STUDIO: Alysia Vallas - Somi Apparel

October 27, 2015

Comfortable and beautifully made basics for a cause - Somi Apparel supports women in Cambodia through the Harpswell Foundation.

Founder & Creative Director Alysia Vallas is as passionate about creating a product that you will fall in love with (I definitely have!) as she is about giving back. I recently spent a day with Alysia, getting to know her and her brand, as well as the wonderful manufacturers she works with. Here's a snippet of our day together:

SPOILER ALERT: When we talked, the possibility of a storefront for Somi had just come up. It has indeed opened and you should go do your holiday shopping (and treat yourself while you're at it) at 1104 Sanchez St in Noe Valley!

Ana Brazaityte: So, tell me a bit about your background.

Alysia Vallas: Well, I was an Art History major. And I did premed thinking that I would want to go to med school. I used the science background to teach 8th grade science in New Orleans for a couple years, but by the end of that I wasn’t feeling like medical school was the right choice for me. Pat, my boyfriend, was in San Diego so I figured, “Okay, I’ll make a move to California and figure out my next steps from there.” It’s not a bad place to sit and ruminate, you know.

AB: So true.

AV: So those pieces of my background are not relevant to anything I do today haha but I guess, Art History - there’s some semblance of connectivity there.

AB: Yeah, you do have an artistic background.

AV: But I just sort of learned things as I went in terms of the fashion industry, asking a lot of questions, doing a lot of research, and getting really lucky as well - a combination of all three of those things. 

AB: Nice. So what ended up steering you in this direction?

AV: I was in San Diego and reading a lot of work by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn - they made a documentary called Half the Sky as well as writing supplemental pieces and longer pieces for the New York Times - touching on different problems that women face globally: sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, child mortality rates in places that don’t have access to birth centers...and obviously it's a lot of heavy topics, but they were showing different women - primarily women - who were starting these grassroots campaigns to address different issues. So it was like, “Yes, this is a very serious, very tragic thing, but here are some people doing some really effective work." And obviously, they can do more with more funding. I was thinking about the funding of these different organizations and what it means to donate, or what you have to do to make an impact. Obviously, you have like the Gateses who have this fortune that they’ve disseminated to all these different great causes, so I was thinking, “What can I do?” in my way, because I don’t have this…

AB: Just billions lying around haha

AV: Yeah. So I’m like, “What do I do? Do I work for a nonprofit? What would be the best course of action for me personally to do this?” and I had considered going to design school so I thought one day, “Maybe I’ll develop women’s products and use a percentage of the proceeds to go to these different organizations.” It was sort of a smidgeon of a thought in the back of my brain and it just snowballed. A couple bottles later - full disclosure - I was like, “Bras! Supporting women everywhere!” Hahaha.

AB: Haha. Sometimes a bottle of wine brings out our best ideas, let go of those inhibitions.

AV: Yeah, and I was close to LA then too, so there were lots of pattern makers, lots of smaller manufacturers there. I just started digging - how does one make a garment? 

AB: How does it even happen?

AV: Right, so like when you were asking about background earlier - I had no background in anything that would help me start a product.
The Bangladeshi factory collapse had just happened, two and half years ago now - it was the multi story factory that collapsed due to structural faults and a lot of people were sort of re-thinking how their garments were being produced. It’s actually really really difficult to find factories - they’re sort of these archaic industries, they’ve had their same clients for 20 years. You find these webpages that are super outdated, no longer relevant. I was ready to pull my hair out. And then I turned on NPR one day and it was like, “Many designers in the States are looking to produce at home and don’t have resources to find factories.” I was like, “What?!”

AB: “Are you talking to me?!” Haha.

AV: And it was like, “Here is this website that profiles different factories in an effort to make the process more streamlined.”

AB: Awesome.

AV: So NPR just dropped a golden nugget in my lap and it was a lot of luck in terms of it all coming to gather. 

AB: I like the word "synchronicity" when things like that happen. 

AV: Yeah, I’m doing what I should be when all these things just come together. 

AB: Right. So did you start out making the pieces in LA? 

AV: Mhmm. Well, we did a lot of the pattern and process there. 

AB: Oh, and when was it that you officially started Somi?

AV: Two and a half years ago. So it was just, you know, doing odd jobs in the mean time to just pay for sample making, pattern making, the whole nine.

