdre is an expert in the field of gig-economics. In addition to her business with Nora, she earns a living by singing at weddings and funerals, is the lead singer in a rock band, performs as a sole cabaret singer, and, as a member of Artists Equity, she directs, choreographs and stars in local theatre productions.
“We are raising our children to leave us.”
Every parent knows this. It is a gut-kicking, hard truth.
But when we raise our children to have entrepreneurial mindsets, we can take comfort in knowing that we are raising them to lead the most interesting, independent life available to any of us and as Deirdre shows us, we can have fun doing it.
I recently said goodbye to my ten-year career working at a non-profit arts center. As a painter and a writer, working for an arts organization made sense to me: it checked all the boxes – my need to be creative, my need to be surrounded by creative people and my need to earn money. Until it didn’t make sense anymore.
A few months ago, I switched careers and began working at Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship. At first glance, one would wonder what made me think I was qualified for this job. (Damn, I thought that!). But then I dug a little deeper and started researching the field of entrepreneurship. I realized that many of the qualities that it takes to be an entrepreneur are the same qualities that it takes to be an artist. Actually, me + Drexel University + the Close School made sense.
An example: In the mid 2000’s, I took a leap of faith and launched my own entrepreneurial venture – MamaCita – A Mother’s Cooperative in the Arts. I was a stay at home mom at the time with two young children and I was an artist. I felt fulfilled but a connection to other artists was missing. Once the idea to form an artist cooperative popped into my head, that was it – I was done. I knew it was the best idea EVER (said with a valley girl accent and the same thing I said when I launched this blog site!) I believed with 100% conviction that even though I knew literally no other moms who were also artists (or anyartists at all for that matter), I knew that they had to be out there. If I built it, they would come.
And they did – out of the wood work and across the fields of corn, they came! And more than a dozen years later, MamaCita is still going strong with 25 members who also are moms.
With Mother’s Day just around the corner, I wanted to take the opportunity to honor the artist-entrepreneur members of MamaCita by writing about five of the characteristics that artists and entrepreneurs share and five of the artists of MamaCita who exemplify these qualities.
The most obvious of the characteristics that an artist possesses is creativity. But creativity is also critical for entrepreneurs – it is responsible for the ideas behind successful start ups.
Artist Teresa Shields is one of the most creative artists I know. When I first met Teresa, she was creating paintings that featured circular patterns. Teresa has always been obsessed with circles. Over the years, her art evolved and she returned to her first, true love – fiber arts.
Teresa writes: “I am happiest when I am making things with fiber…it feels like home. I have denied it many times in my life by calling what I do with fabric and fiber ‘experiments’, but the truth is I love the act of making.
I am inspired by circles and have been drawn to them for close to twenty years. When I thought I was ready to change directions, I became obsessed with wood grain patterns and then realized it was just another way to look at circles. I use circles in my art to magnify the complex insides of vegetables, cloud formations and microscopic cellular structures.”
A definition of creativity is “the use of the imagination or original ideas in the making of something.” Teresa uses her imagination to see the circles that make up the world around her and then transforms them into something surprising and out of the ordinary.
Higher brain plasticity is the result of exposure to stimuli. People who prefer variety in the day over fixed routines have more bendable brains that are open to new ideas and ways of thinking. Openness to new ways of thinking is essential for the success of an entrepreneur in an ever-changing world and market. Artists use new experiences to stimulate creativity.
As artist Rebecca Schultz writes: “My creative practice has two primary manifestations: two-dimensional works, including drawing, printmaking, painting, and collage (the personal and spiritual); and participatory, community-engaged installation and performance (the public and pluralistic).”
Rebecca uses her community-based art experiences to feed her inner extrovert and to inspire her when she is working alone in her studio on her abstract, nature-influenced paintings, drawings and prints. Rebecca also uses her extensive travel experiences to expand her mind and inform her art. Despite the fact that she is a mother of three, Rebecca has completed residences in Iceland, Ireland, Ontario and Wyoming. These new experiences are essential to her artistic process and Rebecca knows it! rebeccaschultzprojects.com
Characteristic Three – Passion
Passion is a feeling of intense enthusiasm or compelling desire. Without this intense emotion, both entrepreneurs and artists would never be able to withstand the failure and rejection common to both entrepreneurs and artists.
