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Portrait of Seamstresses: Melissa and Pia

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At any goodbye, we all say this – “We’ll keep in touch!” Graduation, moving away, a break up, whatever the case may be, we make a promise to not become distant. The reality is, most relationships will fade. That’s okay, it’s a part of life, and as one relationship ends, a new one will begin. I’m not saying this happens every time. No, no, no. The keyword was “most”. Some bonds do last – Pia and Melissa are one example. They met when they were college students at The University of the Arts and immediately clicked. As they described themselves, Pia’s personality is chill, while Melissa’s is more intense. So, they balance each other out. They “meshed” well. Ying and yang. After graduation, they went their separate ways, but actually kept in touch. In 2012, they knew they wanted to do something together, and launched a collection of t-shirts. Four years later, their brand, Sepai + Kohai has changed significantly. They no longer make t-shirts, but beautiful, intricate and artistic dresses, skirts, pants, jackets and more. They even opened a shop on South Street here in Philly. You go girls!

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Tell us your story

Sewing has always played a big part in our lives.

Melissa – I started sewing at age 8. My 4-H club focused on sewing and that’s really where I began making clothes. After that, my mom bartered for me and my sisters to take private sewing lessons with friends and neighbors because we didn’t have a lot of money. I would make my own doll clothes patterns and adjust commercial patterns. My aunt went to Parsons for fashion design and I was a little in awe of her. It was a natural progression for me to pursue fashion, and I owe a lot to my mom for pushing me to learn to sew.

Pia- As a young girl, I was raised by my grandparents, and it was my grandmother who introduced me to sewing. She was a seamstress who made me and my sister dresses. We would also learn how to make clothes for our dolls. It wasn’t until high school that I thought about fashion design; my parents encouraged me to pursuit a profession where I would be able to land a great paying job after graduating. I thought that I would go into psychology, but during my freshman year of high school, a teacher opened my eyes to pursuing a career in design. I took a home economics class where I got reintroduced to sewing. We had a project to design a three piece collection where my teacher pulled me aside to chat about me going to school for fashion design. Art has always been a huge influence in my life because of my dad, who pushed me to take art classes in school. I even took a summer classes at Moore College of Art and Design for fashion design my junior and senior year of high school so I would get a head start. Convincing my parents that I would go into fashion design was tough, but after a few talks, we had a deal that I would prove to them there is nothing else I could picture myself doing and getting good grades (haha). They are my best supporters.

We met in college during fashion illustration class at Philadelphia University. We became friends and talked about doing a clothing line after school and actually made some attempts, but we were both focused on our careers at the time. It wasn’t until 6 years after we graduated that the timing was right. We also had gained a lot of experience during those years too, which was really important. Pia worked in fashion styling so she knows the ins and outs of producing photoshoots and Melissa had worked in design here and overseas. We each bring a different expertise to the table.

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name of your line?

We had talked about coming up with a name that defined balance, and it was Pia’s sister, Maria, she helped come up with it. Senpai and Kohai is a Japanese term that refers to a mentor/apprentice relationship. A senpai is a mentor and a kohai is the apprentice. We chose it because as designers, we are always open to learning new things. Fashion history, traditional crafts, techniques and traditional textiles are a few things that influence us. Together, we take what we have learned and apply that to modern design.

Philadelphia Fashion Incubator

Being in Philadelphia’s Fashion Incubator was such a great learning experience. It was also perfect timing because we had just launched our line and didn’t have a clear direction as to what the next steps would be. It quickly forced us to look at ourselves as a business that generated sales and was not just an expensive hobby. We learned about all aspects of running a business – marketing, social media, writing a business plan, meeting and getting advice from other entrepreneurs. Things that we didn’t learn in fashion school. Particularly helpful was working with Wharton grad students and consultants as well as being in their SBDC program.

What is your design process?

