Mary Alice Duff — a 33-year-old mom, former social worker, hobby seamstress turned fashion entrepreneur and sustainable fashion geek — makes custom women's clothing in sizes 0 through 28.
Talk about a woman disrupting fashion's old-school retail model.
But that's not all.
A rack of samples from Duff's Alice Alexander collection greets visitors to her 1,000-square-foot East Falls space, but the spot isn't really for shopping. Fast fashion doesn't live there. It's where three seamstresses make every piece of the collection for women, especially plus-sized women, who crave great clothing. It's where Duff takes photos of herself — a size 16/18, she is her own best model — and posts them on Instagram, where she does at least half of her business. It's how she's picked up orders from as far away as Australia.
She has that customer base because, quite frankly, the Alice Alexander collection is cute and modern. There are no boxy, hempy, shapeless pieces here. This fall's collection includes a dark-teal jumpsuit, a pair of wide-legged orange marmalade trousers, and an emerald pussy-bow blouse — Duff hand-dyed the fabric herself.
"People are tired of wearing garbage," said Duff, who looked rather smart in a cotton canvas midi skirt dyed red clay. From a distance, the skirt looks like suede. "It's simply a matter of making clothes that fit people … all people. I am my customer. I'm not going to wear an oversize linen smock. I mean, in no universe is that going to happen. None!"
Duff isn't the only designer, local or nationwide, who has taken a vertical approach to fashion entrepreneurship, meaning she has taken on the responsibility of designing, sourcing, and manufacturing her collection under one roof.
Bela Shehu and Joanne Litz oversee the making of their respective NINObrand and Steel Pony collections. And both of those brands, like Alice Alexander, are sustainable because, for the most part, they are produced with natural and organic textiles, made with a low carbon footprint, and the owners see to it that seamstresses are paid fairly.
But Duff has taken this holistic concept one step further by making the clothes to order and keying in on the plus-size shopper, who doesn't have the same cute, sustainable options for well-made clothes. Sure, this woman may find trendy pieces at any number of big-box or fast-fashion stores, but she's just as concerned about how they're made as her thinner sisters.
That's the main reason Duff uses the made-to-order model. Keeping surplus inventory is wasteful, she says, so she begins making pieces only when orders come in. It may take up to two weeks for a buyer to get an item, but when the pattern is cut, Duff knows it's sold. This is particularly important in the world of plus-size fashion.
Retailers have historically defended their lack of fashionable clothing in sizes larger than 14 by saying those women just don't shop — they make the clothes and are left with too much inventory on their racks. (For the record, Duff says that's hogwash: "My best-selling sizes are in the 16-through-20 range, easily.")
Not only does Duff not make pieces before she has an order in hand, she doesn't make the different sizes for each pattern until she has a good idea of how the style will do. Instead, she releases the collection on her website and then, based on the orders, views, and customer feedback, she will produce the sample. It can cost thousands of dollars to make the patterns needed for each style.
"That's the number-one reason why retailers claim they can't include plus sizes," Duff said. "If there is a way to start an inclusive and sustainable apparel company and do it in a way that's super-lean, we've figured it out. … We are not guessing."
Duff has been on the tall and solid side of fashion for most of her life — by the time she was 18, she was an official six-footer and was playing Division 1 basketball for Marist College — but she's relatively new to the fashion business.
After getting two master's degrees, one in social work and the other in law and social policy from Bryn Mawr, she embarked on the nonprofit executive track, working closely with city programs aimed at alleviating poverty. She liked her job but it didn't excite her. She took up sewing as a creative outlet. Then she had a baby girl, and Duff, once a solid size 12/14, was in the 16/18 zone. "I went off the fashion cliff," she said, recounting the trouble she had finding clothing she liked and that fit her.
So she began making her own.
"I made a circle skirt of plaid wool," Duff said. "It was the first time I made something fully lined. I even put in an invisible zipper. I think it struck people that I was a size-18 woman wearing clothes that clearly weren't off the rack."
She took that confidence and enrolled in sewing classes at Philadelphia's Made Institute. By December 2016, she was working on her business plan — understanding those spreadsheets came in handy. In spring 2017, she quit her day job and moved into a shared studio in Kensington where she made her first collection and taught sewing. She was also awarded a space as a designer-in-residence in the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator. That fall, she launched Alice Alexander, a combination of her husband's and her daughter's names. It was plus-size only.
"But our sales were terrible," Duff said. "I just couldn't figure out how to get in front of people We sold nothing."
Duff retooled her business in March, expanding Alice Alexander offerings to the size 0-to-12 crowd. She also launched an Indiegogo campaign where people could buy the entire spring 2018 collection, a capsule, or just one piece at 30 percent off. That meant the entire 12-piece collection could be snagged for $800. Not a bad deal, because Alice Alexander fall collections range in price from $155 for a blouse to $325 for a fully lined moto jacket. She raised more than $11,000 and the orders came rolling in.
"My theory was if I could get these women in better clothes, clothes made from natural materials in beautiful colors, then I could get them in and I would get repeat buyers," Duff said.
Eventually, Duff said, she wants to open a full-scale manufacturing facility, a lofty task in a city that seems to prefer turning old buildings into loft space. But Duff is determined. She spent a lot of time working with poor and disenfranchised people, and local manufacturing jobs, she says, offer good work that not only brings new life into communities that people once thought were gone but provides better clothes — something we all say we want. We just have to be willing to pay for it.