Artist Rashidah Salam is extremely passionate about her art. She is constantly creating, moving from one project to the next, without hesitation or fear of failure. Born and raised in Malaysia, Rashidah is inspired by the verdant flora and fauna of her native country. One can see this floral motif again and again in Rashidah’s work as well as the influence of Malaysia’s craft traditions in her inclusion of shoe imagery, patterns, linear details and silhouettes.
Rashidah lets her passion take her from one idea to the next. One day, she will work on a traditional stretched canvas; the next, a series of mixed media wreathes that celebrate the lives of people near and dear, here and gone; and on the third day, an element from one of her works will break free and find a central place of its own on a gallery wall. She is passionate about the art-making process; the finished piece of art is a by-product of the process.
Whether an artist or an entrepreneur, creative people perceive the world differently than others. It is vision that allows a person to see a problem or outcome in their own unique way. As Karen McLaughlin, puts it,
“In 2000, I had a vision and jumped into business.
While working my day job (print graphics for over 20 years), I created my very first HTML website. It was fun and I loved learning to code! Over the course of several years I redesigned that first company site a few times. I taught myself as I went, and then jumped into designing for others. KM Digital Design in part-time/mini-mode was born.
As the print industry changed, and digital marketing grew in leaps and bound, my day job closed its doors for good. I decided to take my business to the next level, to follow my vision, and turned KM Digital Design into a full-time business.”
Karen saw the inevitable death of the print industry and she saw that digital design was the future of marketing. She took a situation that might have knocked a person with less vision to their knees and turned it into an opportunity. Additionally, the success of her digital design company gave her the confidence and the freedom to pursue her fine art career. Not only is she the CEO of her own company, she is also a successful artist/printmaker who exhibits her work nationally.
When an artist puts her art out into the world, she runs the risk of rejection and failure. It takes a strong stomach to keep moving forward with the possibility of failure looming overhead. The same is true for entrepreneurs.
Gillian Bedford is an artist whose paintings personify risk. From her website: “Gillian’s paintings often reflect on the contrast of “inside” and “outside”, perhaps as a metaphor for life as we know it, and also, life beyond our senses. Gillian is unafraid of painting what is physically impossible.”
Gillian never compromises her art because of fear of a negative outcome. Although her paintings are based in this world – they depict flowers, nature, everyday life – she fearlessly attacks her canvases with color and gesture, turning what could be considered just a pretty scene by a lesser artist into a multi-dimensional piece of art that is as much about the “outside” appearance as the hidden “inside.”
She is also a risk taker in her life. She recently convinced her husband of 25+ years to pack his bags and take a work sabbatical so that they could nomadically travel the country together (not once, but twice!), with Gillian painting along the way. gillianbedford.com (BTW, her website was designed by Karen and KM Digital Design.)
These five artists are just a sample of the wonderful artists who comprise MamaCita. On April 27th, stop by the Elkins Park Station for MamaCita’s Mother’s Day Show and Sale and to meet more of the artist-entrepreneurs of MamaCita.
This is the story of Anne Cecil, a
Punk Rock Girl who grew up to be a Punk Rock Entrepreneur. Anne is the founder
and visionary behind Roxannelava Shoes.
Anne is a Maker and ambassador for the DIY movement. As a child of two working parents, Anne was a latchkey kid who filled her time making things. Her dad was a Pediatrician and her mom, a Child Psychiatrist for the Philadelphia School system. A product of World War II England, her mom learned needle work and knitting as a child. She carried on with these skills throughout her life and taught Anne how to knit at the age of 3. Knitting came easy for Anne. With a visual mind that thinks in three dimensions, she has always had an interest in how things are made – figuring things out by taking them apart and putting them back together again.
Anne grew up in Lower Merion,
Pennsylvania, and as a teenager in the 1970’s, she was heavily influenced by
the Punk Rock Movement – not only by the music and fashion, but also by the
ideology. DIY was the battle cry of punk rock. Self-reliance, independence and
non-conformity were the name of the game. Punk rock groups booked their own
venues, silk screened their own posters and taught themselves how to play the
guitar (after all, you only need to know 3 chords to be in a band.)
