Sometimes to follow your dream, the other doors have to be shut in your face.
Laura Hlavac had a vision in her mind. She knew it would manifest if she could just give it room to breathe. So, the first thing she needed was the space.
“We looked at churches, warehouse spaces, industrial buildings. And then we stumbled on this.” She sweeps her hand past couches and sewing machines, and up to the stenciled details on the high ceilings of her 1920s home – a 10,000 square foot former Masonic Lodge in the Lyndale neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota.
When Laura bought the old building, it wasn’t trendy or common to work from home. She felt she had to hide it from her corporate clients. But, she wanted a space where her interests, her passions, and her responsibilities could come together. She wanted room to fabricate clothing, to play music with her band, to host events, and to be close to her son and two daughters as she raised them.
If the adage “form follows function” is true – if the shape of a space should be based upon its intended purpose – Laura couldn’t have done much better. Her construction tables, rows of clothing racks, and spinning rolls of bright fabric fill the studio space. Soup bubbles on the stove in the building’s industrial kitchen. In “The Auditorium,” a keyboard sits under stage lighting. It’s a magical place for making.
And that’s what Laura has always done. “As a kid, I tried so many sports, but I just realized that I just wanted to come home and sew. I remember challenging myself one summer to see if I could create something new every single day – and I actually did it!” Professionally, Laura paid her dues en route to launching her own women’s clothing line. She left engineering school to work for NordicTrack and Rollerblade, specializing in pattern making and design construction. Eventually, she began a 20-year career working out of her space, designing “private label” clothing, in which she helped companies develop, source and manufacture the work, but got no external credit. Finally, three years ago, she busted out on her own. “I never knew if I was good enough until I just started getting out there.” She smiles. “Now, I sell to about 140 boutiques.”
Much as her space dictates Laura’s lifestyle, her limitations dictate her design style. “I’d be cutting some products for other companies, and I’d see the waste. That has become a major part of my focus – how to avoid throwing away viable scraps of fabric that can be made into accessories. I have a patchwork skirt that I developed out of that process.” She also questions the status quo. “I sit and say ‘okay, here’s a stitch that’s made for this conventional purpose, why don’t I do something different with it’?” That question led to her increasingly iconic “DNA stitch,” which is named for the molecule its wavy lines resemble. “When people walk into a store and are really familiar with what I do, they can identify it – “oh that’s a Laura Hlavac.”
The more we walk around her home, the more we see it’s unmistakably a “Laura Hlavac” too. It’s hard to know where the art-making ends and the living begins. Which is evidence that she has realized her vision: to make them one in the same.
Q & A
Laura sat down with us on one of her gorgeous antique sofas.
Can you share the story of where some of your clothing is manufactured? It’s pretty unique.
A lot of my product is made here on the workroom floor, but most of my product is now made in China, at a factory that is owned by my ex-husband, with whom I co-parent. He runs the factory in China with his wife, who is Chinese. He has two children with her, so we are so very connected to the factory. Two of my three children have traveled over to China and met their half brother and sister over there, and I am the factory’s biggest customer. It’s right on the ocean. It’s a very beautiful place – not typical at all of a factory in China, which is usually in the cities. We pay our seamstresses about 10-15% higher than the average in that area, and they are family. It’s a wonderful connection, and I think it is also the reason they’ve worked so hard to make my product come alive and give me such consistent quality.
That’s the trick of branding; you just have to get through that tough phase where no one knows who you are and establish your reputation.
You mentioned having ups and downs before launching your brand. What happened?
Sometimes to follow your dream, the other doors have to be shut in your face. When I was doing private label work, before I went out on my own, our business was really rolling and we were getting to the point where we had the resources to invest in someone who could really bring our business to the next level. So, we hired someone who had a lot of skills and education. Unfortunately, he was someone who turned out to be dishonest. He stole my largest customer, and sabotaged my second largest customer while trying to steal it, which resulted in a loss of 80% of my business overnight.
That was because I had my eggs in three baskets. Now my eggs are in 140 baskets, so if I lose one or a couple come and go, it’s not a big deal. Back then, we went from having a really stable business that we had built up for nearly 15 years to going into debt to pay bills. I hit rock bottom…it was a hard time. But I am thankful for those hard times because that is what teach you to appreciate the good times. And now the good times are starting to roll and it feels really good.
What were some of your challenges in establishing yourself when you went out on your own?
As a new company, the hardest thing is you go to to a show in February, and you take an order that is not going to be shipped until August, October or November and then you call them in September and they don’t remember who you are, they’ve never seen your label. That’s the trick of branding, you just have to get through that tough phase where no one knows who you are and establish your reputation. You have to be able to deliver, you have to have good quality and you have to have good fit. And those are a lot of things that a lot of new companies struggle with. But once they see you can deliver — then it’s a lot easier.