A Female Entrepreneur in an Uncharted Midwestern Field: The Story of Designer Alicia V. Ybarra with Vanya Designs
(Alicia on the runway for her first fashion week)
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to pursue a dream? To step out on the wings of faith, refusing to listen to the fears and uncertainties that owning a business might ensue? Well, that’s exactly what I did when I decided to turn the lifelong passion of sewing into a money maker for my family.
(Alicia in the first dress she ever made)
I learned to sew at age 7 in 4-H. I was hooked.
2002: I chose the name Vanya Designs for a hypothetical brand I was creating in one of my undergrad classes. Vanya came from my middle name and was a name I always liked.
2003: Graduated from Kansas State University with M.S. in Apparel & Textiles
2005: “Hobby Business”
(Photos of one of my first brides having her fitting in my basement)
I didn’t set out to build an upscale wedding gown design and alterations business from the beginning. I started (and quit) a corporate job in apparel product development. I hated it. At the time, people were asking me to sew for them and were willing to pay. Initially, sewing was a way to stay home with my toddlers and help pay the bills. In the early basement days at home, I would sew anything and everything to make ends meet. I landed a contract with a sportswear company and made hundreds of custom cheerleading uniforms. I learned much about patterning and sizing during this season.
2009: Vanya Designs Becomes a Business Entity
I could no longer claim the income as hobby income. Registered the name Vanya Designs & Custom Sewing as a Sole Proprietorship and applied for an EIN with the idea that perhaps some day I may need employees. Fortuitously I discovered that Vanya means “God’s grace is upon you” and I believe that God’s grace is on each client that wears a Vanya gown.
2010: Vanya Designs first Storefront Opens
The demand became enough that it was interrupting family time and a separation between work and home was needed. I opened a 900 square foot shop around the time my kids started school. I was terrified. I refused to sign more than a 1 year lease because that was the amount of money I had saved up. If I didn’t sell a thing, at least I could pay rent.
(The first bride who ordered a custom gown from my shop)
With a brick and mortar space came some new challenges. One of those being that I could hardly keep up with the amount of jobs coming in. I had partnered with a local bridal shop and was doing all of her bridal and formal alterations while still sewing everything else clients needed. I discovered that I found a true joy in helping women feel beautiful and confident in their clothing, especially for monumental occasions such as a wedding or prom. I began promoting the custom design side which allowed clients to experience having the perfect garment made especially for them.
2011: First Team Member Hired
(Photo of my first team member whom I recently had the opportunity to build her wedding gown)
I hired my intern as an assistant to help meet demand.
The reputation of Vanya Designs in Derby, KS and the integrity of my brand quickly grew. I soon learned that I was the only designer in Kansas and much of the Midwest, at the time, that would custom design garments according to what a client had been dreaming of. I realized I had entered an untapped market and started to recognize the potential my company had to grow and impact the Midwest. We began offering Heirloom Wedding Gown Re-Design for brides who wanted to wear their mother or grandmother’s wedding dress.
(A before and after of one of our wedding gown re-designs)
(We altered the brides dress and made all of the others)
Demand continued to grow as the referrals came in. Client after client came into my studio wanting to feel beautiful. I noticed a pattern. The client would focus on a particular insecurity about her body. She wouldn’t see the beautiful woman in the mirror whom her loved ones saw. By working with her and creating something that would accentuate her own beauty, she would leave with her gown, feeling beautiful, worthy, and loved.
Suddenly I realized the company was an opportunity to minister to women in a way I never could otherwise. The mission of the company was born: Reflecting Beauty, Inspiring Love, Realizing Dreams.
January 2013: Vanya Designs Expands to a Larger Facility
Three years in, we had outgrown our tiny facility and moved to a space triple the size. We added tuxedo rentals and wedding gown preservations. I started the process of hiring and building a team.
Nothing in my education had prepared me for the challenges of managing and leading people.
