Business in brief: Sew Co. joins the RAD family

In the early 2000s, Libby O’Bryan stayed busy doing domestic production management for fashion industry clients in New York and Chicago. But before long, she began seeing numerous factories shut down and brands take their work overseas.

“I started to think about what that meant in terms of skill survival and how people’s jobs and their skills weren’t being valued anymore in our domestic manufacturing economy,” she says.

After taking some time off and attending The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, O’Bryan decided to start a cut-and-sew factory to help fill those industry voids with jobs that people could be proud of and where creativity was encouraged. She soon found a like-minded partner in The Oriole Mill in Hendersonville and launched Sew Co. (pronounced “SoCo”) within its walls in 2010.

The mill shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Sew Co. remained on-site and shifted its focus to personal protective equipment. In spring and summer 2020, the company produced masks for Weaverville-based Echoview Fiber Mill and 1,000 gowns a week for the state of North Carolina.

During that time, O’Bryan was also in search of a new home for her business, preferably in Asheville, and found a space in the River Arts District at 240 Clingman Ave. Ext. After three months of renovation work in summer 2021, Sew Co. received its certificate of occupancy in October.

“Most of our crew was living in Asheville, but we were traveling to Hendersonville. We were straddling these two communities and not really digging in to either of them. And then at the mill, we were in kind of an isolated location. We didn’t really have neighbors,” O’Bryan says. “Now, we have this public facing location where we have a lot of artists and neighbors who we love and are connecting with.”

Sew Co.’s team of 20 — 14-15 of whom are sewers — primarily handles contract work, although the space is also home to the company’s in-house brand, Rite of Passage, designed by O’Bryan’s business partner, Giovanni Daina Palermo. Drawing comparisons with the slow food and local food movements, O’Bryan and her colleagues see fashion becoming a consumer-driven market in which people want to know where and how clothing is made to create more meaningful connections. Spurring those changes is an increasingly youthful workforce.

“We have a lot of young sewers under 30 here,” O’Bryan says. “There’s a lot of folks that really want to have that tangible hands-on skill and be physical in their day, not just be behind a screen. That’s been pretty cool to see, too, because for a while there, I was a little panicked that there would be this gap of expertise and skill as that older generation was retiring.”

Sew Co. also follows the methods laid out in The Great Game of Business, which O’Bryan describes as “open-book management to the next level.” At weekly full-staff meetings, the team looks at financial numbers in real time so that all employees know how to read the company’s profit and loss statement and can contribute to generating projections for the month.

“We’re trying to create a culture of agency and ownership within our staff so that they understand how their day-to-day actions affect our numbers — so that then those numbers can go into a profit-sharing model and they can benefit from those numbers,” she explained. “Long-term, it would be amazing if we could be worker-owned and really root that wealth and these jobs here in our community so that they don’t get exported and the people that are actually physically performing this labor with their bones are the people that are getting rewarded for it and have equity in it.”

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Everywhere a sign

Asheville is home to many franchises, but Board & Brush Creative Studio is its first to focus on DIY wood signs and home décor. The 1011 Tunnel Road, Suite 120 studio opened Nov. 20 and is run by Lynette and Todd Stewart, North Carolina natives who returned to their home state after 27 years as a U.S. Army family.

Aspiring craftspeople of all experience levels are welcome to partake in the instructor-led workshops. Power tools, paint and all other materials are supplied by the studio, and new designs are issued on the first of each month — the latest of which feature holiday celebration themes. Each “Pick Your Project” workshop lasts roughly three hours and costs $68, with pre-registration required. Workshop attendance is currently capped at 18 to allow sufficient room to spread out, and all attendees are required to wear a mask.

“Anybody can do it,” says Todd Stewart, who became an unexpected craft convert when Lynette brought him to a workshop at a Board & Brush in Virginia, where they lived prior to Asheville. “You’re not thrown out there on your own, and we lead you step by step. People are surprised at their own talent.”

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Boosted signals

UScellular may no longer be the sponsor of Asheville’s largest indoor performance venue, but the company continues to grow and add employment opportunities. Heading into the holiday season, the fourth-largest wireless carrier in the United States is hiring an additional 27 retail store associates in North Carolina.

“We strive to provide an excellent wireless experience for our Asheville customers, so we need a diverse, motivated and collaborative team of associates to help us deliver on that goal,” says April Taylor, area sales manager for UScellular in Western North Carolina.

Openings are primarily for salespeople, with a focus on selling family and small-business plans. Employees can expect to earn $21-$24 per hour in a combination of hourly pay and commissions when meeting sales targets, and medical and dental insurance, a 401(k), tuition reimbursement and additional incentives are included. All interviews will be conducted virtually in response to concerns over COVID-19.

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