Slow and Steady: Summer Dalton wins the race by keeping Tigerowl Designs small, local and sustainable.

0
406
Summer Dalton with her “Duality” quilted coat at Tigerowl’s studio in Ventura.

By Mike Nelson | Photos by Viktor Budnik

Pregnant with her first daughter, Summer Dalton was making baby clothes when, she recalled, “One night, I had a vision.”

It was, quite possibly, the first such vision in recorded history that said, “Get up and sew yourself some wrap pants.” Which she did, using old curtain pieces.

Wouldn’t you know, those “curtain pants” drew compliment after compliment from Dalton’s friends who wanted to know where they came from. When they found out, inevitably they asked, “Can you make me some?”

MATERIAL EVIDENCE A limited edition coat made in collaboration with Ojai artist and designer Daren Thomas Magee of Real Fun, Wow!

A decade later, this native Venturan is the proud owner, designer, sewer and distributor of Tigerowl Designs, a handcrafted clothing line that produces what she calls “thoughtfully designed, sustainably minded” pieces. Besides wrap pants, the line includes wrap skirts, sailor pants, dresses, assorted tops and tees, and quilted coats made from natural fabrics that lend themselves to the region’s comfortable, casual lifestyle.

Most importantly, all Tigerowl items are designed, sewn and shipped from Dalton’s Ventura studio, where she makes nearly all of them with her own hands. It is a business model that suits her, and her lifestyle, perfectly.

“I love making clothing,” Dalton said, taking a break from her duties as company CEO and proud wife and mother. “I enjoy taking my time on the design, and I try not to bring anything new into this world unless I really believe in its function. I spend time researching the fabrics and their sustainability as best I can, and I try to use most of my scraps to create one-of-a-kind pieces.”

It’s a process, she admitted, that “takes a lot of time. I am not interested in being a fashion brand that feels the pressure to constantly create new styles every season. We believe in thoughtful purchases and mending your well-loved garments when they wear thin. Our hope is that these pieces will get pulled out of your closet often and be well-loved for years to come.”

SEW BEAUTIFUL Summer Dalton designs and sews all Tigerowl pieces by hand.

CREATING ‘TANGIBLE’ ITEMS

Born and raised in Ventura, Dalton “was itching to see other places” after graduation from Ventura High School. She spent a couple of months driving around the U.S. with a close friend before settling eventually in New York City, enrolling in the BFA of Photography program at the prestigious School of Visual Arts.

Immersing herself in New York’s art world, she became an arts installer and then registrar at MoMA PS1, a contemporary art institution in Queens, working closely with artists, curators and conservators.

“But,” she said, “what I quickly realized, as photography was becoming less darkroom and more digital, was that I missed the tactile aspect of photography. I started taking printmaking and sculpture classes, which really fulfilled my need to create tangible items.”

And sewing?

“It was always in the background,” she noted, “but I did experiment with it at times.”

“Thoughtfully designed, sustainably minded pieces” from Tigerowl Designs.

Returning to Ventura, she worked at Patagonia as a photo stylist for seven years, “when I really became interested in garment construction and function.” In 2011, Dalton taught herself how to screen print drawings onto organic cotton t-shirts, using the Tigerowl name, rooted in Dalton’s “up close and personal experiences” with great horned owls when she was young.

“Those experiences always felt special and inspiring,” she said, “and when I learned that Tigerowl was a nickname for the great horned owl, I knew that would be my company name.”
Then came marriage, pregnancy, the vision and the “curtain pants” — and life took a new direction.

“At the time,” she said, “I had no interest in making and selling clothing for adults, but I got so many compliments on my curtain pants that eventually I thought I’d have to try. Once I started designing and making clothing, it felt like all of my installation, sculpture, printmaking and styling background collided in the most exciting way.”

The updated Tigerowl line came to fruition in 2017, “when I did my first market with my sewn pieces with Findings Market in Santa Barbara. Once I started sewing more, it evolved into a small elevated and handmade clothing line with simple yet unique designs.”

Tools of the trade for a handcrafted clothing designer.

‘INVEST IN QUALITY CLOTHING’

According to Dalton, Tigerowl’s customer base is “pretty varied,” ranging in age from 25-75. “My goal is creating pieces that are timeless and are wearable by many ages. While the cost of small-batch and sometimes custom clothing can be prohibitive, I strongly believe that when you are able to invest in quality clothing that you love, you will get so much more use out of the pieces because you grab for them more often.”

Marketing is limited to Instagram posts, community bulletin flyers, paid social media ads and word of mouth. That may keep sales volume down, but Dalton isn’t complaining.

“I know it might sound odd, but I am not aiming to be a huge company,” she said. “I enjoy the personal relationships with my customers and at times creating really special custom works that I wouldn’t have time for if I was cranking out tons of product every day.”

As a result, Tigerowl has become pretty much what Dalton wants it to be: “I’m kind of carving my own path to make this business work.”

That path now includes in-studio workshops — like sewing, block-printing and dyeing — which she added late last year.

“And it became apparent that I love helping people make things,” she says. “I love sharing the process of how something is constructed and all the nuances that go into making a finished product. We live in a throwaway society, but once you have the experience of making something, you have a deeper appreciation for the skill that is involved and start looking at things you purchase in a different light.”

Her workshops draw customers having baby showers and birthday parties, but also corporate clients (such as Patagonia and The Trade Desk) interested in promoting “team building.” Dalton also does custom design projects as requested.

“My vision in the coming year,” she explained, “is to have a really solid core collection of garments that I sell, adding new styles when it makes sense, adding workshop options, and finding ways to get the word out to the community about these offerings. I love problem solving and figuring out new challenges; it’s part of what makes my job interesting and fresh.”

Summer Dalton in one of her custom jackets.

BALANCING WORK AND FAMILY

Her work is balanced by family life. She and her husband, Wes (a manager for a sound equipment rigging company, and a musician) are proud and busy parents of two pre-teen daughters involved in competitive swimming. The family enjoys outdoor activities, animals and gardening.

“Our front yard is a giant mix of native and drought-tolerant plants that make our yard feel like another land,” Dalton said with a smile. “But the comments from passersby let me know the community — as well as the bees and butterflies — appreciate it.”

Add it all up, and life is good for Summer Dalton.

“When I had a day job,” she observed, “there were many days that I was struggling to get into the work mindset. I haven’t felt that at all with Tigerowl. Every single day I’m excited to get to my studio. And while there might be certain tasks that I procrastinate at times, I have basically turned my hobby of making things into a job, and I love it.

“It is such a gift to never feel dread about getting to work each day, and instead feel a genuine sense of excitement. It’s a bonus to know I have return customers who love what I’m doing and feel comfortable and good in my clothing. And now with the added workshops, I have a group of people who are excited about sewing and getting creative, and I look forward to building that community.”

TIGEROWL DESIGNS
tigerowldesigns.com
@tigerowl
hello@tigerowldesigns.com