Sa Va Closing: What Went Wrong?

The darling of Philly’s sustainable retail scene shutters her company. What went wrong?

Sa-VaI heard whisperings of this many weeks ago, but was hesitant to believe it. After all, Sarah Van Aken seemed fearless, determined to bring some of the industrial luster back to the city, once a major manufacturing hub. Her flagship boutique, SA VA, sold well-constructed garments (all designed and manufactured in her on-site design and garment center, crammed with tables and sewing machines and swatches and rolling racks). Her clothing line, while not necessarily envelope-pushing in its design, was wearable, comfortable, made of easy-wearing fabrics that draped and folded and flattered. I once wore a $3,000 hand-painted, kimono-like silk dress, one of Sarah’s one-off, couture-like pieces, to an event. I adored it, just as I still adore a white cotton sharp-sleeved blazer from her store, with camel-colored faux leather at the turned-up cuffs.

Even if her cute wrap dresses weren’t blazing avant-garde trails, her business foundation was: It was community-funded and socially driven, with ethical business practices, and materials that were responsibly sourced. It was supporting the local economy, and Van Aken served as a beacon of hope for fledgling designers hoping to stay in Philly, and stay true to their made-in-America—made-in-Philly—roots. This magazine pronounced Van Aken a “manufacturing evangelist.” But her tiny, two-level Sansom Street boutique wasn’t the problem. In fact, Van Aken reported to us that this year’s November sales were up 87 percent over last November’s sales. So why shutter a seemingly thriving business?


"In truth, it's as much a personal life choice as it is a business decision," Van Aken says. "We came to a point where I would have needed to raise more money. There were opportunities, but I didn't believe any of them could have scaled the business in a timeline or to the scale that made sense for me personally or for new investors. If I was 27 instead of 37 I would have likely made a different choice."

To make sense, her scale needed to be far larger than her private label—her wholesale division needed to succeed. Van Aken's wholesale division has long produced uniforms for the waitstaff of restaurants including Starr's eateries and several New York spots. She recently started working with retail doyenne Mary Dougherty, who owns Philly's two Nicole Miller stores as well as her own wholesale operation, to sell her line. Fabric costs, though, piled up. Manufacturing in bulk for a wholesale line is very, very expensive—and right now is a particularly bad time to be trying to lure in capital (to the tune of $1 million) from potential investors to support growing wholesale orders.

Still, the idea of being a completely sustainable business, to provide an outlet for consumers to buy good, stylish apparel designed, manufactured and sold locally, can't be abandoned. We need to continue to think on a larger level, and to figure out a way to provide manufacturing resources—at a reasonable cost—for the crowds of hungry designers graduating from the esteemed fashion programs at schools like Philadelphia University, Moore, Penn, Drexel and University of the Arts.

For now, though, Van Aken says she is excited for new opportunities, "kinda like a kid in a candy store." She plans to focus on design and brand direction. Her new site, sarahvanaken.com, is in the works; visit it now and you'll find a splash page: COMING SOON. But first, there is the bittersweet closing sale to get through. From now through Sa Va's last day, December 22nd, all regular priced items are 50 percent off and second-floor items are all $15. You should go there for her faux leather-trimmed jackets. Meanwhile, I'll be checking in on that gown.

 

 

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