Neighbors Apparel tells refugees’ stories through its products

Neighbors Apparel, located in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, almost exclusively employs refugee women living in the city to create its line of hand-woven clothing and accessories made from fabrics sourced from Thailand. Those materials are specific to the culture of the refugees being employed in Akron, and that helps tell a larger story about where the refugees come from.

“It’s literally representative of the refugees’ culture, and they get to work with a piece of their home in their hands every day in our shop. And then that gets into the hands of our customers,” says Founder and Owner Tessa Reeves. “It’s a more compelling story. When you see the products, you know that there’s something different about it and you want to ask about that.”

Getting people talking is part of Neighbors’ mission to break down stereotypes surrounding refugees. By virtue of being available in retail stores, the company is inviting those conversations.

“A scarf could turn into a conversation piece if somebody asks where it’s from,” she says. “And then, through our brand, what I really want to do is help educate our customers or anyone who’s looking at us through social media, for instance, and really point people in the direction of truth and facts when it comes to the topic.”

No experience necessary

While the company is predicated on providing opportunities for a disadvantaged population, Reeves chose not to classify it as a nonprofit.

“It kind of makes sense to be a nonprofit, but then we don’t want to be just a training program or a nonprofit where we bring in refugees to teach them how to sew and then send them off to another employer,” she says. “We want to be that end employer and keep women with us to actually create jobs.”

Prior to launching Neighbors in July 2014, Reeves had no experience running a business and had only what she learned as an assistant manager at a local boutique.

She was also working full time as a corporate merchandiser for Westfield Insurance, which gave her a stable salary while starting Neighbors. This past year, she cut her Westfield hours, which freed up more time to manage her company.

Despite the challenges, Neighbors is growing. After getting on the shelves of three local boutiques and fair trade stores in Akron and Northeast Ohio during its first year, attending local craft shows and pop-up markets in 2015 increased its store count to 20 while expanding its reach between Cleveland and Columbus. Neighbors also has an e-commerce website through which people can purchase directly from the company.

A $30,000 grant Neighbors won through a SEA Change pitch competition for social enterprises allowed Reeves to hire a fashion designer. That has let the company begin the process of designing a new collection, developing its brand and targeting customers outside of Northeast Ohio.

Small, defining moments

That Reeves became so passionate about helping refuges was a surprise to her. She earned her bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising from Kent State University, then set off to New York where she landed an internship at ELLE Magazine. But something didn’t feel right.

She returned to Ohio and got involved with Urban Vision, a Christian nonprofit in North Hill that works, in part, with the area’s refugee community. The leaders there connected Reeves with neighborhood refugees who could sew, and offered her seed money and a space to start a business.

“We all have these small, defining moments, and one of those for me was when I realized after hanging around Urban Vision for a couple of weeks that this refugee population has been in Akron for years, and that they were still coming in higher numbers every year.

“What appalled me was that no one had ever told me. No one ever talked about it. I didn’t see it on the local news. My family and friends and church didn’t talk about it. And I just kind of wondered why that was,” she says.

“I think that was a large reason why I wanted to get involved, because I thought that there were stories that really needed to be shared and better understood.”

Reeves says she’s always known she was wired for compassion, but hadn’t found an outlet for it until she started volunteering.

“Faith is an integral part of everything I do and who I am,” Reeves says. “And when I look at the past three years and how all of this aligned and essentially fell into my lap, I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I can’t imagine that there’s not a reason that I’m supposed to be doing this. And the more I journey through entrepreneurship, the more I see that I really was wired to do this.”