Barbara Riordan’s path to becoming a fashion designer has been a winding road with lots of switchbacks. At age six, she was making her own clothes with fabric purchased at G.C. Murphy, one of the few local stores that handled yard goods. By her own admission, those first garments were crude, but by the time she reached high school, Riordan was an accomplished seamstress, good enough to make her own costumes for the many school plays she performed in.

At the time, it never occurred to her to make a career in fashion. “In the 1960s and 70s, there were a lot of obstacles to doing something in the arts, especially if you were raised in a small town,” Riordan says. “I knew nothing about being a fashion designer. My home was a farming community where we had three TV channels and went to the state fair once a year. We weren’t aware of the possibilities or how to go about achieving them.”

When it was time to choose a college major, Riordan was encouraged to think in terms of an education that would lead to a job. She picked respiratory therapy and later got a nursing degree, both of which allowed her to raise a family as a single mom. During those years, Riordan did what artists do when they need to earn a paycheck: she collected ideas and craved more time to pursue her passion. Her home was a warehouse for uncut fabric and partially-finished projects.

Gradually, life changed. Riordan’s kids grew up and she found herself less pressured to make a living. She started costuming for local theatre productions and mulling over alternatives that might lead to a career in fashion. The costuming assignments were fun and challenging, but the prospect of getting paid to do it seemed questionable at best. She compared her wages as a nurse to those of a custom seamstress and quickly discarded the idea of sewing for profit. As her options narrowed, Riordan began to wonder if it was too late to find a place in the fashion industry.

Timing is everything
Then came an unexpected break. Riordan’s life intersected with a new advantage that only time could bake. “I didn’t really know what I was pursuing at the time, but I basically started using the Internet to educate myself on how to start a fashion line,” she says. Through intensive research and study, Riordan found companies that would sell fabric in smaller quantities, and she learned how to work with U.S. factories and pattern makers to produce her designs.

Those moves positioned her to begin Pariah5K—a fashion line named in 1996 when she made the first steps toward establishing a brand. Her signature look is a riot of edgy prints merged with classic silhouettes such as skirted suits and, my personal favorite, trench coats. “Almost everything I design is something I would want to wear,” she says. “For me, the inspiration is often that I’m going here or there—what do I want to wear?”

Riordan has hired consultants to provide realistic strategies for getting Pariah5K in front of buyers and consumers. Their advice is sometimes laced with discouraging truths. Here’s one that stops many independent designers in their tracks: an emerging designer or brand needs to make at least 10 points of contact and have a successful track record of at least three seasons to gain any traction.

Whether to keep pushing forward or stop is a perennial question. In times of discouragement, Riordan thinks about Moses. “For several Sundays in a row, the minister at my mother’s country church described how Moses got Pharaoh to free the Israelites,” she says. “Moses had to go back to Pharaoh 10 times, so that’s kind of been my inspiration. You have to keep going back.”

Fashion as a ministry
For the past few years, Riordan has kept a flexible job as a nurse and worked on Pariah5K as much as possible. She uses vacations to tour the country and visit shops that are most likely to consider her American-made clothing line, which is decidedly more expensive than clothing made in factories where people do not make a living wage.

Photo credit: John Crowe, Crowe’s Eye Photography

“I have to find boutiques that carry certain price points and cater to people who don’t necessarily want to look exactly the same as everyone around them,” Riordan says. Although sustainable fashion has become popular among people with a certain ethos, Riordan says many consumers have not yet bridged the gap between wanting to do the right thing and having the wherewithal to pay for it. Americans have grown accustomed to cheap goods with little awareness of the suffering behind their buying decisions. “If you want the world to be good, you’re going to have to pay for stuff,” she says.

To that end, Riordan defines success by something more substantial than financial gain. She wants to change the way we think about fashion, provide jobs with livable wages and design clothes made with textiles manufactured to conserve natural resources and protect the environment. She notes that the fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water in the world. “I don’t really have anything against overseas production, other than the fact that these products are not being made ethically or responsibly,” she says.

Riordan is working on a deal to sell her American-made designs through 19th Amendment, a platform where independent designers can reach consumers. On May 19, fashion lovers in the Indianapolis market can see Riordan’s work at Erin Young Designs, a fabric and dressmaking shop at 1134 East 54th Street, Suite E, Indianapolis, IN 46220.

A bonus for friends
Most consumers (myself included) don’t know how the math works on our clothing. For the record, Riordan shares this tutorial: The wholesale cost of your clothing is usually 2.2 times the production cost, which includes the cost of labor, fabric, buttons, zippers and other materials, plus labels, plastic bags and hangers used to take it to market.

Retailers mark up the wholesale price 2.2 to 2.5 times. This suggests that we need to quit feeling so smug and satisfied when we catch a bargain. Those $50 to $100 garments we’re buying are made by impoverished people, paid almost nothing for their labor.

Want to do something about it? Search for emerging designers like Riordan, who are concerned about how their clothes are made. Find a custom sewer in your area and support them whenever you can. Two of my favorites: Daniela Upshaw and Dianne Frewer. Pay more. Buy less. Don’t be afraid to show up in the same well-made clothes time after time.

I promise you, I’m not just preaching. I’m trying to walk the talk myself! This week, I resisted the impulse to buy a new dress for several forthcoming events. And I’m picking up two new outfits, custom made this winter by Dianne Frewer.

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.