Rachel Hart of Duluth has found a niche with her handcrafted, vintage-inspired aprons she designs and makes herself. Among the aprons she offers through her online business, Apron Elegance, is the “Bonita,” meaning “pretty” in Spanish, which sells for $175.
Maybe it was growing up in a family of women. Maybe it was the 1950s music they would listen to. Maybe it was Rachel Hart’s love of pink, sequins and finery.
But Hart is a girlie girl. “More is better — more pearls, more pink, more frills,” says Hart, her face framed in curls. “I love girlie things.”
In the past six months, the 36-year-old Hart has parlayed her love of frills and artful entertaining into a home-based, online retail business selling upscale, retro-inspired aprons she designs and makes herself.
“I don’t know if there’s a market yet,” she said a year ago.
But a lot has happened in a year. Working 10 to 12 hours a day out of her Duluth home that she shares with her husband, Justus, she has created her product line, sewed up a storm and launched the Web site for Apron Elegance in February.
Now she knows there’s a market for the aprons.
“I’m gift industry,” she says. “People see me as a way to give a personal gift. I’m trying to offer things people can’t get anywhere else.”
She currently sells up to seven aprons a week, but orders are growing as the word gets out and as her Web site gets linked to others. Specialty stores also are interested in carrying her aprons.
“I can’t keep up on my own anymore with the orders,” she said this month, noting she may need to hire an assistant.
Sewn from luxurious fabrics with elegant detailing and selling for $25 to $300 each, these are no ordinary aprons.
“They’re heirloom-quality garments, something that can be passed down,” Hart says. “My ultimate dream is that it would be an heirloom for somebody.” More fashion than function, her hostess aprons are a throwback to the 1950s, when women wore fancy aprons for entertaining.
Using satin, taffeta, velvet and lace, Hart doesn’t scrimp on materials. Some aprons have petticoats made with yards of gathered tulle. Some are fringed with handmade taffeta bias tape, lined in satin and decorated with rhinestone buttons or tassels. There are aprons for brides, aprons for special occasions, and matching ones for mothers and daughters.
Hart can’t compete with the cost of aprons made overseas and she isn’t trying to. Each couture apron takes 15 to 30 hours to make. Fabric can cost $20, buttons $35, and lace can cost $40 per yard.
DREAM COMES TO LIFE
For Hart, it’s been a journey that started two years ago when she made an apron for herself.
“I love cooking, entertaining, baking and serving people,” Hart explained. “I wanted to look as good as I felt when I was doing that.”
The fact that she didn’t have a sewing machine and hadn’t sewn since junior high didn’t deter her a bit.
She found a pattern for a vintage 1940s apron online. She bought a sewing machine and taught herself to sew all over again. Family and friends loved the elegant hostess apron she made and wanted one of their own or to give as a gift. It gave Hart — who formerly worked in sales and advertising — ideas for a business she could get excited about.
Hart had her advertising job and was working at Starbucks by Miller Hill Mall at the time. She would tell her boss, Lisa Olson, about her designs and her search for fabrics and the challenges of getting a business started.
“We talked about it everyday,” Olson recalled. “She was telling me her ideas for these aprons. They sounded so amazing.”
When Olson did see the aprons, she was “blown away” by Hart’s creativity.
At Olson’s suggestion, Hart displayed her designer aprons at the coffee shop last spring, as framed works of art on the wall. Customers were surprised, then impressed, to learn that the barista who had just made their latte created the aprons.
“They’re just gorgeous,” said Olson, who has two of Hart’s aprons.
Hart left her Starbucks job six months ago as her business launched. She currently has about 30 apron designs in her collection, both full-length and half-apron styles, with just one or two of each in stock. As one gets sold, she makes another if she still has the materials for it. If not, the style gets retired as she continues to design more.
“I have more ideas than I have time for,” she says.
While Hart specializes in fancy hostess aprons, she’s adding more moderately priced cotton aprons for cooking to meet a demand for them. At the University of Minnesota Duluth farmers market, where Hart is a vendor, she can’t keep up with the demand for her terry cloth aprons. They start at $25.
Read more about Hart’s story in the Duluth News Tribune, or visit her site at ApronElegance.com.