Old is new 

Designer finds future in recycled clothes

Some people are consumed by their craft. Then there’s Carol Lynn Lapotka of REcreate Designs, who sees her life in terms of skirts.

“If my husband and I want to stay in a hotel when we drive home for Christmas, that’s about two skirts,” she says. “And I have to sell four skirts to pay for the groceries this week.”

The Missoula clothing designer reads books like Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things to better understand the business and environmental ins-and-outs of her skirt-making venture. It’s a fairly serious approach to an operation that basically recycles old T-shirts and sweatshirts and makes them into hip couture.

But in a time when economic woes have unraveled other businesses, Lapotka is thriving—so much so that she quit her day job at a graphic design company this past August and now brings home the bacon for her and her husband, James, who is in law school.

Since 2005 when she first started REcreate, Lapotka, 31, has doubled her sales. Even in the last few years she was selling 20–30 skirts at $28 a pop each week at Missoula’s People’s Market and other weekend craft fairs. But in the last few months she’s graduated to 40–60 skirts and found a workspace for herself at the Zootown Arts Community Center (ZACC). It’s all enough to give her the confidence to take REcreate on as her sole project.

“I had a couple of [upcoming] shows in September where I would have to take off time from work,” she says. “And it was just like, either I could stress myself out even more or I could just give two week’s notice—which I did. I had worked so hard over the summer with my [day] job and with my business, I felt comfortable that if the economy goes further south we’d be okay.”

Lapotka started REcreate in Wisconsin before moving to Missoula in August 2007. She was a photographer at the time, a “starving artist,” and she started making Christmas gifts for people rather than buying them.

“I found a couple of shops kind of like Home Resource that opened up my brain,” she says. “I went in there and got old shutters and old random junk and I started making things and thought it was kind of fun.”

Skirts may be her cash cow, but Lapotka recycles, or “repurposes” other items, as well. Old book pages, maps and cloth scraps are among the things she makes into headbands, journals, tote bags, business card holders and jewelry. She says price and product variety is the key, and she abides by the belief that you can make products out of almost anything.

“Most things can become either a book, a tote bag or a clock,” she says. “Anything you can imagine can become one of those three things.”

Even with quitting her job, Lapotka finds herself working long hours sewing each of her skirts, with the demand never letting up. Lately, too, she’s been busy as the sponsor (along with local jeweler Angela Oakins) of the upcoming Holiday MADE fair, which showcases handpicked artists and coincides with the ZAAC spectacular and Gold Dust art fairs all on the same Northside street.

Despite numerous art projects, Lapotka has adopted measures to keep from being overwhelmed. She recently signed on with the Sustainable Business Council for support and she’s working with the Montana Community Development Corporation (MCDC), which helps her manage cash flow. She plans on hiring at least one other person in the next few months to sew skirts and build up inventory so that she doesn’t have to do it all herself.

Recently, Lapotka toured the Mystery Ranch factory in Bozeman (formerly Dana Designs) and was inspired by its industrial machines and assembly lines. It’s her dream, she says, to start a factory co-op where independent designers can own or rent out the space.

“I think the possibilities are kind of endless in Missoula,” she says. “It’s really hard to start new projects, you have to have the energy to do it. But my head’s full of ideas. Sometimes it explodes.”

But, she admits, large-scale production of her particular skirts will be a challenge.

“If you make widget A or widget B, you can always replicate it because it’s the same model,” she says. “But if everything is one-of-a-kind, like the skirts, it’s really hard to even imagine how to expand it to a national distribution.”

That challenge may be a ways off, so in the short term, Lapotka says she just needs to get a better website up and running so customers can purchase online.

“Yep,” she says, smiling. “Startin’ local first and takin’ over the world—one skirt at a time.”

The Holiday MADE fair at the Stensrud Building takes place Sunday, Dec. 14, from 11 AM to 7 PM. Donations or non-perishable food items suggested
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