Fashion designer Sarah Van Aken

Who she is: Owner of the Philadelphia-based design house SA VA

What she does: Creates functional, locally-made women’s clothing by SA VA, as well as custom shirts, hospitality uniforms, and private-label garments.

Why she does it: “I grew up in a family that made most of its own clothes, so it seemed natural to look for a job in the garment business in New York City after college,” says the University of Delaware graduate who has a degree in Fine Art, Sculpture & Ceramics. “Fashion has always been in my blood.”



By Hope Katz Gibbs

Sarah Van Aken has long had a passion for designing beautiful, functional, organic clothes. Her Philadelphia-based design house, SA VA, is comprised of four private-apparel brands; Van Aken custom shirts, Van Aken Signature custom hospitality uniforms, VA Private Label garment-manufacturing services and SA VA women’s ready-to-wear.

“Each of the brands integrates high-design aesthetic and quality construction with socially consciousness business practices and community building,” explains Van Aken, a Philadelphia native who in 2008 partnered with local businessman Wayne Zukin, who funded the operation. “We strongly believe in local job creation, using sustainable and recycled raw materials, community partnerships, and producing all of the products in our Philadelphia Garment Center.”

Her concept is a hit. The staff at the Gotham Bar & Grill, River Park, Aureole, Rouge Tomate, and the Fontainebleau Hotel wears the Van Aken Signature line of clothes and custom hospitality uniforms. Other clients include Vs. The Earth, a rock band based in Washington, DC., and Deviant Jeans.


The value of keeping it local

Van Aken’s flagship store and design studio, which is located at 1700 Sansom Street in downtown Philadelphia, is adjacent to her garment center. All of her fabrics are fair-trade, and many are eco-friendly and made in the United States.

“As a company, we are really trying to consider every aspect of the garment — from how and whom it was made by, where it was made, what it was made with, how it is sold to our customers, and what happens when our customers are finished with a garment,” Van Aken explains.

To this end, she has incorporated the following key operations into SA VA:

  • Creating local jobs: In the next couple of years, Van Aken plans to create living-wage jobs in Philadelphia for 22 staff members.
  • Low environmental impact: She is also determined to reduce by half the carbon footprint of SA VA by manufacturing her garments in Philadelphia. While her clothes were initially made in Bangladesh, every SA VA garment is now made at her Philadelphia factory. She also uses reclaimed fixtures in her store, recycled paperhangers, and compostable shopping bags.
  • Community partnerships: Van Aken works closely with local organizations, including the Career Wardrobe and the People’s Emergency Center, which support women who are transitioning back into the work force through clothing and food drives, fundraising, and volunteerism.


The making of a clothing designer

Van Aken has been making clothes since she was in college.

“I grew up in a family that made most of its own clothes, so it seemed natural to look for a job in the garment business in New York City after college,” says the University of Delaware graduate who has a degree in Fine Art, Sculpture & Ceramics. “Fashion has always been in my blood.”

After working for a garment wholesaler managing overseas production, Van Aken moved back home to Philadelphia. To make ends meet, she managed a local restaurant and within several months she was managing multiple locations, as well as their corporate buying. After a two-year tenure as the restaurant’s Director of Operations, she took some time off.

“I was doing some part-time administrative work for a real-estate developer and bartending when I decided to start SA VA,” she explains. “I knew that no one in their right mind would give me half a million dollars to start a women’s clothing line, so I spent more than a year writing a business plan that began with getting into business by selling custom shirts. I knew I could start it for $10,000.”

Philadelphia real-estate developer Wayne Zukin loved the idea, and invested just enough for Van Aken to be able to jump-start the business. She then began creating and designing uniforms and custom shirts for restaurants, making her first sale in February 2006.

Thinking globally, acting locally

Later that fall, Van Aken opened a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with the help of another business partner.

Her first client was Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar & Grill. She parlayed that success into meeting other chefs, and the business grew enough to expand and launch the women’s clothing brand, SA VA.

“In summer of 2008, for personal and professional reasons I wanted to manufacture locally,” she shares. “We spent months branding SA VA, and it became apparent that the only way that I would feel good and the right way to be successful in the current climate was to transform my entire business and become socially conscious.”

She began forming close ties with nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia that help women, and also with the local government to keep as much of her business — everything from vendors to clients — in the city as possible.

In 2010, she launched an online store:

“We are really dedicated to the success of this e-commerce venture, and hopefully we’ll be able to expand regionally,” she says, admitting that running and growing a business can be stressful. “Start-ups and small firms always have trouble with cash flow, and the responsibility you have for your employees adds a lot of pressure. But I love this business. I love being a part of the creation process from start to finish.”

The importance of being inspired

Even more than clothing, Van Aken says, she loves textiles. And when it comes to having a role model, she says there is no one like Alexander McQueen in terms of design.

In terms of having a business model, she looks for inspiration to the Urban Outfitters Corporation. “That company has amazing branders, merchandisers, and business strategists,” she says. “They are virtually unparalleled in my opinion.”

The reason she wakes up in the morning

Van Aken says that her customers keep her excited about what she does.

Last summer, for instance, Judy Wicks, one of the founders of the Sustainable Business Network and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, BALLE came into the store to buy a dress for a cocktail party.

“She didn’t buy anything, but was in love with a skirt that we didn’t have in her size,” Van Aken explains. “I made her one in purple taffeta and gave it to her as a gift to wear to the event. Weeks later she told me that at that event she met a man with whom she danced all night and has dated ever since. They are now life partners, and she is amazed because she had given up on meeting someone special.”

Who says clothes don’t matter? “When Judy asked her boyfriend later why he asked her to dance,” Van Aken says, “he told her that she looked so amazing in the purple skirt that he couldn’t resist.”

Check out SA VA’s new line here: