Inside an old yellow craftsman house, sewing machines whir, sketches adorn the walls, underwear and tank top prototypes hang from clothing racks, and a cat wanders through the living room.
Debbie Christel’s childhood home in north Tacoma has transformed into the headquarters of Kade and Vos, a start-up company helping women get the clothes they need.
“We ask women, what do you need to be comfortable?” says company cofounder Christel ’08. “Our design process doesn’t go through a weight-biased filter. We don’t take a small pattern and make it bigger. We know that doesn’t work.”
In the United States, 67 percent of women wear a size 14 or larger, while designers typically design for a size four or six. That can make it a real challenge for American women who wear a size 16 to 18 to find something that fits well.
It took just a year for Kade and Vos to launch their first clothing line and it all started with soft, breathable cotton underwear. If the underwear isn’t comfortable or distorts the body, says Christel, then whatever you put on top of it isn’t going to look and feel right.
“We don’t want to further segregate women by size,” Christel says, noting that they offer sizes small to 6XL. “If we don’t offer your size, we will make it for you.”
Christel’s mission to improve clothing fit for curvy women began in graduate school. While working on her thesis project with Nike, she noticed they offered more clothing sizes for men than they did for women. The sizing was even more limited for plus-size women.
“Our culture says everyone needs to be healthy, but the equipment isn’t provided for women like it is for men,” she says.
She researched movement and clothing fit, with one study revealing how clothing can derail women from doing something as seemingly simple as taking their kids to the park. She also started to explore the weight bias engrained in U.S. culture—not just in fashion, but other industries that portray larger people in a negative light.
Before launching the start-up, Christel was an assistant professor in Washington State University’s Department of Apparel Design, Merchandising, and Textiles, where she incorporated weight-bias education into her courses. She liked teaching students how to design for different body types—and how to design with compassion.
Her own research and other studies continue to back the narrative she’s been hearing from women frustrated with comfort, fit, and lack of sizing options. It’s part of the reason she began thinking about starting a business.
Since she had a limited background in business, she found support through the WSU Innovation Corps, a National Science Foundation-funded program that helps University staff, students, and faculty move research into the marketplace. They provided the guidance she needed and helped her build a business plan. One of the first things they suggested was finding a business partner.
Enter Kade and Vos cofounder Ashley Scott ’16. Scott and Christel had both volunteered to make costumes at the Regional Theatre of the Palouse, and Scott was a student in Christel’s class for three years. She had worked for seven years in her family’s cherry orchards in Yakima and had a deep understanding of supply chains and small business management. Scott says in the back of her mind she always wanted to make sure curvy women had better clothing options.
“Fashion is looked at as something kind of silly, but it’s not silly because everyone wears clothes every day. What you see people wear affects society and how people are viewed,” Scott says. “It’s really important as a fashion designer to be able to dress all people.”
Kade and Vos not only has a different approach to designing for their customers, but also the supply chain.
“So much in the fashion industry is dehumanized,” Scott says. “It’s designed on a mannequin, not even a person. That’s one part of it. You don’t see the thousands of people behind any garment you buy and that is important for us, to humanize the fashion industry.”
Kade and Vos source supima cotton for their clothes from a family farm in the Southwest. The cotton biodegrades in two weeks, as opposed to synthetics that can take up to 40 years to decompose in a landfill. The company’s knitter lives in North Carolina, and they work with a veteran-run manufacturing company in Georgia when they go into full production.
Christel and Scott are looking forward to their upcoming pajama line and putting together future collections. But in the end, it’s not just about making clothes. Even the company name Kade and Vos translates from Latin to “The Caretaker and You.” It’s about the social responsibility of fashion designers and caring for people, says Christel.
“Beyond just offering clothing, we want women to know they are okay just the way they are, wherever they are, whatever shape or size.”
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