AB: Right. So you had somebody in LA with the patterns and such...

AV: Yeah and they specialized more in helping new designers put together what they call the tech packs - so like everything that you would need to take to a manufacturer to produce a garment. They were recognizing that this was a trend for the newer designers who don’t necessarily have the experience of getting these things developed in order to get their foot in the door, and that's what they did. 

AB: Cool! Okay, so then what brought you to San Francisco?

AV: Well, I love California. We were in San Diego and loved that as well, but my boyfriend is in biotech, so it was like, “Where do we want to be?” We could be in San Diego, we could be in San Francisco, Boston, and given the locations of different factories and what his interests were, we both settled on San Francisco as a good choice. Could’ve been happy lots of places but I’m glad we're here.

AB: Awesome. So how did you go about connecting with the sewers/manufacturers and everyone you are working with now?

AV: We've had two runs of production. The first wasn’t so great. I think that they were kind of struggling internally and just had terrible luck and weren’t as transparent as they could’ve been about their timeline. So I think they rushed to push everything through and we found a lot of mistakes in the pieces. They also recognized that they dropped the ball. And so we just had a bunch of pieces that we couldn’t do anything with. Sort of in a state of panic, I looked again at the manufacturers in the area and found the people that you’re gonna meet today (The D.N.A. Group) and they managed to make 2,000 pieces for me in the course of a month. 

AB: Wow.

AV: They’re phenomenal!

AB: This is really interesting because I actually know nothing about launching a product where you are producing a large amount ahead of time. And you mentioned you don’t have a background in that either, so what kind of challenges did you find in planning all of that and where did you go for support or to learn?

AV: That's a great question. I pretty much just tried to read everything I could. And asked a lot of questions. I was surprised by how willing people are to help out when you’re just like, “This is something I’m not completely aware of, would you mind explaining this process?” But for the first production I think I was misguided in that I just had to select a number - like how many do you produce at first? People were doing Kickstarter campaigns and I didn’t want to go that route. For some reason I just wanted it to be a store that opened that people felt like they could immediately interact with - and I totally respect the Kickstarter model with the preorder.. 

AB: But its not necessarily for everyone...

AV: It’s not for everyone and I wanted to have a model that was ready to go from the get go. I did have to pick a number and I think I overshot a little for the first time. Typically, people will go the wholesale route too, so if you have this many orders coming in, you can have that many produced. I wanted to sell initially just on our webpage. Just because the more we sell directly, the more overhead we have for donations. 

AB: Right, and that's awesome too. So what kind of organizations are you connecting with to donate to?

AV: We work with the Harpswell Foundation currently. They’re a Cambodian based organization. It’s difficult to find housing for public universities for females in Cambodia and there's a lot of risk that comes with not having housing. A lot of the girls who are academically performing see that as one additional - on top of many other barriers - one additional barrier to studying. So this organization is providing housing, academic support, English tutorials, and they have a leadership component because after the 1970s, Khmer Rouge came through and decimated their educated population. These girls have a real ability to be impactful  - they’re coming out Magna Cum Laude from their respective universities in fields like psychology, sociology, law, medicine, engineering, with a real focus on their country’s development, which is really cool. So we’re happy to work with them.

AB: How did you connect with them? Did you have any previous connections to it or was it an organization you found out about and liked the cause?

AV: It was sort of an offshoot link - I was reading a blog of Nicholas Kristof’s and he had alluded to it. I clicked on it and I was immediately enamored by their transparency and their mission. I reached out to Alan Lightman, who started it. He’s actually a professor at MIT, dual background in physics - so he was a physics professor - and poetry.

AB: Oh, wow.

AV: Right? Very interesting guy. Very kind gentleman. So I spoke to him about what it was that I was interested in doing and he was on board.

AB: You’re doing some amazing things, I’m trying to wrap my mind around it.

AV: Oh, thank you.

AB: Because it's great products, but it's much bigger than that too.

AV: Well what I was hoping to do is…I don’t want the product to just be - I don’t want people to ever feel guilted into buying a product. You know, there's one thing to feel compelled to buy a product because if you’re given the choice of two products and one has a giving option, I can understand that. But I didn’t want to just produce any garment and have people feel some internal guilt or anything. I wanted it to be a product that you wanna use. 