The textiles we find are usually the root of our inspirations. We have both been fortunate enough to have travelled a lot and usually bring back textiles from where we have been, which becomes the starting place for our designs. From there, we share inspiration images, start a color story and collect ideas for silhouettes. We then do sketching, and finally narrow down our ideas to come up with our line.

sourcing + producing

We have fabric sourced from India, Indonesia, Africa, the Philippines, Korea, as well as locally, including handwoven fabrics made for us in South Philly by a Burmese weaver. We mostly do our own prints, hand dyeing and fabric manipulation. We have a few seamstresses and pattern makers. Sometimes we make patterns and sew ourselves. We have also used a local factory for larger runs, but mostly support the seamstresses we know since we usually do smaller orders.

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biggest thing learned owning your own business

We are continually learning something, but the main things we’ve learned is how to manage money, and that you really have to follow your heart. Lots of people like to give advice, but sometimes it doesn’t always make sense for you. If you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing, then you’re not following your heart and it will show.

advise for start ups?

Our advice would be to work hard and concentrate on what’s at hand. Really know your craft and perfect it, no matter what anyone will say. Stay open and take it, but turn it into something that will help you grow. Most importantly, to start a business, you should take a few classes in business.

Do you sew for yourself? what machines do you use?

We try to make time to sew for ourselves, which seldom happens with our schedule. But we do have a few gems we are proud to wear! We have three machines we definitely can’t live without – our Juki 5550 Industrial, our Viking Husqvarna and our sergers.

Do you use any home sewing techniques in your collections?

We do some hand sewing on our denim jackets.

Have you ever had a mentor and if so, what did he or she teach you?

We had a few mentors, Danny Noble and Jules Catania. Danny had his own fashion line and successful business in the 80’s. He was able to teach us a lot about sales and marketing. Jules also had her own fashion business which was successful and based in Indonesia. She worked closely with a town that helped her in production there and her aesthetic was something we could relate to. Both Danny and Jules helped keep our head in the business and to always look for an outlet to sell.

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For Fun

What brings you the greatest joy?
Pia- To be able to work my dream job as a fashion designer.
Melissa- Seeing people wearing our designs and when they come back for more.
What are your vices?
Pia- I take on a lot of jobs (I am sill a full time stylist). I sometimes get lazy and need a good break and recharge my batteries.
What is on your nightstand?
Pia- Haha… Besides the usual lamp, change jar, phone charger and my favorite Volcano candle, I am currently reading Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington.
Do you have a secret talent?
Pia- I secretly love to dance hip-hop.
Favorite presser foot?
Pia- I really love the rolled hem foot.
Favorite fabric?
Pia- Gotta love a good cotton.
What gadget would you never leave home without?
Pia- So boring but my phone- best assistant!
What is one thing you wish you would have known when you were younger?
I wish I had known about loop turners!
What is your favorite Instagram feed?
Pia- I’m very into Jinxed @jinxedstore right now… I am always on a look out for awesome home good deals.
What is the best gift you ever received?
Melissa- My husband Isaac – he is such a big supporter from helping out with events to helping print scarves and tote bags, He is very understanding of when I’m too busy with business to spend time with him.
Pia- Oh man that’s a tough one to follow, the husband answer, but I have a favorite watch from my mom. She has collected some really nice vintage jewelry throughout her life and my favorite is this 80’s Gucci watch with all the 11 interchangeable bezels (rings) she handed down to me. I love it! Haha

find Senpai+Kohai elsewhere
website // instagram // facebook // twitter

Check out past Portrait of a Sewist + Handmade posts here

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3 Comments

  1. Reply

    Linda

    What a great story! It is lovely to read about women living their dream, and to have such a wonderful partnership! I wish Pia and Melissa all the success in the world!

  2. Reply

    Helen

    I think this series is fantastic!x

  3. Reply

    Angela

    right on m+p:::/::: Senpai + Kohai! making beautiful things that embody your vision, beauty, unique voice and hard work. so proud of you and looking forward to finding my next Senpai + Kohai creation. I can’t wait to wear my dress again this summer!

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