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“This is my story...”

by Kiya Tomlin |

Everyone seems to be fascinated by a story. I am, too. A story always adds a bit of authenticity and specialness to anything. But it’s hard to have that same glowing appreciation for my own “story”. Probably because, to me, it’s not a story, it’s my reality.

Necessity is a mother... 

I’ve been designing since I was four years old. (That's me at four in one of my original designs: a Xerox paper tutu, completely designed, cut, curled and stapled myself!) I started sewing at eleven. That’s the age I realized I loved clothes. Unfortunately, I was the size of a six year old, much too small to fit the fashions that I coveted. Ever the problem solver, I asked for a sewing machine for Christmas and taught myself to sew--with help from Mom’s fuzzy recollections of her eighth grade home economics sewing project. After the required stuffed mallard duck project , I jumped right into fashion sewing. I taught myself a crude form of pattern making by mixing, matching and piecing together numerous patterns to collage my way to my own designs. I spent all my free time during my formative years sewing everything from baby clothes to prom dresses for friends, family and myself.

When it was time to apply to colleges, I never considered attending a design school (after all, there was no Project Runway at the time to convince me otherwise). Instead I went the well-defined route of studying pre-med, but still sewing and designing all the while. In college, while dreaming of one day becoming a surgeon, I met the love of my life and married him two weeks after graduating from the College of William and Mary. (Mike, Class of ’95; Me, class of ’96) 


A Dream Deferred

We moved often with my husband's career and it didn’t take more than a few months of being married to an aspiring professional football coach for me to realize that the lifestyles of a doctor and a football coach could not join together to produce a happy, well-rounded family. So I took a pause from the med school path to re-evaluate, still sewing and designing all the while.

 A Dream Realized

Among our many moves, we landed at the University Of Cincinnati and I enrolled in their College of Design, Art and Architectural Planning to formally study fashion design. Until then, my education came from studying commercial patterns, design textbooks and magazines, and whatever workshops on fit and couture construction I could find. Even traveling across the country for them. This chance opportunity to explore the world of fashion design beyond my home sewing machine was a blessing. It breathed new life into me; breath I so desperately needed after nearly suffocating as a childless housewife in small town Tennessee and Arkansas for three years.

“Figure out what you love to do and find a way to make money doing it”.

That was the advice given to me by my best friend’s mother. It propelled me onto my new path. Shortly after my time at the University of Cincinnati, we moved again, had our first baby and I started my own custom design business, specializing in wedding gowns—because caring for a new baby in a new state wasn’t enough and wedding gowns were, to me, the standard of excellence, or so I thought. A couple years after having our second baby (Irish twins), I realized brides are crazy. I understood that a wedding day was a very special day and accompanied a lot of pressure for the bride, but I made the choice to remove myself from that stress. I instituted a new policy regarding custom wedding gowns. The new vetting process would determine suitable clients as (1) an older bride, (2) that was a friend or family member, (3) on their second marriage—or more in a (4) casual ceremony and (5) not looking for a freebie. Understandably, my wedding gown clientele shrunk quickly, as desired, and my custom design clientele (and family) grew to where I needed to move out of my home studio and into a proper business location. I LOVED working outside of the home, free from the distractions of trying to multi-task running a business with the never-ending household responsibilities. Plus, I LOVED to get dressed up for work. At least initially…

Necessity is the mother of invention…again

In about three months time, the novelty of wearing my “dry-clean only” dress clothes wore off and I realized my lifestyle needed something more practical. My days consisted of wrangling three kids off to school, climbing on top of drafting tables or on my hands and knees cutting fabric on the floor, meeting with clients and sitting at an industrial sewing machine for hours. (That’s similar to driving a car on a long road trip, except with an extra pedal for your knee). The next half of my day was spent picking up kids and shuttling them to activities where I would sit in my car for hours on end, grocery shopping or attempting to squeeze in a community appearance as a stand-in for my husband. Then, back home to create some semblance of a home-cooked meal before helping with homework, tidying the house, and getting everyone bathed and bedded--all in my “dry clean only” clothes.

What I so needed for my lifestyle and so desired for my sanity was a sweat suit. But not an ordinary sweat suit. Not the phony “I’m headed to yoga” gear or the frumpy mom-in-slippers sweats. I wanted something that made me feel stylish, professional and pulled-together. Something I could wear to do all those things, and still turn heads. I had to be able to dress it up for work and cocktails or down for football games and carpool with just a change of shoe and hairstyle. An added bonus was if it could be versatile enough to layer for different climates and styling options. Basically, it had to be a Superwoman cape. I looked long and hard, but couldn’t find it. So I designed it--a sweatshirt dress. And it would become my uniform—my “signature dress”.

The birth of a brand… and a new dream

I received so many compliments wearing that dress all over town that I decided it would make a nice side item to my custom design business. Women looking for something more practical, less expensive and more immediate than a formal custom piece could simply grab-and-go. But I did not want to turn myself into a factory, cranking out this one dress over and over again in bulk, so I began to investigate mass production for the Ready-To-Wear market. It took me nearly two years to learn the process. And I loved every minute of it!

By taking my business in a new direction, I was no longer limited to clients solely in and around the city of Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh, PA. That’s where we were by now. I fast-forwarded over stints in Tampa and Minneapolis). The thought of designing something, sending it off to a factory, and having it return in multiples was as exciting as the ability to see my designs on a multitude of women across the country and beyond.

By the fall of 2014, I had designed and produced my first collection of sweatshirt dresses. I tried on a few names for size, and ultimately decided on Uptown Sweats by Kiya Tomlin because it embodies the overall concept of the brand: re-imagined sweat suits designed to keep pace with the energy and aspirations of the modern woman. Women like me. It’s stylish, versatile, crazy comfortable, made in the USA and best of all…machine washable.

 “Comfortable. Confident. Beautiful.”

The tagline sums it up perfectly.

So there it is… the reality behind the origins of Uptown Sweats by Kiya Tomlin, breathing life into the brand. I guess this is my story.

(What happened to med school?? An amazing husband, a bunch of moves and three of the best kids in the world. That’s what happened. But I feel like I haven’t gone too far off course. I’m still studying the human body, cutting and sewing. Still helping people. Albeit, maybe not life or death cures, but definitely life and style fixes! All humor aside, I came full circle back to fashion design--even though I never left it).

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