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WHO MADE THAT: Cleveland Entrepreneurs Compete for American Made Award

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[column size=one_half position=first ][dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he clock is ticking on Martha Stewart’s American Made awards and you have the power to help launch Cleveland entrepreneurs into a national spotlight.

Martha Stewart’s annual American Made contest spotlights the artist, supports locality, and celebrates the handmade. Martha is selecting the next generation of American Made entrepreneurs, those who are creating inspiring, thoughtful, well-crafted products with keen attention to detail, pioneering new industries and improving their communities.

Three Cleveland businesses that regularly vend at the Cleveland Flea are finalists in the running for Martha Stewart’s American Made awards. Phillip and Jackie Watcher of Fount Leather, Liza Rifkin of Liza Michelle Jewelry  and clothing Designer, Courtney McCrone of 23 Skidoo.[/column]

[column size=one_half position=middle ]This is how it works: Winners receive a $10,000 boost for their company, as well as a feature on the website and a trip for two to New York City. There are four categories: crafts, design, food, and style. Ten winners are awarded; the judges choose nine and one is chosen by the public who can vote up to SIX times a day through October 13th.
With many useful outlets to launch new businesses into the public sphere and gain exposure, it’s an exciting time for independent businesses.

Cellar Door was lucky to visit the studios of these innovative Cleveland-based artists to photograph them in their element and share the vision behind their companies.

Although each artist is uniquely different, we found a common thread that ties together the theme and philosophy of all three Cleveland finalists — the importance of social media for small business, emphasis on quality, attention to detail, and businesses founded and run by women. We hope that you read on, get inspired and VOTE.

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Fount Leather by Jacqueline Bon / Photos by Rebecca Ciprus

[column size=one_half position=first ]Fount Leather is rustic, but it’s clean. It’s classic, but it’s also ready for new adventure. It’s understated but it speaks boldly. Most of all, Fount Leather is durable and long-lasting.

If you’ve attended the Cleveland Flea, you’re probably familiar with Fount Leather.

Fount is the brainchild of husband and wife creative duo, Phillip and Jackie Wachter. A year ago, they got married on top of a mountain and from the moment that you meet them, it’s obvious that they share enough love to melt your heart a little bit.

Their idea for the company first stemmed from a mutual love for brown leather; Phillip was interested in warm stylish leather to wear on his motorcycle and Jackie always found herself charmed by vintage leather luggage. Soon, they began to experiment with making leather wallets and their design became an instant hit amongst friends.

At first, they treated Fount as a part-time endeavor but as demand began to grow, they decided to combine their talents and pursue their penchant for handmade leather goods full time. “We had always talked about good leather jackets, boots and shoes. It has that old world charm. We were both intrigued by it,” Phillip said.

The Wachters work from a sunny studio located in the ArtCraft building on Superior Avenue, with a rapidly expanding number of employees. Fount creates bags, wallets, dog collars, key chains, belts, and what has become a staple of their collection, the lucky penny pouch necklaces and wristlets.

Fount prides themselves on designing for durability over time. Fount bags are hand sewn with leather sourced from a 150-year-old tannery in Tuscany, using a technique called the saddle stitch that is three times stronger than the common lock stick on a machine. The final product is so sturdy that a customer could actually carry a bowling ball in their tote if they wanted to.

“We are very passionate about things made in America, so everything has something hand sewn on it,” Jackie said. “You can’t make everything with a machine. There’s this fast fashion movement where everything is made cheap and fast. If things are sewn by hand they can’t be made cheap or fast —it’s a labor of love.”[/column]

[column size=one_half position=last ]Fount is also designed for function with extra attention to detail. For example, their dog leashes available at Hingtown’s Ohio City Dog Haven are intentionally designed to remain upright and not to get stuck in the dog’s armpit. Totes are big enough to carry a laptop with two big inner pockets for convenient key and phone storage. To avoid keys lost in purse syndrome, they even include a ring holder on the outside and inside.

Fount attributes a large part of its success to Cleveland Flea. They view the Flea as a test market where they can interact with customers and view what people like. When Jackie was living in New York City, two years ago, she enjoyed going to the Brooklyn Flea.

“I think what Stephanie [Sheldon] has done for Cleveland is comparable to what New York did at the Brooklyn Flea,” Jackie said. “Without the Flea I don’t think we’d have such a presence in Cleveland because people come and they get to see the product in-person which is really important to a lot of people. When you spend $300 on a bag you want to touch it and see the inside.”

She can recall many memorable interactions with customers, but she was especially touched by the time that she signed onto Instagram and found a tagged photo of a customer who had inserted her grandfather’s war memorabilia, the Purple Heart, into the pocket of Fount’s Lucky Penny wristlet so she could carry him with her wherever she went.

Phillip has a background in video production and uses his eye to style and photograph company’s product images. “We would not be where we are at without social media, that’s how Country Living found us,” Jackie said. “Our Instagram is huge. Phillip is a photographer too. That’s what has been so awesome. We both have different strengths.”[/column]

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[column size=one_half position=first ]Jackie went to graphic design school at Virginia Marti College and draws the initial designs for the bags. She recently left her day job as an elementary teacher to do Fount full time. “It was to the point where I’d get home from teaching at four o’clock, sew until two in the morning and then wake up at six and teach again. I was like, I can’t do this forever,” she said. “It’s a stressful thing when you grow.”

