In late August, Kiya Tomlin delivered a powerful keynote at the annual fundraiser of Strong Women, Strong Girls, the mentoring group  that works to raise ambition and self-esteem of girls in underserved communities.

Tomlin told of an earlier talk she gave to kids in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. At the end, and much to her surprise, the girls were focused on one thing only. “’Your husband is the head coach of the Steelers. He makes a lot of money. Why do you work?”

“It caught me a bit off guard because I never really thought of it that way,” Tomlin told the audience. “But five things came to mind.” She shared them with the Strong Women, Strong Girls supporters, which included many college student mentors.

“Self-fufillment: I care about myself and about making a difference in my community and in the world.

Identity: I work because I have an image of the woman I want to be.

Ambition: I work because I’m a dream seeker with dreams of my own. I won’t be content if I give up on those.

Strength: I work because as the child of a single mom, I knew I never wanted to be financially or emotionally dependent on anyone but myself.

Life: I work because only I can put the markers on my tape measure of life. That is how I define truly living.”

These days, her life is defined by her multiple roles as mom, wife and entrepreneur/designer. And her work has culminated in the opening of a stylish retail space — Kiya Tomlin Pittsburgh — on Broad St. in East Liberty where she now welcomes the public to see her designs, including her Uptown Sweats Collection.

Tomlin opened the studio for her own private workspace in 2012, to sew custom designs for clients and work on Uptown Sweats, her clothing line which debuted in 2014 to much acclaim. The line, most noted for its stylish sweatshirt dress, marries “glamour with the comfort and ease of a favorite sweatshirt” and was initially sold to boutiques.

Kiya Tomlin Pittsburgh in East Liberty. Photo by Tracy Certo.

“But as the neighborhood started picking up and my Uptown Sweats Collection was coming to fruition, I realized it would be useful to have a retail space so people could walk in and purchase directly from me,” she says.  In the spring of this year, Kiya Tomlin, Pittsburgh opened its doors in East Liberty to the public.

To complete the store offerings, Tomlin invited talented local designer Sandra Cavadid, known for her distinctive handcrafted handbags and goods from Colombia, to share the space. “We have essentially the same target market and the same price range. We really complement each other,” says Tomlin, who is pleased to now offer “the whole package.”

With the launch of her own line, Tomlin has come into her own as a business woman and is enjoying a wave of publicity–catch her in People Magazine where she’s looking fabulous in her black sweatshirt dress with a favorite pair of Christian Dior booties, or see her  profiled in State of Play, an HBO football documentary, or in an upbeat Essence profile on her secrets to success. To name a few.

Clothing by Kiya Tomlin, jewelry and handbags by Sandra Cadavid. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Recently, Tomlin scored a red carpet moment when Meghan Klingenberg, Pittsburgh native and defender on the Women’s National Soccer Team, chose a Tomlin design to wear to the ESPY 2015 awards, where she and her teammates won the Best Team Award. “It was such an honor that she selected my design to wear to such a special event,” says Tomlin.

Meghan Klingenberg of the Women’s National Soccer Team at the ESPY Awards wearing a Tomlin design. Photo courtesy of Kiya Tomlin.
Meghan Klingenberg of the Women’s National Soccer Team at the ESPY Awards wearing a Tomlin design. Photo courtesy of Kiya Tomlin.

Tomlin’s success is no surprise: a career has always been a priority.

When she met her husband Mike, she was a pre-med student. As he progressed on his coaching path, she ditched the idea of med school due to the mobility required of coaches. But her desire to develop a career remained strong.

“For the next few years, I studied a bunch of things. I started a grad degree in psychology, I started an MBA,” she says. “We moved place to place—and all the while I sewed and designed, that was just my hobby. I’ve been designing since I was ten years old.” Part of that stems from finding good clothes to fit her five-foot tall frame.

When Mike was hired at the University of Cincinnati as the defensive backs coach, Kiya enrolled in the the school’s fashion design program. “It just worked out,” she says now.

The loft houses industrial sewing machines and cutting tables. “That’s where we do our dirty work,” says Tomlin. Photo by Tracy Certo.
The loft houses industrial sewing machines and cutting tables. “That’s where we do our dirty work,” says Tomlin. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Her store in the Broad Street Mall—a hub of activity these days—is across the street from the main entrance of Hotel Indigo, the long-anticipated boutique hotel which has endured many construction delays and is now slated to open Sept. 30th. When it does finally open its doors, Hotel Indigo front desk staff will be wearing designs by Tomlin.

Next to Tomlin’s store is LUXE, the upscale, modern kitchen and bath store with a 3,000-square-foot showroom, and on the other side is Olive & Marlowe, a very attractive shop which sells artisanal olive oils and vinegars.

“We also have a brewery coming in on the corner, and they will have outdoor patio seating,” says Tomlin. “It’s going to be a really vibrant area.”

Check out her Uptown Sweats collection at Kiya Tomlin Pittsburgh. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Lauri Gravina

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore...