HerLife Magazine's cover story for September 2017 spotlights Jennifer Lapka, founder of Rightfully Sewn. It was such an honor to be featured in the article as well as dress Jennifer in my black and white print dress for the cover!
Read on for the full article.
Jennifer Lapka and Rightfully Sewn: A Cutting Edge Pattern for Fashion Opportunity
by Cindy McDermott
From the designers who create the style of the garment to the seamstresses who construct every seam and dart, many skill sets are required to develop a piece of clothing from beginning to end.
Jennifer Lapka, the founder of Rightfully Sewn, a Kansas City nonprofit, is dedicated to this profession. She sees it as her calling to help others engage in the fashion industry as a way to fully develop the art of creating clothes while strengthening the fabric of this community.
Rightfully Sewn offers a two-prong approach to enhancing the community by providing seamstress training for at-risk women. It also offers fashion designers residencies to learn business strategies, strengthening their ability to run their own companies. Jennifer’s vision is that the two, working in tandem, will reestablish Kansas City as an important hub for garment manufacturing as it was many decades ago. In addition, Rightfully Sewn will assist Kansas City fashion designers in their drive to market so they can meet the demand for high-quality, American-made garments.
The 36-year-old began her journey as a Kansas girl in her hometown of Gorham in the central part of the state. After high school, she went on to attend undergraduate college at Fort Hays State University, majoring in art history. She traveled to Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom for her masters in museum studies. “I thought I would be the director of an art museum at 30,” Jennifer recalled. “The programming has put me in a great place to manage an arts-focused organization.”
Her museum studies master required that she complete an internship. She applied to institutions in Denver and Chicago. “I could have gone to Europe, too, but I wanted to be close to my family and my husband’s family. Then the Kemper Museum said yes to my application. Since 2005 my working path has included Kemper, Nelson-Atkins and then the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. I’ve also worked at the H&R Block Foundation and the Marion and Henry Bloch Foundation.”
Through experience at this string of nonprofits, which included managing projects, volunteers and fundraising, Jennifer’s skills grew. In addition, she was influenced by Henry Bloch and her mentor, Danny O’Neill, owner and founder of The Roasterie. “Given my exposure, I saw fair trade opportunities across the world, but there are women in our own community who could use this kind of hand up,” noted Jennifer. “At the same time, I also produced fashion shows in Kansas City. We have many creative designers in this community. They don’t want to go to the coasts for their business. They want to stay here, but they need local production to make that happen.”
Seeing first-hand the challenge the fashion industry faced in Kansas City, Jennifer began implementing her strategy. In 2015, the pattern for Rightfully Sewn was created and laid out by Jennifer and many dedicated volunteers. “The first year I was speaking to people who teach sewing, business owners who needed to hire seamstresses and leaders from Sheffield Place, a social service agency, to develop the program. “We fundraised and then recruited and started the program. As Mr. O’Neill told me, ‘Start small, struggle and then scale.’ And that’s what we’re doing.”
The strategy of Rightfully Sewn isas multi-faceted as the fabric the students and designers work with. First, the nonprofit is designed to empower at-risk women by teaching them a trade and assisting them with job placement, which moves them out of a problematic situation. “The case managers know the candidates, and we asked them to choose clients who were motivated and had a stable home life,” she asserted. “Their families had to be supportive of their participation, and they had to have an interest in full-time work. Excellent hand and eye coordination was a requirement.”
After rigorous testing and interviews, six candidates were selected for the first class to enter the Rightfully Sewn program in June. Many are immigrants, and they’re hungry to learn a new skill set that will provide for them and their families. Anna, Syria; Liliane, Congo; Sholeh, Iran; Marzia, Afghanistan; Jasmin, America; and Andrescia, America, made up the first class that has now graduated and is working.