Although they hope to someday design clothing, for now, they enjoy the versatility of designing accessories. “The cool thing about purses and accessories is that they can transcend people’s styles and so it’s not something that has to fit your body. Everybody can wear the same size purse,” she said.

After Fount was featured in Country Living magazine, orders began to pour in rapidly and Fount expanded its studio space and employees. Fount’s employees include a large cast of family. Currently, Fount consists of two interns, three sewers, and five people who do hand sewing at home. Jackie’s Mom Calli helps with bookwork and finances and Phillip’s sister Alicia who is aspiring to pursue fashion design also lends a hand in-studio.

“You end up spending more time with the people you work with than your family, when it comes down to it. So it’s super fun to have my mom and Alicia here,” Jackie said.

Fount has been experiencing rapid growth and they don’t intend on slowing down any time soon. They are hoping to launch new products including a smaller bag, an Army inspired two-tone leather men’s bag, and many fall and winter accessories.

“In the very foreseeable future there is a smaller bag coming out. We are working on a men’s bag. We have the sketch of that and Courtney [of 23Skiddo] is going to help us,” Jackie said. “We are hoping in 2015 to launch a clothing line. We will start small with a few items like leather vests.”

VOTE / SHOP / INSTAGRAM

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Liza Michelle Jewelry by Rachel Hunt / Photographs by Jacqueline Bon & Suzanne Price

[column size=one_half position=first ]With the majority of jewelry marketed towards women, it would seem that it would be a female dominated industry, however, Liza Rifkin sets the record straight. “The surprising thing about jewelry and jewelers is that it is a man’s world, and it was for a very long time in the traditional sense of fine jewelry and bench jewelers,” she says. Rifkin is taking back the bench, so to speak; she is the proprietor and “ladysmith” behind Liza Michelle Jewelry,  a one-of-a-kind fine jeweler based out of Ohio City.

The necklaces, bracelets, and rings that comprise the stock of Liza Michelle’s inventory are petite handcrafted accessories, made from white, rose, and green golds, bronze, and sterling silver. Precious and semi-precious stones and gems are meticulously set and arranged next to dainty charms, derived from the refuse of pines, tulip trees, and pokeberry bushes. Rifkin cites that it is not nature specifically that inspires her jewelry but it is the desire to take notice, the appreciation of natural forms that can be found anywhere, even on the sidewalk if one looks hard enough.

“It is important to tell people this is my career, this is not a hobby,” Rifkin steadfastly says. Liza Michelle Jewelry was recently chosen as a finalist for the Martha Stewart American Made Award, that while honors the handmade local start-up, was simultaneously created by a company with hobbyists in mind. “It’s always been important for me to share that side of my journey, of starting this business and running it full time,” she says. After two years working for a Cleveland-based jewelry production company and getting laid off, Rifkin decided to go it alone—renting a studio outside of her home (albeit three blocks away) and concentrating on her line full-time.[/column]

[column size=one_half position=middle ]Though Rifkin is the sole designer and namesake of the company, what once seemed like an overwhelming challenge, taking the on the venture full time, was cushioned not by charity but by her supporters and fellow vendors in the community. “I did Ingenuity for years, Cleveland Bazaar, which used to be Bazaar Bizarre, and Crafty Mart. The amazing thing about it is that this is such a good community. We call each other ‘friend-ers’,” Rifkin smiles.

It is rare not to see Liza Michelle Jewelry at the Cleveland Flea or other regional makers marketplaces these days. Rifkin has become engrained in the local makers community, even though originally from Rochester, NY. Ever since graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2010 and taking to local craft fairs originally only with pieces from her BFA thesis, it is hard to imagine the creative landscape in Cleveland without her.

When considering what it is about her products that makes her brand attractive to national buyers, quality of work and the unique nature of her product are at the top. They are attributes of the brand that Rifkin is unwilling to compromise. “Everyone wants to feel like they have the only one. That is a huge factor in my work, that everything is one of a kind,” says Rifkin. “Especially people local to Cleveland, all of my products are named after streets in Ohio City. I think it helps to connect people.”[/column]

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[column size=one_half position=first ]Rifkin is as authentic as any one of her pieces. In order to maintain originality, she casts her twigs, berries, and needles individually using a “lost wax casting method” where each piece used burns out in the kiln during the molding process, and only one usable molten metal piece is left. Rifkin has staple pieces available online, but also takes commissions for custom work including engagement rings, which she very much enjoys. “You can go to Zales,” Rifkin says dismissively, “but it’s a really cool process to be able to work with someone on a piece. I’m creating that shopping experience for someone that is not just cold. It’s not, ‘Here is my product, give me your money’.”

Liza Michelle Jewelry is the brainchild of a metal smith, but also a very creative businessperson. Rifkin employs local photographers to shoot her look books, she plots every opportunity to utilize social media herself; she is a powerhouse that is savvy to the retail world and also caring about each of her customer’s needs.