I made many mistakes; hiring the wrong people and failing to communicate effectively to the right ones. Fortunately I had mentors who coached me through challenging times of team members leaving, interviewing new hires, leading in love and showing grace, but being firm when necessary for we could not compromise the quality product or the experience our clients had grown to expect.
July 2013: Expands AGAIN
Six months after moving, we needed more space. An adjacent studio space became available and we moved our production into that space.
April 2017: Debuted First Wedding Gown Collection: Redemption
As a team, we decided a goal was to have a larger presence in Wichita. We decided to put on a fashion show event and in keeping with the mission of the company of helping women, wanted to give back in some way. We connected with ICT SOS and pitched the idea to them, and Freedom Through Fashion was born. Our collection was debuted and 100% of funds raised at that event went directly to fight human trafficking.
July 2017: Vanya Designs Moves to Wichita
The response to our fashion show event in Wichita was bigger than we could imagine. That positive reception, coupled with an expired lease at our Derby location, declining custom sales due to location, and a need to lower overhead costs led to us researching options for a new location. We took a huge leap of faith and moved from Derby to a central location in Wichita in the Commerce Arts District.
Couture Ever After turned an old warehouse space into a romantic, glamorous experience for each client who walks in our doors. We have room to expand as demand requires. With the addition of the team and more space to be organized we have been able to streamline our departments: Custom Design, Bridal & Formal Alterations and Men’s Formal Wear.
We finally found our tribe! A community open to embrace art and fashion and everything we have to offer. The opportunities began to pour in as new collaborations and connections in the city started to form.
The Grand Opening
August 2017: Vanya Designs Takes “Redemption” Collection to Omaha Fashion Week
We applied and were accepted into OFW. Keeping with the theme of coming out of bondage into freedom I added black hooded capes to each wedding gown design, that were removed during the runway walk, to communicate the redemption that victims of human trafficking may experience when they are rescued.
Watch our runway video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YjZ0cYtges&feature=youtu.be
January 2018: With Growth Comes More Challenges
Another challenge that arose with the growth of the company was figuring out the pricing structure for custom pieces, particularly as demand increased. It was so difficult to put a value on my time and on the special experience that a custom designed gown provides for the client. A business coach helped me understand the cost associated with opening doors, tracking the exact cost of goods sold, and the actual amount of time it took to create and fit a beautiful masterpiece. I love what I do so much; sometimes when I am in the zone, hours can go by and I will think I have only been working half the amount of time.
April 2018: Vanya Designs Creates Second Collection
We participated in the ICT SOS Freedom Through Fashion event for the second year in a row. Again, with a collection to tell a story of freedom from slavery, I drew my inspiration from the Celestial Sky theme of the event. My collection took the viewer on a journey through the celestial skies from sunset to sunrise symbolizing the journey a victim takes traveling through darkness and into the light. There will always be a sunrise.
Present: Goals, Dreams, and Current Projects
Currently I have a fantastic team who shares my passion for our clients and whom have embraced the mission of the company.
This frees me up to focus on building the business and doing what I do best, which is custom design. To date, we have created over 500 custom unique pieces for clients.
I am working on a collaborative Wearable Sculpture project with local sculpture artist, Christopher Gulick which we will debut at our own event, Fashion Avant in September of this year (2019), and have the aspirations to take it to New York Fashion Week in 2020. Fashion Avant is our own non-profit event that will allow us to have the opportunity to reach further into Wichita and give back to our community however we feel led. A portion of this years event will go to The Harbor House, to provide shelter for those trying to escape domestic violence situations. https://www.facebook.com/FashionAvantICT/?modal=admin_todo_tour
Remember how I said I didn’t start this business with the intent of having a high-end designer company? Somehow, as I kept taking each step by faith I began to realize an even bigger mission and set some lofty goals. Perhaps the dream was always there from the beginning. Believing it could be a reality happened over time, with the support of our clients and community.
Our dream for the future is to create a training system where our team would be duplicated and then established at a Vanya Designs branch in another city. Those are big goals, but to see how far this company has come on a wing, a prayer, and a whole lot of faith; I am believing that with focused effort, over time God will bring the increase.