“All of the resources for Rightfully Sewn already existed in the community. The social services agencies helped us identify the candidates for the Seamstress Training Program. We partnered with the Women’s Employment Network for soft skills training. Then the students entered a two-month sewing unit taught by Pamela Lucas at Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts. She teaches Paseo high school students fashion design during the school year and our adult Seamstress Training Program during summer break in her classroom using the sewing machines and equipment of the KCMO public school system,” detailed Jennifer. “Once the seamstresses graduate the sewing unit, five businesses take them for two months of on-the-job training apprenticeships.” Jennifer anticipates an 80-percent hire rate for graduates of the Rightfully Sewn program. For those that aren’t hired, the organization will work to place them with another manufacturing partner.
Rightfully Sewn is also focused on cultivating Kansas City fashion designers through competitive, two-year residencies. Every other year, Rightfully Sewn will award residency status to five fashion designers in theKC metro. The first students include Ami Beck, Heidi Herrman, Whitney Manney, Sarah Nelsen, and Kate Nickols. The next call for applications will be January 2018. “We send the resident designers through the Kauffman FastTrac program on a full-ride scholarship to develop their business plans, help them network and connect them to media opportunities and potential clients.”
The agency is also focused on growing at-large programming for the fashion community with access to fabric trade shows, professional development workshops, a speaker series, documentary screenings and more. “At our events, there is networking going on among suppliers, wholesalers, designers, sewn-product manufacturers and many more,” commented Jennifer. “When we bring them together, they learn from each other. It’s all about creating networks for cross pollination and knowledge share, which is so important to grow the industry.”
Jennifer also shared that a 20-person committee is planning Rightfully Sewn’s Golden Gala on Saturday, December 2, at the Grand Hall, 13th and Baltimore, inside the historic Kansas City Power & Light building. “We are positioning it to be Kansas City’s answer to the Met Gala in New York,” Jennifer remarked. “The event is designed to celebrate the graduation of the six seamstresses from our Seamstress Training Program and the five designers from our two-year Fashion Designer Residency program, as well as to raise critical operating dollars for our organization.”
When the fabric has been chosen, the pattern laid out, the pieces cut and the seams sewn together, Jennifer envisions this final garment called Rightfully Sewn to be a leader in the fashion industry, providing inspiration and hope to others in this highly competitive field. “Eventually, we will be in our own building with seamstress training happening throughout the entire year, during the weekday. In the evenings and weekends, the fashion designer residents will be here,” she noted. “The students will have access to all of the sewing machines and other equipment. I see a bigger piece of the pie for our local designers, who will have the ability to create jobs and opportunities for themselves.”
Jennifer’s path in life has been an impressive one with exposure to many learning occasions and knowledgeable community leaders. One might wonder how she keeps everything together and flowing seamlessly. “My trick is to work out every day, which provides me so much energy. I eat very well and I have strong relationships with my friends and family. I’m really focused on my health and the rest comes with it,” she advised. “I encourage women to believe in yourself because there will be naysayers. Just keep going and take care of your health. As an entrepreneur, you can’t just focus only on the business. It’s simply not sustainable.”
At this point, Rightfully Sewn is positioned on the cutting edge of greatness, providing a model that other communities can follow, not only for job training, but also for acceptance and caring for others. “I want people to see that Rightfully Sewn is a wonderful example of inclusiveness, unity and love,” she shared. “There is something really amazing about Kansas City and the many mentors and organizational leaders who are open to talking and collaborating.”
Many may see sewing along the simplistic lines of putting needle and thread to cloth and creating clothing. But Jennifer’s quick to point out that the art of creating garments is a critical economic mainstay for many. “Fashion isn’t frivolous. It’s jobs and it’s opportunities,” she said. “We can create jobs and opportunity through the business of fashion. That’s the mission of Rightfully Sewn.”
Photographer: Heather Morrow of Heather Morrow Photography for Her Life Magazine
Cover Girl: Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer of Rightfully Sewn
Hair: Colleen Quick of Rumors Salon
Makeup: Erica Johson of EMJ Hair Studios
Seamstress Marzia Rasouli
Wardrobe provided by Clique Boutique (green dress, black dress) and Sarah Nelsen (black and white dress)
Shot on location at Elevé Dancewear and Sarah Nelsen Studio