MADE Studio founder Rachel Ford took her love for design and penchant for problem solving to breathe new life into a local manufacturing industry on the brink of extinction. Read on to find out how she got her start, and how she marries sewing - traditionally a woman’s job and not always the best job - with empowering women to become entrepreneurs and to self-sustain.Interview & photos by Corinne Warnshuis.
What’s your background and how did the idea for MADE Studio come about?
I started teaching private sewing classes out of my home, which was a big live-work studio about a year-and-a-half ago.
After I finished at Drexel University for Fashion Design, I was a designer at Free People for about a year, and that was incredible - to see my designs on people walking down the street. I loved Free People; I still do - their aesthetic and everything. What I did not love was the fact that I was emailing China and India all day everyday, that’s all I did. Any creativity had to happen after work at night at my home. And so I decided it was not really for me.
I started working at the Philadelphia Opera and I have been working there [making costumes] for 8 years. I also taught sewing at Moore College. The idea for MADE came about when I was teaching advanced sewing at Moore because a common request was for what comes next after the advanced class was finished.
So I had all of these masters at the Opera teaching me all of these incredible skills that are dying - I mean really, no one knows them anymore. The level that we make things there is as high as it gets; it’s on the level of French Couturier. And so after students at Moore would get their Continuing Ed certificates, I started offering, “Well, I can teach you how to make a corset.”
Awesome, and it grew from there?
Yeah! And I was like “Oh my gosh, people want to pay me for this?” And then it started getting more and more popular. I started with five students, and then it became something where people then requested “Well, can you get me started?” People wanted to learn to sew from the beginning, so eventually I started up the Introductory Sewing class.
Introductory Sewing changed everything. There are so many people who want to learn how to sew. And as it turns out, teaching introductory sewing is way harder than teaching any other sewing. It’s teaching a language. There’s a lot of frustration out of students at first. The growth is so exponential, that you’re holding a lot of responsibility in your hands as their teacher, which I take very seriously.
What makes MADE stand out from other programs?
A big part of what I think is different about MADE from other schools that I’ve either gone to or worked at, is that we really, really care about the end result for students: What are their goals and how can we get them there? It’s not just 'You’ve taken this class. Here’s a piece of paper. Goodbye.'
So what we don’t offer as far as a certificate, we do offer in real-world connections. I’d love for this place to be a hub. Everyone here has different 9-to-5’s but we all have a whole lot in common, so we can kind of help each other out in different ways, connect each other in different ways and usually collaborations just happen. If you are a designer here in Philly, you can stay here and keep things manufactured here.
Tell us about the Burmese Women’s Initiative.
A PhD student in social work, Jessica Lee, approached me with the Burmese Women’s Initiative, her thesis project. Her whole approach with the Women’s Way grant that she received was that she wanted to ask the community what they wanted. And when asked, this group of 200 Burmese women said that they wanted to learn to sew. So she found me to fulfill that request. When she asked me if I would to do it, maybe if it were a couple years ago, I probably would have said “Oh gosh, I don’t have time for that,” but what I was noticing this need building for so many designers here.
And the people who are paying for classes here [at MADE] are not the same people who need jobs. To be able to afford classes here, you would need a job. So when I would get these designers in, the idea was that we could be full-circle here: we can hire people that have learned to sew and they can get job placement, and that way my design students can have an end destination. But that wasn’t really what people were interested in.
So we were missing that link: who was going to be the workforce? Who wanted these jobs? And then cut to: these Burmese women. They’re refugees, so they’re legal to work, they are treated like any other citizen in terms of health care, etc. So for me, I was able to create a short curriculum to get them from not knowing how to sew at all to perhaps being able to manufacture.
When did that program start? And what are your hopes for it?
It started in January. We just finished our 8-week course and got through Introductory Sewing. We had 50 women and 25 machines, sewing out of a pastor’s living room in deep South Philly, where this community lives.
They’re a very tight-knit group of people; they help each other out. Many of them have small children that they wear on their back while sewing, which is such an inspiration as far as just all that they take on, but how excited they are to learn this new craft. Not all of them want jobs out of it, some of them just want to be out socially.
Being a woman born in this country and given every opportunity ever, you realize how lucky we are.
It’s truly an inspiration, you know? There’s nothing we can’t do here: we can own businesses, we can do anything. So to instill that kind of thinking in their world has been so exciting.
How new are these women to the U.S.?
Some of them got here less than a year ago; some have been here 10 years. Right now, the United States is currently granting them refugee status, so they’re continuing to come.
I think that this first go-round is going to be a great pilot. This program could be planted in any community and it would work. But we’re just beginning. So the next phase is going to give them Intermediate Sewing where we’ll get into 3D garment making.
Is it just you teaching the women now?
It is, but there are a lot of people interested in helping out. They don’t know any English, so that’s a challenge. I can’t be as conversational as I usually am teaching, and so I find myself doing a lot of crazy sign-language/not sign-language and sounds. And we have a translator.
