A little over one year ago, Pittsburgh-based designers Rebekah Joy, Kelly Simpson-Scupelli and Rona Chang planted a flag for sustainable fashion at 3711 Butler Street.

Supported by Kiva and Bridgeway Capital’s Craft Business Accelerator, the trio launched Make + Matter, a studio storefront dedicated to ethically produced crafts and fashion, in August of 2018.

“We really wanted to highlight all the incredible design that’s happening in Pittsburgh,” says Joy. “We wanted to present it together as a cohesive collection.”

Speaking from the Make + Matter front desk, Joy took time to chat with NEXTpittsburgh about the lessons of the past year and the future of their socially conscious store.

Joy, Simpson-Scupelli and Chang, all textile artists of various persuasions, initially met through the organization’s Monmade network, a regional trade group that helps local makers grow their businesses.

The three bonded over their interest in sustainable, zero-waste design and agreed that there was a niche waiting to be filled in the local market. “The global fashion industry is the world’s second-largest environmental polluter, and regularly perpetuates worker abuse in the name of profits,” says Joy. “Make + Matter is proud to offer a solution.”

Of course, there were trepidations. None of the three had any retail experience, and “we weren’t sure how many people would be ready for the message,” recalls Joy. But “we all have been pleasantly surprised by how well the shop has been received.”

As Joy explains, Make + Matter has a unique business model, in that their primary financial goal is to support and grow the businesses of local designers.

“The most measurable marker of success of Make + Matter is the success of the local designers that we represent,” says Joy. “If the shop is self-sustaining and is also financially supporting dozens of local designers through providing them with a reliable sales channel, we are successful.”

She adds, “In the first year, we have reached both of these goals.”

The sales floor features a rotating lineup of clothing and crafts from small-scale makers and artists, many of whom are based in the Pittsburgh area.

Joy and her team offer four points of entry for local designers: regular consignment splits of 60/40 (60 percent of sales to the maker), limited “Visiting Designer” residencies with a 70/30 split, standard wholesale (50/50) and one-day or two-day pop-ups in the store at an 80/20 split.

Their current Visiting Designer is the textile artist Erin Carlson, who is creating a new line of woven blankets on site until the end of October and selling them in the store until at least the end of the year.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, Carlson says that normally she, like many in her field, has to rely on the summer craft fair circuit to generate most of her income for the year.

“It’s so beneficial, especially in the off-season,” says Carlson. It’s “a chance for a lot of people to see my work without having to go and do shows.”

The clothes at Make+Matter, primarily made by the founders themselves, are consistently the bestselling items. But Joy says the work of many local crafters have caught on with customers, leading the Make + Matter team to extend the time those items spend on the shelves.

The boutique currently features 30 makers, including local favorites such as Burghwood — carpenter Keith Loughrey’s line of wood furniture and homewares — and Vandalia Metal, a line of patina jewelry from designer Mary Fazio Romanyak.

Nisha Blackwell, founder of the fashion startup Knotzland in Wilkinsburg, first came to the store for a Father’s Day bow tie-making workshop, and essentially never left.

“For someone in my field,” says Blackwell, “it’s very rare to access new markets through retail shops, especially here in Pittsburgh.”

Following the success of the workshop, Knotzland piloted their spring/summer collection on the shelves of Make + Matter. Their fall/winter collection will follow in the next several weeks.

In addition to giving makers a space to shine, the shop is also a forum for new inter-medium partnerships.

After meeting through the store, ceramicist Ryan Elizabeths and SASHA jewelry founder Sara McClelland collaborated on a line of jewelry that is due to arrive in-store next month.

Make + Matter also hosts and participates in a variety of community events. They were featured during the Lawrenceville Corporation’s Artists Studio Tour last year, and they offer a number of DIY classes featuring their designers in residence.

Asked what changes she’d like to see within the next year, Joy says the goal remains the same. She and her team are committed not only to racking up sales but to getting residents across the city to think more carefully about where and how their crafts are produced.

“We want to open a dialogue about ethical design and sustainability,” says Joy.

To see more of their wares and learn about upcoming events, click here.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.