Making clothes that make neighbors

5


How a Kent State student from Doylestown abandoned her dream-come-true in New York City and found her purpose in North Hill starting a fashion company with members of Akron’s refugee community.

Tessa Reeves is a morning person, someone who dreams big and wakes up smiling, as if the rising sun has hand-delivered 24 hours of opportunity to put her seemingly endless optimism to good use.

neighbors shirt market path
A Neighbors shirt hangs in the storefront at Market Path in Highland Square.

It shows, even as the afternoon creeps closer to evening with a full day of work behind her and more still ahead. She sits in a sliver of borrowed space off the side of a repurposed church building in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. A closet of cloth, clothing and accoutrements; a couple boxes of shirts; a folding table for folding merchandise and a sewing machine in the corner. As a movie starts behind the swinging doors, kids in the after-school program filter into place among the pews, bouncing echoes of their laughter around the auditorium, which is still set up for worship service. A volunteer peeks in for something, finding instead what is—at least for now—Neighbors Apparel. And Tessa is, indeed, still happy.

But one morning a couple of years ago, she struggled to get out of her bed in New York City, dreading the moment she would again have to walk through the doors at Vogue, that Conde’ Nast flagship with more than 11 million copies in worldwide distribution every issue.

She’d found her calling, she thought, as she made a high school presentation on fashion in “The Great Gatsby” and followed it to Kent State, interning at Elle and then Vogue. Each opportunity was a bridge built from Doylestown, Ohio to New York. This was the dream: fashion, journalism and the Big Apple.

“It was the opposite of what everyone was doing,” Tessa says. “It was the opposite of what I grew up in. So it was very attractive to me.”

That is, it was “radically different,” which is important because being radically different is important to Tessa. The mantra stems from her faith, which is central to her life, even though she wears it subtly. As such, she doesn’t shun the term Christian but says she prefers “Christ-follower” because it’s more descriptive of her behavior than merely of her religious orientation. More walk the walk than talk the talk, she’s focused on following the radical mission Jesus laid out in the charge to love our neighbors as ourselves. In Akron, she rediscovered the power in those words.

Ka Naw sewing orders. Tessa says she knows her partner has a wicked sense of humor because Ka Naw often laughing at her mistakes.
Tessa says she knows her partner has a wicked sense of humor because Ka Naw is often laughing at her mistakes.

Neighbors Apparel has no full-time employees, just co-founders: Tessa; Rodney Matthews, who leads Urban Vision, which houses the company; and Ka Naw, a talented Karen seamstress refugeed from Burma and now living in North Hill. She speaks only a bit of English and works the overnight shift on a cleaning crew, squeezing in a few late morning hours for Neighbors in the hopes it’ll one day sustain her.

That’s the whole point. Asked about the mission of Neighbors Apparel, Tessa says it’s to create employment opportunities for refugee women. Not to make the most fashionable, trendiest, most sought-after clothes on the market. It’s to create employment opportunities for refugee women.

Before heading to New York, Tessa grappled with—and eventually courted—the apparent contradiction between being devout and entering an industry predicated largely on evangelizing materialism. She crafted a vision of herself as a writer and editor whose bone-deep joy and kindness could provoke conversations with people who wonder why she’s so different. That’s when she’d get to tell them about her faith. Her plan remained intact throughout the Elle internship.

Walking through the doors, she thought, “Oh golly. This is like a dream, and it just came true. Oh, okay. Dreams can come true.” It wasn’t perfect but she left with a standing job offer after graduation. Still, she wanted more.

“I felt like it would be silly to go home and finish out a senior year,” she says.

That’s when she landed at Vogue. That’s when something changed.

“My first week there, I literally hated my life.”

She didn’t have a case of nerves. She wasn’t suffering from stress induced by the fast-paced, demanding environment. In some strange way, she enjoyed that “Devil Wears Prada” atmosphere. The problem ran much deeper and only emerged in full when she fast-forwarded to her death bed.

“I looked at myself in the industry and I didn’t look radically different than anyone else,” she says. “I realized something needs to stop; something needs to change. I want to do more with my life than tell people what clothes to wear.”

She ended up in a Starbucks reading and rereading her resignation letter to Vogue. With her cursor hovering over “send,” she thought she was as done with fashion as she was the career she’d spent four years building. Tessa was returning to northeast Ohio to wander in the wilderness for a while.

Neighbors wasn’t even a twinkle in her eye.

Looking for a way to feel useful again, she volunteered in Urban Vision’s after-school program and soon started pondering how she could make a living doing good work.

One day Rodney wanted to meet with her, but she didn’t know why. They’d never even had a conversation before. That’s when she says he suggested starting a small fashion line. The ministry had long considered serving as a sort of neighborhood business incubator and this would be their chance.

dae evans at market path
Dae Evans, manager at Market Path, says she’s excited to have Neighbors in their shop.

It took about a year from that conversation to this past July for the idea mature into a company but now that it has, Neighbors is gaining momentum. As often as she can, Tessa has sold Neighbors merchandise at area shows and parties. Local boutiques and shops are carrying their clothes. Market Path in Highland Square, which prides itself on fair trade stock, placed its second order and NOTO in downtown Akron had just picked up their first.

Neighbors may aspire to become a job creator—and appears to be on its way—but it’s already good at offering a clever answer to the old question, “Who is my neighbor?”

The company makes clothing and accessories hand-sewn from cloth woven by Karen (pronounced Ka-rin) women. Each shirt and bag embodies a story of the people who made it, and with that story, a connection from one culture to another. In that way, transactions don’t take place between creators and customers but neighbors.

“I’m getting to radically love people through something as silly as clothes,” Tessa says, grinning.

She says they want to duplicate this operation elsewhere in the refugee community, offer free training for seamstresses and recruit ESL volunteers. It’s just a matter of gathering steam—and perhaps whether they can find investors more interested in supporting the cause than getting their money back at high interest.

Either way, Tessa is right where she wants to be.

“For a long time, I wanted to leave Ohio,” she says, “but now, why would I leave Akron? What else would I want to give my life to?”

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