“I’m illustrating to everybody that it is possible to have a business and support your self in the arts, especially,” Riftkin says. “This whole stigma behind the ‘starving artist’, I don’t buy that. Everyone is struggling and working hard in whatever career they choose, especially entrepreneurs, and I think it’s this dumb stereotype that we need charity.”

VOTE / SHOP / INSTAGRAM

 

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23 Skidoo by Rachel Hunt / Photographs by Rebecca Ciprus

[column size=one_half position=first ]There is a certain amount of spontaneity and charm that comes with approaching Courtney McCrone to try on one of her neatly arranged handmade dresses hanging on a tree branch repurposed as a clothing rack. With McCrone cheering you on, your hands slide into the garments, eyes dancing, settling first on a metallic gold collar, then a sleeve made of intricate cream lace, next a dreamy, slightly see-through red shift dress.

“I just knew that I wanted 23 Skidoo to be more than a clothing line. It’s a lifestyle of being adventurous and I want everything to be an experience, down to the packaging,” explains McCrone.

Launching a clothing line in Cleveland is an adventure unto itself for the entrepreneur cunning enough to take on the challenge. McCrone waited until Ingenuity Fest in 2013 to unveil her collection to the public for immediate sale. Setting up a whimsical teepee under warm backyard lights in a huge warehouse space, a similar fashion launch might have constituted professional models and a sterilized runway, but not for 23 Skidoo. Each perspective buyer transformed into her own model for the night, the setting accentuating three designs ranging in sizes XS-XL for sale.

Over 5 years ago, McCrone took to Google searching for vintage phrases to find the perfect name for the Build-A-Brand class she was enrolled in at Virginia Marti. “I found pages and pages of vintage phrases, but the one I thought sounded really cute was “23 Skidoo,” and when I looked to see what it meant, it meant to be in high spirits,” she cites as the inspiration behind the women’s clothing line.

With a little more research, the phrase “23 Skidoo,” popularized as slang in the 1920s also means to leave quickly, to take advantage of a propitious opportunity, or to “get out while the getting is good.” It’s not too far fetched from what McCrone actually did, years after deciding on the name, by coming back to Cleveland from Los Angeles where she attended college at The Institute of Design & Merchandising.[/column]

[column size=one_half position=middle ]She placed her new studio, at the invitation of her sister and brother-in-law, into their basement in Bay Village. McCrone collaborated with designer Adam Vicarel to make a printed fabric for some of her garments based on this type of story, one of women and men fleeing to “The Cle” via boating over Lake Erie was the backdrop of the pattern.

McCrone lovingly refers to her customers as “Skadettes” and sends out a patch, needle, and thread with each order. “I always include a hand written note that’s personal to the customer. I’ll always end it with a charge to go out, and live out your anywhere adventure, which is 23 Skidoo’s motto,” says McCrone. 23 Skidoo’s designs are inspired by vintage patterns infused with a modern twist. High-quality fabrics that were not readily available in the past are used and pockets adorn many of the dresses, a utilitarian highlight that has often been left off of women’s wear over the years.

Modern technology has helped local makers like McCrone expand their audience and be able to support themselves without having to take on a second job. “I get a lot of sales online. I want to market to my city but also to people outside,” she says. “I’m trying to please everybody, but also trying to stretch myself as an artist and be a unique company.”

Instagram and fashionista bloggers have played a large role in helping 23 Skidoo gain visibility. Even though 23 Skidoo may not be in close proximity to all clients, McCrone is still very involved with each of her customers —available for special orders, custom fittings, and even acting as a pen pal to one of her Skadettes. A garment from 23 Skidoo ranges in price from $30-$170, with party crownz available at $12 each.[/column]

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[column size=one_half position=first ]Even with technology helping 23 Skidoo widen its fan base, McCrone still designs and makes products the old fashioned way. It takes from three to five hours for a piece to be made, with McCrone executing each step of the process from creative conception to completion herself. “When I need specific design inspiration, one of my favorite places to look is through my grandma’s high school year book or photographs from when she was a young fearless woman,” McCrone told Martha Stewart’s American Made audience on her nominee page. “Most days I am inspired to design an outfit based on a fantasized moment. I love summer time adventures and dreaming of what I would want to wear during whimsy afternoons, then sketch out my designs from there.”

When asked what the most adventurous thing she has ever done was, the vivacious McCrone had to take a moment to leaf through various memories. “Okay, this is it, okay,” she says excitedly before telling us about a dare from two of her friends on Christmas break to have a fashion show in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. After welcoming each of the surprise participants on the train between her home in L.A. and their destination to the “23 Skidoo Spring Fashion Show,” she had her friends walk the catwalk up and down the train car wearing her garments while she followed, handing out business cards with the 23 Skidoo website on them. Once they arrived on Hollywood Boulevard, they caused a scene doing an encore presentation of the impromptu fashion show, causing cars to honk their horns and passers-by to wave and look on in amusement.

That’s the great thing about L.A., it’s just so anonymous. I want to start that here in Cleveland. It’s not like you walk down the street and there are hundreds of people, so I need to figure out where will be the best.”

VOTE / SHOP / INSTAGRAM

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