Entrepreneur has designs on boosting Denver/Aurora fashion industry

Paris. Milan. New York. Los Angeles: all fashion hot spots. Could Aurora be an up-and-comer on the scene?

That’s a serious question to Skye Barker Maa and Lisa Ramfjord Elstun. The women come from different backgrounds and experiences, but they found each other through their mutual passion for fashion. They’re now building a business designed to help Colorado’s designers on their paths to success.

The women hope Barker Maa’s Small Batch Manufacturing in Aurora will provide new and emerging local designers the opportunity to grow their businesses and create full-time jobs for the professionals who sew the clothes displayed on the racks and the runways.

The key is in the name: “Small Batch.” Designers can work with local seamstresses and tailors to get what they need without having to put in a huge order.

“You go to (Los Angeles) and they go, ‘Well, we don’t do less than 100. We don’t do less than 400.’ You can come to us and we’ll literally do five,” Barker Maa said. “The designers don’t quite know what’s going to sell and what’s not going to sell. They really need small samples of what they’re doing in order to get their feet wet and be profitable.”

Darlene Ritz is creative director and founder of DCR Studios. The Denver designer is one of Small Batch Manufacturing’s first clients, working with them on clothes she plans to take to an event in Paris.

“I can’t produce the 500 pieces that’s required for me to do production anywhere else,” Ritz said. “Working with a small-lot manufacturer like Skye and Lisa gives me the opportunity to produce 50 pieces of a specific garment and see how well that sells.”

Ramfjord Elstun, founder of the Fashion Design Center in Denver and a co-founder of the Denver Design Incubator, said the idea of having a place that will produce small runs “has been kicked around for a while.” Although there are professional sewers who work with Colorado designers, Ramfjord Elston wants to expand options for designers. And the consultant wants to help develop the skills of Barker Maa’s staff.

“That’s why I’m lingering here after getting all the infrastructure set up,” Ramfjord Elstun said. “I want to raise the skill level of this group and teach the couture-type skill set so that we can be on the rack with Parisian designers and Milan designers.

“It’s the technical skills of whoever is sewing the garments that really brings the designer’s ideas to life,” she added.

Designing a dream

The first five people hired to sew the garments gathered for their second day of work last week. For now, their workshop is tucked into a part of a building that houses Factory Five Five, an arts organization started by Barker Maa.

After Labor Day, the employees will move into a large space in the nearby Stanley Marketplace, where Barker Maa runs Factory Fashion, a design workshop and sewing school.

Barker Maa, who has worked in politics, marketing and advertising, started a music school in 2012. Last week, she announced the sale of the business, Neighborhood Music School, to streamline her operations as she prepares for the official kick-off of Small Batch Manufacturing.

Barker Maa said one of her goals in starting the new business was to offer full-time jobs with benefits and the opportunity for employees to work on their own designs.

“There is concern about how the sewers work and how they’re treated and the environment that they’re in because historically it’s not been good,” Barker Maa said.

Barker Maa and Ramfjord Elstun said they are determined to create high-quality products while promoting a workplace that is enjoyable. They were ready to provide on-the-job training for talented beginners, but found people with a variety of experience.

One of the new workers is longtime tailor Najibullah Dawrankhil, an Afghan refugee who worked with the U.S. military for several years in his home country. “This is perfect,” said Ramfjord Elstun, holding up a shirt he made.

Dawrankhil is deaf and mute. His wife communicates with him through sign language and will be with him at work. The tailor signed to his wife, who told interpreter Binazira Arman that her husband is excited to work on a lot of different styles and clothes.

Small Batch Manufacturing is a chance for Heidi Bowden to return to fashion. After earning a degree in the field, she worked for the Colorado Ballet and most recently for a body-armor company where she used heavy-duty sewing machines.

“I learned a lot about Kevlar,” Bowden said.

People with similar backgrounds are sewing backpacks or awnings, Barker Maa said. “They’re designers by trade and want to be sewing couture and want to be sewing for other designers, but the jobs that have been available have been outdoor gear or car seats or mattresses.

“Being able to bring them back to what they really like to do within the industry makes sense,” Barker Maa added.

Without formal training or a degree, Angelica “Geli” Hayes had trouble getting sewing jobs. She taught herself to sew and designed pieces for two shows.

“Skye is one of the first to just open her doors and be like, ‘Come as you are, come with what you know and we’ll work on that,’ ” Hayes said.

The job with Small Batch will be Karla Palma’s first one sewing apparel. Palma attended Colorado State University and has been sewing professionally for about six years while designing on the side.

“I love how diverse we all are and have different backgrounds,” Palma said. “It’s going to be really good, not only for us but the company as a whole.”

Malik Phillips underwent a kind of hands-on audition for the position. He got to know Ramfjord Elstun through a class he took at Factory Fashion. “I guess she saw my passion,” the 21-year-old said.

The staff is expected to keep growing, with possibly two more onboard soon. The team has projects lined up and will get busier as the fall edition of Denver Fashion Week, Nov. 12-20, approaches. Latin Fashion Week in Denver opens Sept. 23.

“We’re the set-up team, making sure we can get the ball rolling and have everything in place before we start adding more to our family,” Bowden said.

Made in Colorado

Besides giving independent designers more flexibility, Small Batch is more accessible, said Ritz of DCR Studios. She can visit with the team about her pieces and can see the working conditions firsthand.

“I insist on being sustainable and ethical. I’m not willing to have my things produced in sweatshops,” Ritz said.

When Ritz has items produced overseas, she said she makes sure the manufacturers are certified for meeting certain workplace and environmental requirements.

Ramfjord Elstun said some of her clients over the years have wanted more local manufacturing choices because they want a made-in-Colorado label on their work.

Jordan Stratton, owner of Colorado-based Stratton Robe Co., said in a statement that it’s a matter of quality, being close to where the clothes are produced and knowing you’re working with the right people. “Why would I have something made in China if I can get it done here?”

Locally produced clothes help designers avoid some of the supply-chain disruptions that have grown during the pandemic, Ritz said. Leftover materials can be used for other items instead of winding up in landfills.

More home-grown options for designers will also invigorate the growing fashion community, Ritz said. After getting her fashion degree, Ritz, who grew up in Denver, worked in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Toronto.

“What was really great about coming back to this community was seeing how much the creative arts and creative industries had grown in the 20 years I was gone and how much vibrancy there was,” Ritz said. “We getting to see more of the things we wouldn’t get to see in the big markets.”

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