Interview with Amy Tipton, Owner of Sassafras Clothing Store in Belltown
Sassafras is my favorite clothing store and I’m so lucky it’s in Belltown. I can’t label what it is and wouldn’t want to try because as Kierkegaard said, “once you label me you negate me.” It’s a place where I can select well-made clothing designed and sewn locally that reflects who I am, what mood I’m in, and how I feel that is unique to me. I know the clothes there haven’t been sprayed with a chemical that keeps them from wrinkling like they have in the big stores, I don’t want that on my skin. I can talk to the designers and it’s a place that thrives, making me want to stay, shop, and return often.
RW : What inspired you to open Sassafras?
Amy Tipton (AT): From a very young age I had a specific style and a keen sense of not wanting to dress like anyone else. At age five my closet was full of plaid dresses and my shoes had to be red. My grandmother, a seamstress by trade, taught me how to sew with patterns. I’d decoupage my shoes, hand paint things, and create my own look. In Cleveland, Mississippi where I grew up there were only two clothing stores, which probably influenced me a great deal.
After 15 years at Microsoft, I was ready to follow my passion and wanted to open my own store, which has evolved from its initial concept after much research and experimentation. I was focused on local designers that had no venue where people could try on their beautiful clothes and buy them. I scour the local design schools looking for designers that want to stay small batch and have a place where they can sell their original designs that they sew themselves, offering unique one of a kind designed fashions of the highest quality.
RW : How do you attract people that are looking for original fashions in a world where mimicry rules the day in on-line shopping and matching “the look” someone else has told you that you need?
AT : Word of mouth. Our customers are always educated, courteous, and fun. We have a lot of repeat customers and they are all local. Everyone that walks through our door knows what they’re looking for and they know who they are. Our clientele comes to us in an organic way. Our trunk shows are so fun, and we have an expanded collection from a different designer nearly every weekend from a small batch independent designer that we may not even carry in the shop. All our designers are from the Pacific Northwest from Vancouver, Canada to Portland. Clients get to connect with the designer and meet them in person. There’s always something hot off the sewing machine to see so inventory changes often. Customers often say it feels comfortable here.
Designers here don’t leave so there’s a waiting list for a spot in the design room.
RW : Do you think of expanding this space or opening another location?
AT : I am not interested in doing that, but I am interested in helping someone else by sharing what I’ve learned that would like to open something similar in their own town. To me, if Sassafras is a model for another store of its kind then I won, even if I don’t own it! Also, I have on-line sales via our web site which is like another part time job photographing and managing that inventory that gives people an idea of what to expect when they come in the store. Maybe one day another phase will be like a PSA box of Sassafras clothes delivered to your house in your size and favorite shape, but that too is another business. It’s a good balance now where everyone is happy and growing, which is so gratifying.
I enjoy the curating aspect and right now there is a good balance. It’s all small batch so I couldn’t keep that balance year-round. Having a special place where its limited-edition small batch where not everyone is going to be wearing the same dress is what I dreamed of as a girl in Mississippi. Some of the designers work here in the shop at the retail level and all understand the work that goes into design, therefor they all support each other. Customers are greeted, all of them get a warm hello and that just isn’t something you get everywhere.
RW : How has this business evolved since you opened?
AT : When first I opened there were a lot of empty store fronts in Belltown during the recession. This space had been empty for three years and I wasn’t going to be dissuaded by anything, it was my dream and I was going for it. The fact that things are made here has evolved from the initial concept and it is our identity that everyone knows from the signs out front to the greeting you get walking in. People are very excited, and they can look downstairs and see the designers work area.
Second is the number of designers I work with. I love going to student designer fashions shows, there are three schools locally. Their minds are wide open and not focused on what will sell, they’re just able to design what’s in their mind. I select a few favorites and invite them to come talk to me and see if we can work together in the future. Established designers are coming to me, but I also love finding the new ones and lifting them up because I know it’s hard to get started and when you finish design school, you’re exhausted and don’t know where to go. Also, every summer interns from the different schools come here to work.
Every month I work with each of them and all but two, I’ve been to their locations and I know what their studios look like. A lot of the experience I got at Microsoft prepared me for success in this business. I help the designers look at what’s selling and what was a hot item in case you want to look at it when I give them a quarterly report.
RW : How do you manage your expectations when you see so many people buy clothes online of in the big store?
AT : The industry is changing so much. Customers care more and more about what kind of fibers are used, the impact on the planet, the fair treatment of worker’s, how much water is used. At Sassafras you’re going to find something that fits and if it doesn’t, we will alter it. The difference I see is that we are growing every year and the stores that aren’t paying attention to these changes are not growing. Our supply chain includes all these trunk shows so there is always something new and you can talk to the designers. Shari’s brand is La Macón, but it doesn’t mean tough but sweet. It’s how she describes her target customer.
RW : What’s the biggest misconception customers have when they get here?
AT : They have no idea what is involved in creating a pattern and sewing clothes from the design concept to the cost of fabric. I am not afraid to tell people about stores like Zara that haven’t paid their sewers in a long time and about the outstanding lawsuit against them.
I’m finding local companies that are making a conscious effort to manufacture in an ethical manner. One designer makes clothing from waist ends from the hosiery manufacturing industry that creates her own fabric from the waist and makes her own fashions. We’re having a trunk show by Arvin Goods here in Seattle that have been in business for over five years. They take cotton and recycle it by sorting the colors and weaving a new fabric from that without using any water. We’ll be carrying their socks and I love being part of that education process. One of our designers, Janelle Abbott got into Teen Vogue and is invited to NY fashion week. With a degree from Parsons she’s designing no waist clothing and was chosen because of her innovative unique brand.
RW : What could women do more to be supportive of each other’s business?
AT : Tagging each other’s posts on social media, helping get the word out, checking in on Facebook once you’re on site and talking about where you love to shop. Go to your local coffee shop and support the small shops. Remember, your local town exists not because of the big box stores, but because of the small ones that make it feel good like the kind of town where you want to live.