South Street was the center of the Philly Punk scene. As a young adult and teenager, Anne would ride Septa into Philadelphia to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the TLA at midnight, shop at the punk rock retailer, Zipperhead, and see her favorite bands – The Ramones, Blondie and Joan Jett and the Runaways – at all-age shows. Punk Rock was anathema to the conservative Reagan-era and reflected Anne’s liberal world-view. She was drawn to its DIY attitude and her English ancestry (her mother is 1st generation American and her father’s family traces back to the English statesman, William Cecil) manifested itself in an affinity for punk.
Anne went to college at Drexel in the early 1980’s where she studied Design & Merchandising. She became a hat maker, a web designer and ultimately, a professor and program director of D&M at the Westphal College of Art and Design at Drexel. Anne frequently travels to the UK – to teach, to see friends and to visit family haunts. In the summer of 2014, while in London, she enrolled in a shoe making workshop at Prescott & Mackay Shoe Making School where she learned how to make sandals from component parts using the cement construction method. (If you are interested in learning more about this type of shoe construction, watch this fascinating video).
In 2015, she was awarded a Westphal Faculty Development Grant. She used the grant money to attend an intensive, 7-day fashion pump-making course in Ashland, Oregon. For further practice, she combined a favored handbag and rescued shoe components into a new sandal. (pictured)
The following year, she attended a national shoe symposium, where she not only met small batch suppliers who would sell materials to businesses as small as hers’ but also, where she discovered a basket of vintage shoe lasts (a mechanical form in the shape of a human foot). Included in this basket, was a size 7 last (Anne’s size) from the 1980’s. (below)
Inspired by the retro last, Anne decided to make a pair of mules. As she wore the metallic orange stunners, people stopped her on the street to ask, “Where can I get those shoes?” Anne realized that there was a desire for this show-stopper shoe. Not only was it gorgeous, but it was incredibly comfortable, made entirely from hand and built to fit your foot. From her friend and owner of the site Shoedo.com, Georgine Kim, she was able to secure the complete size range of this last and on July 1, 2017, Roxannelava was launched.
As a small hand-made brand, Roxannelava embodies the punk tenet of individualism. As Joe Strummer said, “I will always believe in Punk Rock, because it is about creating something for yourself.”
Anne is concerned with social and environmental issues such as sustainability; she uses excess furniture ends from a local furniture maker to construct many of her shoes. And she believes in animal rights: if you are going to kill an animal to make a pair of shoes, then use all of the animal’s hide, even the imperfect parts.
There is beauty and visual interest
in leather that contains scars, wrinkles and veins, just as there is something
raw, elemental and true about punk rock music. Punk fashion featured imperfect
clothes – torn, cut, and held together by safety pins and duct tape.
Construction and the bones of a garment were not disguised by expert sewing and
hidden seams; rather they were highlighted. With flaws, mistakes and
imperfections, comes authenticity. And authenticity is valued above all else in
punk rock. Anne Cecil’s Roxannelava shoes are authentic and painstakingly
made by hand, using materials that revel in their imperfections.
According to Joey Ramone “punk is
about real feelings. It’s not about, ‘yeah, I am a punk and I’m angry.’ … It’s
about loving the things that really matter: passion, heart and soul.” There is
a lot of passion, heart and soul in Roxannelava shoes. That is for sure.
My February Ladies who Launch profile is Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes of MKC Photography. MKC Photography is an “eco-friendly, hand-made home décor company” that creates its wares by combining original photography with salvaged wood and paper.
Although Michelle didn’t major in photography in college – she was an English Lit major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA – she has always had an interest in photography and enjoyed taking photographs as a hobbyist. Her father, a Vietnam veteran and an amateur photographer, took his 35 mm camera to war with him. However, instead of photographing the gritty scenes typical of war, he was drawn to more contemplative subjects – like ducklings swimming in a soldier’s helmet. One can see his interest in the poetic reflected in the themes of Michelle’s work.
