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When fashion designer Lisa Iacono arrived in New Orleans last May to work in Suzanne Perron's design room, she was eager to launch her own line. She'd worked in New York's fashion industry for five years designing for American Eagle and Betsey Johnson, and she had her own vision for the polished, menswear-inspired pieces that would bear her name. But her efforts to launch her label were stymied by a lack of local production facilities.
"I looked for (local) manufacturing, and I came up with nothing," Iacono says. "I just wanted to have one style made. So I managed to contact one of the people who used to own a sewing factory. He said, 'Get in touch with Tam. She's the best person I ever worked with.'"
Tam Huynh had worked for 22 years for Kenneth Gordon, a menswear factory in Elmwood that produced garments for clients like Brooks Brothers and Burberry. She started as a seamstress and was quickly promoted to a manager position. Under Huynh's leadership, the factory grew from 40 to nearly 450 employees. But when the factory was sold and relocated to Pennsylvania following Hurricane Katrina, Huynh found herself — and the talented seamstresses with whom she'd worked for decades — with an empty spindle.
"I had people who wanted to sew," Huynh says. "Lisa knew designers who had a high demand for sewing. I said, 'Let's do something. If we can't make this work, shame on us.'"
Huynh and Iacono started manufacturing Iacono's eponymous line from a mechanic's garage on the West Bank owned by Huynh's brother. "The product was coming out beautifully," Iacono says. "Other designers started to ask us, 'How are you getting your stuff made in New Orleans? I thought that was impossible.'"
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Word of mouth spread, and Nola Sewn (2101 Eighth St., Suite B, Harvey; www.nolasewn.com) grew exponentially, from two or three clients to 20, employing a rotating roster of 10 to 20 seamstresses. In January, Huynh and Iacono relocated from the garage to an airy facility that has an office, a salon for fittings and a sewing room. Though Nola Sewn currently occupies 1,200 of the building's available 4,000 square feet, Iacono says plans to expand are already underway.
"We're excited to fill a piece of the puzzle that has been missing in the New Orleans fashion industry for a while," Iacono says. "We do sampling for designers — some are getting started, some are more established. We have custom jobs — brides and Mardi Gras customers, retailers — and we don't have order minimums."
Molly Stackhouse, a New Orleans designer and a graduate of LSU's fashion program, recently designed her first collection for production with Nola Sewn. "It's just going to be better if it's made here," she says. "It supports the city, and it's just ethical. Lisa and Tam have really helped me, and their company is growing every day. I wouldn't be able to have a business here without that. I could go somewhere else, but it's great having them here. And they do really good work."
For Huynh, who escaped from Vietnam by boat at age 16 following the fall of Saigon and her grandfather's public execution, the opportunity to give back to the community and to employ many first-generation Vietnamese seamstresses is a blessing, she says. Long before she employed them in her factory, Huynh was assisting her countrymen by translating for them during trips to buy appliances or apply for food stamps. "I spent a lot of time finding jobs for people (after Kenneth Gordon closed)," Huynh says. "I feel like I owe them a lot."
"The same thing (you did when you first came to the U.S.) applies to what you do here — helping your community," Iacono says to Huynh. "Connecting people — it's your calling."
Huynh defers Iacono's praise to the fashion community that has nurtured Nola Sewn. "(New Orleans) is very supportive," Huynh says. "All our cutting tables used to belong to Kenneth Gordon. The factory (RSI Global) gave them to me for free."
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"People have come out of the woodwork to help," Iacono says. "There's so many talented people in New Orleans who should have a way to make their products come to life and get them to consumers. And we have people sewing who are so incredibly skilled. It's very humbling to give them the opportunity to showcase their skill."