San Francisco, California
Industry: Contract Manufacturing
Products: Cut-and-sew services
"Basically, the whole idea of starting this manufacturer, I give credit to giving," says Cahua.
She'd already launched a philanthropic initiative to feed homeless people in San Francisco. With D.a.D. (Designing a Difference) Sewing House, she sought to meld her "passion for helping the community and her passion for fashion together."
Her goal has been to help those without homes and at risk of losing their homes with career development, as well as people with disabilities and recently released from incarceration. "My mission was to help that demographic with employment," says Cahua. "The whole purpose is to work with at-risk people."
She started a nonprofit to work with shelters, jails, and other organizations to develop job training programs, but quickly realized she needed a for-profit component as well. "In order to realize my vision, I had to open my manufacturer," says Cahua.
In May 2017, she bought Lee & Lee Garments, a longstanding San Francisco cut-and-sew shop, and moved the 50-machine, seven-employee operation to a 6,000-square-foot space in the Dogpatch neighborhood as D.a.D. Sewing House.
Cahua has fostered the business from zero contracts in early 2018 to a "consistent group" of clients in 2019, including Amour Vert. "They market themselves as the most sustainable women's clothing brand," she says.
D.a.D. is also making promotional products for Salesforce and other tech brands and has also moved into home decor for Half Full and meditation pillows for Project Full. "I was surprised there was such a need for that, but it's been a pleasant surprise," notes Cahua of the latter.
Cahua says she's flexible on minimums, but her sweet spot is 100 units or more. D.a.D. also offers kitting, folding, and packaging services.
As she works to build the business, Cahua is also working to develop her corresponding training nonprofit and cement partnerships. D.a.D. typically has five interns at any given time, and she's working to integrate the for-profit and nonprofit as she moves forward.
"That's what I hope for," she says. "The sewing machine operators are getting older and retiring and there's nobody to replace them. . . . I know the need is there. That's why I am motivated to get this program going."
Challenges: "I'm very new to this and I'm learning constantly," says Cahua. "I also understand why there are so many domestic apparel manufacturers that are closing."
Costs are rising, she says, but the public is largely unwilling to pay more for U.S.-made apparel.
"I guess people don't value the skill behind it, compared to what people are willing to pay for a website," notes Cahua. "They get shocked when you say $50 to $75 an hour." Pattern-making, for example, involves technological know-how and sewing skills, she says, "Yet they devalue it."
Opportunities: "I see a lot of opportunity," she adds. "Being new to this industry, I'm not married to any system yet."
"I find there's a need for wearable tech manufacturers," says Cahua, noting she'd received five inquiries in the last month. "It requires wiring and weird construction, and really detailed sewing work, and it's not large quantities. . . . I'm open to that."
And D.a.D. is nimble enough to take on orders involving a lot of custom work. "Corporate clients love customization," she notes. The opportunity is "working with the tech companies, not running away from them. Being a creative, I think instead of running away from gentrification, we've got to work with it."
Needs: Partners for her job-training nonprofit. "I'm having conversations with several different options," says Cahua, citing the City College of San Francisco as a possible partner.
She's also looking for a manager to take the reins of the manufacturing operation. "I would like to focus on what I'm really good at. I'm good at communications, networking, and just making things happen. I just need an operations person."
Awareness is another need. "I would love to spread the word and let people know we're here and what we can do for them," says Cahua.