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The Vision and Story Behind SA VA's Growing Success

Sarah Van Aken bucked the trend and moved her entire clothing business stateside--and it’s paying off.

  • By Jordan Shapiro
  • June 13, 2013

Photo courtesy of Sarah Van Aken

When Sarah Van Aken started her Philadelphia-based women's apparel company SA VA Fashion and Accessories six years ago, she did what clothing retailers from Gap and Target to JCPenney have done to cut costs: She outsourced production to Bangladash. By the end of her first year, she figures she'd spent at least nine weeks on the other side of the globe working with the folks who manufactured her fashion designs. The visits led to more than just jet lag. 

In 2008, after a week of 4 a.m. phone calls with South East Asia, she knew she had to make a change. "Between the aggravation, the carbon footprint, and the tariffs, I just couldn’t deal with it anymore." Not only did she move all of her manufacturing stateside, she focused on creating a business that aligned completely with her core social values of community and sustainability.

It's paid off. SA VA's design, manufacturing, and retail operations -- all based in Philadelphia -- brought in more than $500,000 in gross revenue in 2012, and sales are up 15% this year. Van Aken says she expects "substantially more growth" in the coming months. Pretty impressive for a six-year-old, "socially driven" brand.

We talked to her about how she did it and the challenge of maintaining her social ideals while running a successful fashion business.

DailyWorth: How did you get into the fashion business?

I had the dream--no, the calling--to be a fashion designer. However, that career turned out to be nothing like what I thought it would be. Right out of college I worked for a wholesaler that made knock-off designer jeans for big box retailers. That tired me out. Fashion seems so glamorous, but really it's pretty schleppy. After that, to pay the bills, I worked as a restaurant manager for a few years and eventually quit that too. Ironically, the two trajectories eventually came together. A good portion of my business is still designing and manufacturing restaurant uniforms.  

How did your experience affect the way you view and run your business?

I'm no longer driven by ego or glamour. Instead, I converted my business model to be built on social sustainability. It turns out that the apparel industry is one of the largest polluters of the environment in the world and that there are over 200 million people working in enslaved labor conditions. That kind of killed the illusion. I had no choice but to transition my company in a direction more aligned with my personal values by manufacturing locally and sourcing organic and recycled materials.

Does social sustainability come first at SA VA?

Yes, but not in terms of branding. We believe the SA VA brand needs to be fashion first and foremost. So, from a product standpoint, the social mission is just added value. We want women to look and feel great in SA VA while simultaneously doing something good.

On the business side it is not so simple. We start with people, creating local jobs and reducing our carbon footprint by manufacturing in Philadelphia. [SA VA employs nine.] Then we use responsibly sourced textiles--organic and recycled, if we can get them. At times, we've used really creative upcycling. In 2012, for example, we sold trench coats made from banners that the Philadelphia Museum of Art had used to advertise the Roberto Capucci exhibit.

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