Sisters - in - law fashion line of clothing (article appeared in Franklin Magazine, the Sunday Republican, Springfield, Massachusetts on Sunday, September 26, 1999)
By Maria Trombly
For most clothing manufacturers, labor is one of the smallest components of the final price of an item. There's advertising and marketing, transport, and of course, the retail mark-up.
That's not the case with First Mountain Design in Leverett. Owners and sisters-in-law Cynthia and Shirley Thomas estimate that about half of the final cost of an item goes to pay for the labor to make it and the other half goes into materials.
The Leverett team pays contractors a rate for which they would be willing to work. The rate can vary depending on experience and other factors....
"A lot of industry has deserted the local area and we feel a responsibility there," said Cynthia. "We could probably grow a lot larger but it would take it out of the Valley for laborers," added her partner. "We could take it to California or New York, where we could get everything made a lot cheaper than we're having it made now, but it wouldn't be the same."
"That's why we don't sell to stores," Cynthia continued. "It would double the price of a product. We wouldn't want to pay those prices and we wouldn't expect our customers to."
Instead, the sisters-in-law sell through their web site (www.firstmountaindesign.com), through open studio events held five times a year, at craft shows and through a carefully tended customer mailing list.
Over the 10 years they've been in business, they have found a core of dedicated customers who, in turn, introduce their friends to First Mountain Design. The owners claim their company has perfected a line of clothing that's always comfortable, always in style and always appropriate.
And, for the most part, First Mountain Design has been a well-kept secret.
"If everybody wanted to buy our clothes, we wouldn't have enough," Shirley said. "We would probably have to go off to some foreign country to get them made, and we want to stay local."
It all started, as many businesses do, almost entirely by chance.
Shirley Thomas' two sons wanted to have trendy fleece clothing so instead of spending money at stores, she turned to her sewing machine. She used the left over pieces of fabric to make hats which are still a First Mountain staple. The hats were stylish enough to be worn for a night out on the town and functional enough to hit the ski slopes and became popular with a variety of customers, even chemotherapy patients at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York who were dissatisfied with the usual head scarves.
Cynthia Thomas, meanwhile, was running her own business as a graphic artist , making note cards and prints.
Since the hats were a seasonal item, Shirley Thomas began to look for something to make the rest of the year and the two long-time friends began producing pants and skirts.
At the beginning, all the clothes were a size medium, the size Shirley and Cynthia wear. "We've always figured that if we can't sell it, we'll wear it ourselves," Shirley said.
And they do. The two partners are walking advertisements for their clothes and are often stopped by people interested in knowing where they got them. For that reason, Shirley and Cynthia travel prepared, with a ready supply of sales brochures.
The pants and tops come in a wide palette of colors: white, natural, earth tones, brights and patterns. Many are decorated with prints of Cynthia's watercolor paintings.
"We wear nothing else," Cynthia said. "The business can't fail, because then we'd have nothing to wear."
First Mountain Design has also branched out to large and small sizes, larger than Shirley and Cynthia and smaller than Shirley and Cynthia. But because of the loose construction of the clothing, the exact sizes don't really matter.
Pants, for example, are made with dinner-friendly elastic waists and are cut loose enough for the most demanding yoga exercises.
"We warn first-time users to ease into them gently because there's a sudden whiplash of fun when they put them on," Cynthia said. "It's not just a comfortable and stylish outfit, it's a life-style as well."
The clothes are fully washable and need no ironing. "We don't want people to fuss about their clothing," Cynthia said. "There's enough going on in one's life."
Their philosophy of making clothes that they want to wear themselves, paying their workers wages for which they themselves would be willing to work. Their support of local organizations such as the Amherst Survival Center and the Western Mass Food Bank has resulted in a successful and enjoyable business for the Thomases.
"If it isn't fun, we're not going to do it," Cynthia said. "But although it may look like we're off the wall and unstructured, everything is very methodical. It's not one of those businesses that you do on a lark."
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