Fashion has never been my forte. I often dress in the dark by feeling for the most comfortable fabrics in the closet. Last semester, an art major sitting in the front row of my class informed me that my old grey shirt was, in fact, green. Time finally taught me why my father wears one of three colors of Dickies work clothes every day.
“Fashion is not necessarily about labels,” said the designer Ralph Lauren. “It’s not about brands. It’s about something else that comes from within you.”
This idea goes beyond clothes. For instance, economic diversification is now a fashionable term on the Iron Range, often the case whenever iron ore prices hover around $50 a ton. The mining business booms and busts, our streets full of blustering talkers like me demanding we expand our regional economy beyond this cycle. Unfortunately talk of economic diversification often proves to be a fad, not a lasting commitment, and we end up repeating these patterns of economic instability with diminishing returns.
Economic fashion comes from within, too. People shape the economy with their ideas and labor. For instance, on the quiet main streets of Hibbing one finds not one, but two newer boutiques, both run by young entrepreneurs who started their businesses against long odds.
The first, Moxie, opened on First Avenue in 2008. At the time, every mine on the Iron Range was idled in the national recession. Suzanne Rian, a Hibbing native with a lifelong interest in fashion, mulled a new start in her life. After having a difficult time helping a friend find a simple “little black dress” in Hibbing, she set about to bring a quality clothing store for women to her hometown. The first few years were a struggle, but recently business has surged.
“Ultimately what has helped my business grow as much as it has over the past 18 months or so is the return to high quality, USA-made pieces,” said Rian. What didn’t work in 2008 is now working overtime, building a repeat customer base that I am proud of.”
The clothes might cost more, but Rian explains why that’s not a bad thing.
“I feel, and my customers seem to agree, that now more than ever it’s important to pay for a quality garment and to pay a fair wage to those constructing it,” said Rian. “Doing the ethical thing does not always pay off, but in this case it has.”
Rian said she’s honest with customers about what she would wear, and stresses the value of quality clothing that can be worn many times, many ways.
“I rarely spend more than $100 on a piece of clothing unless I can wear it three seasons out of the year, layered in various ways,” she said. “Talking about cost per wear has been helpful and more people are thinking about quality vs. quantity and investment pieces rather than ‘fast fashion.’”
Down the street and around the corner, Nina Brooke Pleshe opened the Nina Brooke boutique on Howard Street last year. Then she expanded the business this summer even though her husband was laid off from the mines.
“When I first talked about opening a boutique up here people looked at me, smiled and I could just tell by the look in their face that they thought it wasn’t going to happen,” said Pleshe “It was just that mentality that a lot of people have up here. Every time I experienced that it motivated me more.”
Pleshe said she had a difficult time accessing small business loans and grants to open her business, so she started small and built up on her own. Now her shop is open more regularly and has seen an increase in customer traffic.
“The community has really been excited to see my business downtown and I am so grateful,” said Pleshe. “Social media has been an amazing tool. I want to show everyone my personal side too: I am a nurse, a mama of a 1- and 3-year-old, and I work my buns off at what I do.
“I want people to see you can create things by working hard and figuring it out for yourself,” said Pleshe.
Like Moxie, Nina Brooke’s sells American-made designer clothing. Both are located within walking distance in downtown Hibbing.
These entrepreneurs demonstrate important truthes about economic diversification. Iron Rangers *want* economic diversity. The best investments are often small and homegrown. Iron Range history is full of external power. Our future, if it is to be, must come from within.
“I always say to people if you have a dream make even just one commitment and get yourself in today so that it is hard to give up,” said Pleshe. “Say your dreams out loud.”
Meantime, Rian finds support in the Iron Range community and room to grow.
“I wouldn’t be in business in this town without my Iron Range stubbornness that carries me through the tougher times, or the support of my family, customers, and friends or the support of great local business leaders who have spoken so kindly about me and encouraged me to carry on,” said Rian.
We know our Iron Range communities have faced uncertainty for generations. Resilience keeps us going, but we need more. In this land of rusted metal and strong arms, perhaps the soft touch of fabric will help us understand that the future is matter of design. A touch of style makes tomorrow look much better.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.