By Victoria Bails
Samuel Graeb was studying at the University of Montana when he bought his first article of hemp clothing: a pair of jeans.
After taking one of her dad’s old denim shirts, distressed from his contracting jobs, Anika Ignozzi painted a monster on the pocket.
Brandon Moon worked on another clothing line with someone else when he realized his coworker wasn’t taking the job seriously.
That’s how these twenty-some year-olds started their own distinctive clothing companies in the Pittsburgh area.
“I didn’t really decide to do it,” says Graeb about his company, planetHEMP. “I just felt like, literally like, called to do it and just started doing it.”
His hemp jeans felt just like pajamas, and he decided to do a little bit of research into hemp. He found that just about anything that can be made out of cotton can be made with hemp, just with no pesticides and a lot less water.
Graeb’s calling, and research, led him to quitting school in Montana and coming back home to Pittsburgh to start manufacturing clothes made out of hemp.
When Graeb first told his family his plan to drop out of college and make clothes out of the stock of cannabis plants, they weren’t thrilled about it.
“I think after their initial reaction, they realized it made more sense for me to do this because it’s more, like, it’s what I’m passionate about. They could tell, and they saw that I was really working hard for it and immediately wanted to help me instead of be, like, angry about it,” says Graeb. “I’ve gotten incredible support from them from the moment they realized I was serious about it. “
Now, he works closely alongside his family, especially with his grandmother, mother and sister. His grandma is skilled at sewing, and taught his mother her craft. The two work in-house to work on initial samples, patterns and small batches to release when designs are ready.
“They’re so creative and help me style stuff because I don’t really know how to dress women like they do,” says Graeb with a laugh. “It’s cool to be able to give them that outlet because they can do something they love and create, and I know I can get it out there.”
When he first started planetHEMP, Graeb knew he needed a website, pictures for that website and the ability to fulfill orders, but he felt scattered and unorganized. Now, he has it down to a system.
“I have a pretty good feel for the timeline, what percentage of our database of customers will actually buy a certain product again,” says Graeb. “I have pretty good feel whenever I release something.”
Graeb has even established a partnership with the Post-Gazette for a brand they have called Made In Pittsburgh. The brand sells clothing manufactured through planetHEMP.
“I feel more connected to it now because I have a better understanding now of how the industry moves and how my product moves and what people expect from my company,” says Graeb. “I’m hungrier now because I’ve been doing it longer and I want it to succeed to its fullest potential. And I just have more support behind it I think as we grow.”
As for Ignozzi, her brother connected her with a designer, and after seeing her dad’s revamped denim shirt, he asked her to produce eight more looks to be featured in the fashion show.
She taught herself how to use a sewing machine and made her eight looks for the fashion show, that was coincidentally on her twentieth birthday. They were a complete hit.
“Once I got a lot of reactions from people at the show, like, ‘this is great; this is unique,’ I’m like, ‘OK, maybe I have something,’” says Ignozzi. From there, Ooh Baby was brought to life.
Making clothes was a brand new interest for Ignozzi. For most of her life, she was normally preoccupied by sports. She was offered a scholarship to play Division I soccer for Wagner College and took the opportunity, deciding to study pre-medicine. But, to her, something didn’t feel right.
“I just didn’t like it,” says Ignozzi. “there’s more to me that I haven’t been able to discover because of my dedication to this sport.” So, after her freshman year, she made the decision to come home.
Ignozzi can remember finding her “Zen” in art class, never wanting to leave. During her first year of college, she would sometimes paint in her dorm room, but it was nothing too serious.
After leaving Wagner College, Ignozzi spent a year at community college while maintaining a hostess job at a restaurant. She only saw these as distractions from growing her own business. In the summer when she had more time to spend on Ooh Baby, she met the owner of a garage in the Strip District who got her into vending.
And it was at that garage in the Strip District where Catherine Drake first saw Ignozzi. Drake’s eye was caught by the “unique, bright and out of the ordinary” designs.
“You wouldn’t see everyone on the streets wearing them,” says Drake. That day, Drake says she bough a hand-painted shirt with different patterns sewn onto it.
Now, Ignozzi is no longer going to school and can financially support herself from selling her clothing designs.
“I’m freaking happy,” says Ignozzi with a laugh.
HIPPY AT HEART
Similarly, Moon also started his company, Hippy at Heart, without much knowledge of what he was doing.
“I just did it blind and started putting in orders for clothes, and made a website, and made social media and just kinda started it,” says Moon. “It really didn’t have that much behind it honestly. Just an idea, really.”
But if there was one thing Moon knew for sure about his company, it was what kind of brand it was. He intentionally spelled “hippie” like “hippy” in order to distance his company from the typical 60s and 70s stereotype of a hippie. His is the “2018 version,” as he describes it.
“It’s like new and improved. You work hard. You do what you’re supposed to. You get the job done by any means necessary. You still have a good time. You still get into stuff,” says Moon. “You still do whatever you want, but at the end of the day you work hard, and you do what you’re supposed to.”