AB: But then it just has this bonus aspect to it.

AV: Right. And then it’s creating a space in the market where you’re hopefully lasting as well. You’re gonna always need bras because you’re gonna always have boobs. Haha.

AB: Haha right.

AV: And we hope that you like our product enough that you continue buying it and then creating a sustainable brand, we can continue to give back. That's the hope.

AB: That's wonderful. What are your goals for future?

AV: It's amazing how everything changes in a very short period of time. We are considering opening a store very soon. We did pop-up shows and those were more successful than I anticipated and I wanted to keep the momentum of being able to interact with customers face-to-face, which is so wonderful. Obviously the problem in SF is how high the rent can be for these brick and mortars and so a place in the neighborhood popped up that could be split between two brands and it was again sort of what you were saying with that synchronicity of everything falling together. I had met Shanti Rackley from Tejido at Unique SF and we had talked about staying in touch and talking to each other about branding and wholesaling. Both having two scrappy backgrounds, now sharing the information we’ve gathered in order to better inform ourselves. She called me the next morning and was like, “Hey, wanna come look at a space with me?” and I was like, “What??” Haha. So I showed up, it’s two blocks away from my house, and it was funny because I had told her to go into that store because I thought her products would sell really well in there - they have since moved from that space obviously. Haha. I’m just excited by the idea of her and I sharing a space, sharing that brick and mortar cost and it's also two separate physical spaces connected so we can staff together, we could brand together, we can help draw business together and continue our scrappy ways. Haha.

AB: That's amazing. I love that. 

AV: We’ll see! Fingers crossed. Tomorrow we will take a look at the space with a realtor and make a final decision. 

AB: Yeah, you’ll have to update me for sure - that's amazing. What’s your typical day like? 

AV: No two days are alike. They pretty much start with me groggily grabbing my phone and reading all the emails. I don’t know if that's the healthiest way to start the day but the work day sort of starts at 7:30. I feel like once I have that coffee in me, that's when the productivity starts. I sort of power through the first half of the day and then I’m useless for the second. Haha. So I try to capitalize on that and work with brain dead Alysia in the afternoon. I spend a lot of time at the office or if I’m feeling so productive, I don’t even bother with the commute, I'll just work here and then go to the factory or…it kind of depends on where we are in the process. So you’ll see, we have samples that we’ve been working with that he’ll (Alex at D.N.A. Group) look at today. In producing the fall line I’m typically there more often, but it's a crapshoot.

“...building community and asking questions and being kind and open and honest…I feel like that goes a long way.”

AB: Yeah, sounds about right. Haha. So what words of advice might you have for somebody who could be reading this to find inspiration?

AV: Wheww. 

AB: Doesn’t have to be anything big or lofty, just something you want to share. 

AV: Trying to think of whats worked for me...I think it's drawing inspiration from other makers too. I feel like exposing myself to as many people as possible doing interesting and creative things has helped inform what I do. Like you said, I don’t understand what a lot of those different processes are like and being enlightened to what it is that they do, you can really inform your own process. That sounded really roundabout...but for instance, meeting Shanti - it was a whole other view into wholesaling that I hadn’t previously thought through. So yeah, it’s observing and getting advice from other makers working to do the same thing. 

AB: Building a community. 

AV: Yeah building community and asking questions and being kind and open and honest…I feel like that goes a long way. It was really interesting to see at the Unique market, where so many different designers of all different types were so willing to talk and share experiences that are so informative. Also there's the support - because sometimes, you’re working from home and you haven’t talked to another soul in hours. That's not a way to grow, you get stuck in your own head (or at least I do).

AB: Yeah, I can definitely relate to that sometimes. I think it's important to build that community of support so you don’t feel alone in what you’re doing. 
Oh, I forgot to ask earlier, how did the name Somi come about?

AV: Well we did have a couple of literary inspirations originally, and it turns out those are very difficult to trademark. And my own dad couldn’t remember the first name I picked out. That's not good brand recognition if my dad has to continually ask me what it is. Haha. So I was doing a lot of my early work next to a goldfish who’s name was Somi and we used to joke that he was my business parter because, like we just said, you’re constantly by yourself, staring at a notepad. So I would talk out loud to the goldfish and so he was my first business partner. Haha.

AB: That's really cute.

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