I asked the women who was interested in a job and sewing work, and almost every hand went up. So the idea now is that after they’ve taken a certain amount of classes, they get a sewing machine to take home.
Would they be self-employed?
That’s the idea! They could be sole proprietors. So we would perhaps have lawyers come and set them up legally, accountants come out yearly and have their income taxes filed so that everything about this is legit. And working out of their homes is not disrupting their family unit, which is very important to them.
You’re working at the Opera and you’re a small business owner. How do you manage it all?
It is hard to juggle all of those things, but my boss at the Opera, Millie Hiibel is so awesome and flexible with me. I do a lot of the work at MADE.
I even take on some design work; we’ve been doing some product design work here. So I can introduce my students to lawyers that can help them brand; I can introduce them to sample makers that can help them get their collection started, and get them into factories that can produce their work.
Talk more about what MADE does beyond teaching classes.
We are not selling students the idea that they are going to get a job at Urban Outfitters because they have a certificate. Because that’s not true.
And there’s a level of care here. And that is truly me here everyday with the students, encouraging them on a very personal level. And I do have connections that are local. I’m not sending them to these giant connections in New York. That’s not where I’m sending people; I’m really encouraging them to stay local and build something here.
This place has a breath of entrepreneurial energy. That’s who I am and I think I like to encourage that in others. It’s so what our economy needs right now. It’s an answer for people who are looking for jobs: you kind of have to create your own. And that’s very do-able. I learned it firsthand just recently.
Who has inspired you on your journey?
Firstly, I think Richard Sinclair, not only for giving me a job at the Opera, but he has always had a vibe of opening up his arms to anybody that is excited and he can see talent in people where others might not.
So the inclusive aspect as opposed to the exclusion that is so common in fashion - you know, you’re in or you’re out, you’re cool or you’re not - none of that applies here. We’re here for bonding and coming together, and I think I learned that from Richard.
All of my mentors at the Opera...Nell Unrath was a huge part of believing in me and teaching me, where most people would have said “You’re here to work, you’re not here to learn, hit the road, sister,” she really mentored me and got me where I am today. She’s the reason I’m a cutter at the Opera.
Being in Old City, right around the corner from the Betsy Ross house, do you have any historical inspiration?
Totally! I don’t want to be too cheesy with it, but you can feel in these old buildings that used to be factories - you can really feel on the cobblestones and in the walls - a breath of how things began in this country, and it was right here.
In a grander way, the American way has always been about big dreams and hard work. And we haven’t changed, I just think that we lost control of our own destiny our own work ability. And so learning a craft actually restores that security because: we’re always going to need clothes and fashion is not going away anytime soon. So I feel like its a very secure skill to learn.
I just feel like I’m in the right place to be doing this right now. There’s so much room for possibility. You can afford to live as an artist here still. It’s not New York; Philly is what’s up right now. I think for us right now, all being young people in this moment - we’re in the middle of a total social revolution, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.
That’s exciting. What you’re doing is marrying sewing - which has traditionally been a woman’s job and not always the best job - with empowering women to become entrepreneurs and to self-sustain. When you got into fashion, was that a consideration?
Not at all. When I was in fashion school, it was “Oh you don’t want to be a seamstress, you want to be a designer,” and that was just the mentality. I really enjoyed sewing, but I always assumed I’d be outsourcing and finding other people to do it. I didn’t even think that far ahead, because nobody was talking about manufacturing. Everybody was just talking about designing, drawing pretty pictures and getting a job in New York.
It wasn’t until I started working at the Opera that I learned about the level of respect that should be attached to that craft. And I felt like I could finally feel a sense of pride about that skill, and I really loved it.
What is the thing that gets you out of bed? What excites you the most about your work?
Well theres big scale and theres small scale. The small scale is my students going from having no idea how to sew to loving it and becoming really good at it. It’s that lightbulb moment that I live for. And I never thought I was going to be a teacher, so I had no idea I was going to love that part of life, but I do.
But then I think big scale is that I can really see a clear path to what needs to change and I see how possible it is. And it’s not going to take much: it’s going to take some money, but not a lot. It’s going to take some care and energy, and we’ve got a lot of that and it’s free.
And I think that’s what I’m most excited about - the ability to bring back clothing manufacturing and create jobs here in Philly.
What advice would you give to women who are trying to start something? What advice do you wish that you heard when you were starting MADE?
Work within your means. Work with whatcha got. You don’t have to rush and get a loan; you don’t have to borrow money.
Every time a student signed up for a class, I bought a sewing machine. I bought a dress form when someone signed up for Evening Wear. I just started accumulating my assets...slowly. I wasn’t Miss Thang right away.
I lived and worked in the same place, which really worked out. And also: have a level of confidence in your instincts. I think women have beautiful instincts that we can really focus and be incredible business minds. I think we’re problem solvers; I think we’re patient; we’re forgiving and we know when our gut is telling us something. So follow your instincts for sure.
And probably if you’re going to start a business, do something you really love, because it’s going to be your whole life.
Don’t worry about the money, it will come. It will be a result of you working very hard toward your goals.