Travel usually opens up new worlds but for Stephanie Link, 31, a trip to El Salvador was life changing. At the time, the Helias Catholic High School graduate was enrolled in the textile and apparel management masters program at the University of Missouri Columbia.
“One of my professors called me over winter break and asked if I was interested in working a grant that would send me to El Salvador. TexOps, an apparel factory, was starting their own yoga line and wanted consultants for pattern making and fit,” she said. “I was supposed to go for four weeks but ended up staying for six and worked as a consultant.”
She assisted TexOps in the product development (pattern making, garment fit, production details) on the fall 2012 samples. While there, she met Jiji, an expat, who worked at the factory and was given the task of creating a career training program for women in need of skills training.
“I was in my first year at Mizzou, for my assistantship I taught intro to apparel production (basic sewing skills). I had all my teaching materials and textbooks with me so when there was downtime with the yoga project I would give her advice on how to teach someone to sew who had no experience with a machine,” she said.
After meeting the first group of women who started with the GARROBO project in July of 2012, she returned to her studies at the university. She and Jiji kept in touch during this time and then she invited Link to return at the end of February 2013. Link stayed with Jiji and her husband and taught pattern making to four trainees, who had already been in the GARROBO project for six to nine months.
One day Link noticed a tiger striped shoe with the letters GARROBO printed across the toe…and Collegiate Kicks was born.
“I waited a while to ask Jiji if she would be willing to replace the name on the shoes with M-I-Z-Z-O-U. I explained that our fans are just crazy about their sports teams. Jiji was not offended at all! She said, ‘If you think you can sell them in the U.S. of course change what the shoe says!’” Together they decided to move the GARROBO logo to the insole of the shoe.
Back in Missouri, Link spent 18 months going back and forth with the shoe factory and Jiji working on prototypes of the shoes. Last summer, during her third trip there, she spent five weeks overseeing the production of the shoes. Collegiate Kicks officially launched in the fall of 2014 and currently offers four different styles of shoes in six different sizes, ranging from 6 to 11, which can be purchased online at
www.collegiatekicks.com, or at Mustard Seed Fair Trade in Columbia.
Working in her grandmother’s St. Louis-based bridal shop, R&M Designs, Link grew up watching a master seamstress and business owner in action. “She made custom dresses often for three generations of women from the same family. I learned a lot while spending summers there.”
After receiving her bachelor’s of fine arts degree from the Stephens College in May of 2006, she worked as a project manager, designer and pattern maker for R&M Designs in St. Louis, owned by her grandmother. While working at R&M she started to realized that the work she did with her grandmother was a dying art. “Often when I was working with customers they would remark ‘my grandma tried to teach me to sew but I had no interest, it’s so great seeing someone your age learning from your grandma,’ and that is when I decided to go to graduate school so I could teach what I loved.” Link later worked as an alterations specialist at David’s Bridal in Columbia, Missouri while attending graduate school.
she was at a restaurant eating sushi near an American man and his daughter. “We started talking about being from Missouri and he definitely knew about Stephens College and its reputation in the fashion industry.” She co-taught Advanced Wool Tailoring as an adjunct professor at Stephens in the spring of 2009 and in the fall of 2014.
Link doesn’t speak Spanish fluently and the trainees in El Salvador don’t speak much English but they were able to communicate through pictures, gestures and Google translate. “Jiji would also translate but when she was busy I would find a way to communicate, you can really say a lot with gestures, pictures and the words we were teaching each other. I know how to say pencil, scissor, body parts, different measurements and pattern making direction in Spanish, basically anything having to do with apparel production and pattern making.”
Jiji calls the young trainees Garrobitas, little lizards, and the older ones Garrobos. In the GARROBO project girls under 18 don’t do any production and are there solely to learn; those older than 18 who have already completed the program are part of the mini productions team making garments for small designers around the world.
During each trip to El Salvador Link taught pattern making to the current members of the GARROBO project. “These young ladies picked up pattern making so fast, especially when they learned they got to keep all the garments they made for themselves. I also taught them that in fashion design there are no mistakes, just opportunities of design details. One of the Garrobos made a dress and the sleeve ended up being too tight, so we just added a stripe into the seam, then it looked great and fit perfect. We had a fashion show and taped it and those employees who couldn’t attend could watch it on the large screen televisions, where we had a party.”
The unique designs on Collegiate Kicks are made possible by a high-tech printing process. First large inkjet printers print the design on paper and then with a combination of heat and pressure the ink is transferred to the fabric. Jiji and her team prepare the fabric and printed paper and then implement the sublimation process with the help of experts from TexOps. They also make the spirit bands and carrying pouches for the shoe. Once GARROBO’s portion of the production is complete all the parts are sent to a shoe factory where the fabric is combined with leather and the soles are attached.
That’s the slogan of the GARROBO project at TexOps. In addition to offering the trainees a safe place to work and learn there are many other amenities, including a Montessori school for their children, a health clinic and English and computer classes. There are also extracurricular activities, soccer, softball and yoga classes offered to all employees.
at the University of Missouri. “I always knew I would go into fashion design but designing shoes and going into rural sociology were total accidents. I was working on my masters thesis with GARROBO and realized in addition to fashion I really cared about the people. I made the move into Rural Sociology where I am leaning new ways to approach fashion and the countless people in the global apparel industry. I plan to merge what I am learning in both fields to become a stronger professor in the future.” She has served as a teaching assistant and research assistant for Mary Grigsby, a professor in rural sociology. She hopes to receive her doctorate in the spring of 2017.
she consults in the retail space at the Integrative Medicine Clinic at Capital Region Medical Center, operated by her father, a physician who previously served as an ER doctor for many years.