Success clings to couple's dance clothing company


November 02, 2001|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHEN YOU name a clothing company Clingons Activewear, maybe you could expect some trouble.

As far as Kathy Demshak was concerned, Clingons was the perfect name for the women's aerobics outfits she produced in the basement of her parents' home in Millersville, best describing the fluidity of the clinging fabric called Spandex, which she incorporated into her designs.

Sure enough, a few years ago there was a trademark skirmish. But the adversaries were not the owners of all things Star Trek, as you might think, trying to protect their infamous villains, the Klingons.

Rather, the challenger turned out to be the giant retailer Sears, which carried a line of pantyhose called Clingalongs. But the battle turned out to be little more than an exchange of letters in the early 1990s, Demshak said, with Clingons Activewear surviving.

The journey to a career in clothing design and manufacture began when Demshak was a child. She remembers her parents' signing her up for every lesson a little girl could want: dancing, swimming, ice skating, piano, and arts and crafts. Anything she wanted.

"One of my mother's favorite quotes was, `Children should be unfolded, not molded,'" Demshak recalls.

And it was the skill she learned from her mother that determined her future. While Demshak was in elementary school, Ann Demshak taught her daughter to sew, and from that moment designing and sewing clothes became the child's passion.

"I've been sewing forever, it seems like," says the soft-spoken 38-year-old, who graduated from Severna Park High School in 1980. In her teens, she became so proficient with needle and thread that she made clothes for her herself and her mom.

After earning a degree in fashion design in 1984 from the University of Maryland, College Park and interning with Wibbies, a former children's clothing manufacturer in Silver Spring, she bought a couple of factory sewing machines and began producing sports clothes for women.

Today, Demshak is out of the basement and earning a living making clothes. She and husband, Joe Sanphillipo (a friend of her brother, John, who first came aboard when she needed a CPA to work on the books), own and operate the 15-year old clothing manufacturing company in Millersville.

"When the aerobic wear market became over-saturated," Demshak says, "and the same thing was being made inexpensively offshore and sold at a discount, Joe had the insight to switch industries to the dance industry. We feel that we have found our own niche."

By the early 1990s, the company's volume had grown to the point that they decided to start their own factory. They chose a location in the Headquarters Commercial Center on Veterans Highway, less than two miles from home.

Employees have a popular schedule of alternating four-day and five-day workweeks, so they are off every other Friday, Demshak said.

Not quite everyone. "We're workaholics, basically," she says of her husband and herself. "On Fridays, Joe catches up and I do some paper or pattern work."

Since the birth of their daughter, Justine, three years ago, the couple have managed to cut back a bit on working hours. "We used to travel every weekend to promote our product, but Justine has helped us not work as much as we used to," Demshak says.

Demshak worked up to the day she went into labor, and when Justine was born, she gave the entire staff a week off. Then Demshak and everyone else returned to work, with Demshak bringing along her week-old baby. Justine accompanied her mother there each day for the next year and now attends preschool when she's not in the company office.

She is used as a size guide for the children's clothes and models her mother's designs in the company's catalogs, from which most Clingons business is derived.

In the Millersville warehouse, inventory ready for shipment is stacked floor to ceiling in the first bay. The second bay houses bolts of fabric, cutting tables and sewing machines where leotards, tops and shorts, long pants, and the company's best-selling items, "lyrical" dresses for dance competition, are made.

Last year, Clingons Activewear shipped 43,000 pieces to dance supply retailers across the United States.

Most of the garments sold by Clingons Activewear are geared to jazz dance, but a smart shopper would find these gracefully draping dresses, pants and tops perfect for casual evening wear.

The company's new line of cover-ups is made of 100 percent Supplex, which contains no Spandex. "It's a wonderful woven fabric," says the designer. "We've had good response."

Demshak says the product costs $80 to $100, but it's a custom item with buyers able to select color, fabric and hem line from the catalog.

The catalog is filled with photos of beautiful young women looking very much at home in the dance fashions. And they're close to home, too.

"All the models in the catalog are members of the Dance Explosion troupe in Glen Burnie," Demshak says.

Of the negative side of owning a business, Demshak says, "I think it would be nice not to have all this still in my head at the end of the day. The misconception about owning your own business is that you can go as you please. It's just the opposite.

"But it's really neat to put a product out there and have people call and say they love it."

"It's also fun to have our daughter be part of the business. There's nothing like feeling that you're doing a good job, and making a living."

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