It was in grad school, that Michelle’s interest in photography grew from hobby to vocation. She was completing her Masters Degree in Women’s Studies at Oxford University when she began working with a cancer researcher, developing slides of cancer cells. It was there that she first worked in a darkroom and learned the technique of “burning and dodging”.
When she graduated from university, she came back to the US and began working in Swarthmore College’s Peace Collection – a research library whose mission is to “gather, preserve and make accessible material that documents non-governmental efforts for nonviolent social change, disarmament, and conflict resolution…”
Michelle worked in their technology and photography department. There, she studied the black and white photographs that comprised the collection and her love for the dreamy quality of early imperfect black and white photography blossomed. These images became imprinted on her brain and her own photos began to reflect the feel of these antique prints when she retrofitted her digital camera with a vintage 2 ¼” camera lens. The technical limitations of this vintage lens allowed her to create images that had the look and feel of early 20th century photography, with their square format and vignette edges.
At the start of her photography career, Michelle considered herself primarily a fine artist – solely creating fine art prints. But as she began to show her work more and more at local craft shows and exhibitions, she heard the same objections over and over: “I don’t have room”, “I’m not sure if so and so would like it”, “How would I frame it?” Like any good entrepreneur, Michelle listened to the market and pivoted. She began producing her prints in smaller sizes which lowered their price point and she mounted them on reclaimed-wood so they no longer required framing. She also began using pages from old, damaged library books that she had collected over the years as a backdrop for her photos – accentuating the vintage feel of her prints and appealing to the nostalgia that people in the age of Kindles and Nooks feel for the printed word. The library book pages and the physicality of the salvaged wood made her work more tangible. Potential buyers could pick it up and hold it in their hands – feel its weight and imagine themselves wrapping and giving it as a gift.
This new strategy increased the commercial viability of Michelle’s work (and her sales) and today, her work is sold in 60+ retail outlets across the United States and is also available online.
I can’t talk about Michelle’s work without addressing the elephant in the room – Instagram!
I heard a segment, recently, of the podcast “How I Built This”. The moderator, Guy Raz, was interviewing the founders of Instagram – Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Systrom was telling Guy about the “aha” moment that catapulted Instagram into the mainstream. The story goes that he asked his future wife why she wasn’t posting her photos on his new photo-sharing app. She replied that they weren’t good enough to post. Now, if they were as good as their professional photographer friend so and so, she would post all the time!Aha! Instagram added a menu of digital filters which allowed even the most-inept amateur to create share-worthy photographs.
This story was driven home yesterday as I was commuting on the train. Two college-age girls were sitting across the aisle from me. I could clearly see one of the girls as she scrolled through the pictures on her cell phone. She had what seemed like hundreds (I am not exaggerating) of selfies of her and her friend, each edited differently using Instagram filters. From where I sat, her photos looked like they were taken by a professional photographer. But no professional photographer was necessary! Just a cell phone, selfie stick and Instagram. (I wasn’t going to mention how judgmental I was in that moment, but really! How many self-gratuitous selfies does one need?)
I had to ask Michelle: did the advent of Instagram and the ease with which literally anyone can create share-worthy photos cause prospective buyers to devalue her work? Her reply:
“Instagram has taught everyone that any photograph that seems dreamy or creative must be the result of just slapping a filter on that baby and calling it done. I love it when buyers ask me to answer their most typical question: ‘What kind of filters do you use on your photographs?’ I love being able to explain how my work isn’t the result of filters at all…I adore seeing the look of surprise/genuine interest that invariably comes over someone when we talk about digital photography, collage, and the antique lenses I’ve adapted and continue to use – it’s tremendously gratifying.”
When Michelle first began shooting photos, Instagram wasn’t invented. But the world is ever-evolving; new technologies are constantly being invented that make almost anything seem impossibly easy and make us question the relevancy of artists and craftspeople. Michelle’s ability to look objectively and dispassionately at Instagram’s effect on photography and to listen to the needs of the market is what will allow MKC Photography to remain relevant.
Michelle’s work will be included in the MamaCita Biennial Exhibition “Process”, opening this Sunday, February 10th with a reception from 2 – 4 at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Road, in Cheltenham. The exhibition runs until March 6. (www.cheltenhamarts.org).