And Moon puts in that hard work at his day job, which relocated him to Providence, RI. He travels from Monday through Thursday for work, and brings back a lot of what he sees on the road into his designs. But ultimately, his design ideas are taken from Pittsburgh.
Moon feels like many other clothing companies are similar, like everybody is doing the same thing.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want it to just be a clothing line. The end goal for this is to turn it into just this company that gives back and a company that does good,” says Moon.
KacieJo Brown heard about Hippy at Heart through knowing Moon as a mutual friend.
“When his clothing company first started to get popular, I figured out it was him and I wanted to support him in any way that I could,” says Brown.
Brown bought a hoodie and a headband from Hippy at Heart. When she bought the hoodie, the proceeds went towards breast cancer fundraisers. Brown bought the headband when Moon donated proceeds to the Tree of Life Synagogue after the mass shooting in October.
“He just does a lot of philanthropic sales, and I like supporting him and those causes,” says Brown.
He always wants Hippy at Heart to have a positive outlook.
To achieve that, he’s run donation campaigns to give back. In October, he ran a campaign where if Hippy at Heart was tagged in a post saying a customer donated to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, they were automatically entered to win a recycled military jacket.
Moon says, “I want it to be about being good and helping people and making a difference.”
As for Renee Kostas, she started her business, Posh Local, an online boutique, in Pittsburgh to sell to women of all age ranges through her collections: the Southside Collection, the Shadyside Collection, the Downtown PGH Collection and the Suburban Collection.
“Basically the goal of Posh Local is to provide bold, unique clothing,” says Kostas. “There’s really something for everybody whether it be the stay-at-home mom who just needs an outfit to go to the grocery store but still look cute and comfortable, or the college student who wants an outfit to go hit the bar in.”
But, there’s a twist in the way Kostas runs her business: she personally delivers packages to her clients on the same day they buy if they’re in a ten-mile radius of Kostas.
“It’s just me so it’s kind of difficult balancing that to make sure I’m available at every hour increment to be able to accommodate the deliveries,” says Kostas. On top of this business, Kostas works a couple other side jobs.
Through her use of Instagram, Kostas has been able to expand her clientele. Kostas also collaborates with other boutique owners in Pittsburgh to do pop-up shops to grow a little more in her business.
Brittany Bishop says she first heard about Posh Local through a girl she went to high school with – Kostas and Bishop’s fellow classmate were sorority sisters in college. Through social media, Bishop found out about a pop-up shop Kosta’s hosted and followed her products after that.
Bishop bought a romper and a sleeveless blazer at a pop-up shop in South Side.
“This was my first time meeting her in person and seeing her stuff in person,” says Bishop.
“The most interesting part, I think, is meeting the people and all of the clients,” says Kostas. “It is a more personal way to shop for clothing.”
On the flip side, Alex Clemence and Erich Kidlik, store manager and assistant manager of Steel City storefront, respectively, are learning how to manage a business under the wing of company owners Brandon and Carly Grbach.
Clemence mainly takes care of the team, orders inventory and deals with customer relations.
Kidlik helps with day-to-day tasks and works closely with Brandon as the merchandising manager to create displays and dress the mannequins.
With the owners, the managers have weekly meetings where they discuss what’s happening in the store, how the numbers are looking and any new ideas. They read leadership books together and discuss them together to help with professional growth.
Mainly for us, they’re kind of just there to help us grow as leaders, and help us grow and kind of figure out what we’re doing here,” says Clemence.
Kidlick adds, “It’s a great relationship that we have with the owners to work with them so closely.”
Clemence has watched the store grow from a seasonal pop-up shop to a permanent store front, and from carrying garbage bags full of t-shirts from the Grbach home to the store to opening up a new warehouse in Oakland.
“It’s just grown so much in those terms,” says Clemence.
Kidlick says that, although the company has expanded, they haven’t changed much when it comes to principles and fundamentals, which he believes is what makes Steel City stand out.
Alexa Newborough always admired Steel City’s designs.
“Usually, when you see Pittsburgh stuff, it’s only Steelers, Penguins or Pirates – and that’s cool – but when you’re not the biggest sports fan on the block, but still love the city, there aren’t many options,” says Newborough.
When Steel City made a shirt to donate proceeds to the Tree of Life Synagauge, Newborough jumped on the opportunity to buy a “great shirt for an even better cause.”
“The stuff that still makes us stand out is the quality of our shirts, the cool designs, and our dedication to the best customer service,” says Kidlick.
He believes these qualities are what has helped the company grow to what it is today.
Last year, Steel City wanted to find different ways to bring the community together, much like they try to ensure their t-shirts make people feel like a part of the community. The company started putting on events such as game nights at the store or movie showings at the Waterfront. They even try to make their warehouse and sidewalk sales feel more like a community event as they know wait times tend to get pretty long.
That community and family aspect has been brought back full-circle to their associates through “family nights” hosted once every month. These nights allow the team, which is already small, to build relationships by spending quality time together. Whether it’s going to Kennywood, attending a concert or having a family dinner, the team feels like more than just employees.
“It has that family atmosphere already,” says Kidlick. “We see this place as a family.”