By Omari A. West
Over the past ten years, Shaw has emerged, not only as a destination location for arts and entertainment, but also host of a growing small business work force as well as its historical role as a bedroom community. The changes in Shaw, while dynamic and fundamentally transformative, have also provided opportunities for long-time local entrepreneurs who see a place for them amidst the transformed landscape.
On the block T Street, between 7th and 8th, sits a low profile row of buildings that now stands out in stark relief to the high rise apartment buildings that have sprung up around it. On that row, one can find a reminder of the rich tradition of entrepreneurship in Shaw in Cheryl Lofton Tailors. One of the things that stands out about the store front is that is owned and operated by a long time Shaw resident who brings a unique perspective about the neighborhood – its historical significance and possibilities for the future.
Cheryl Lofton, who grew up in the Woodridge neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. and graduated from Wilson High school, is a third generation tailor. Her grandfather, JC Lofton operated a tailor shop that was originally housed on 609 F Street. Cheryl grew up in her grandfather’s tailor shop during the 1970’s and saw how he treated his customers of all backgrounds with equality – from the politically connected to the scions of the bustling street culture. She recalls that political luminaries like Vice President Spiro Agnew and journalist William Raspberry, as well as world-class entertainers like Fats Domino were all customers of her grandfather’s. JC Lofton Tailors also served the local community – from everyday folks who came in to get their prom dresses made, to some of the leading figures of the underworld, the pimps and hustlers who operated along 14th street.
As Cheryl reminisces about that time she recalls, “For my grandfather, the pimps were just as valuable as the lawyers and judges. In the evenings, when it was time for me to go home on the bus, my grandfather would ask them to look out for me and make sure I got home safe, and they did.” The way her grandfather treated his customers, inspired Cheryl’s conception of a community-based business that serves all – not just the rich, and not only the poor.
As a child, Cheryl describes herself as an ‘original feminist’ that played with male dolls instead of Barbies, and learned to sew because she wanted to make clothes for them. Although she would ultimately go on to a corporate career and mother of two boys – she yearned to build on the foundation that her grandfather, a native of Texas who brought a flair for the cloth with him to Washington, D.C. in 1939, had established. Although she started out slow – primarily making clothes out of her home for the first three years, she longed to have a store-front shop from which she could grow her business.
The opportunity to buy the building in which her shop currently resides arose in 2005 when she became aware of an opportunity to purchase the long-abandoned property across the street from the Cleveland Elementary School. Despite several hurdles, including having to arrange with the city to re-zone the block for commercial use, she finally opened in 2006. The business has thrived since then, winning the Shaw Main Streets ‘Best New Business in Shaw’ awards in 2006 and 2008.
Cheryl credits Shaw Main Streets President Alex Padro with his help in clearing the way and promoting businesses in Shaw long before the area had attained its current status as a city-wide destination location attracting people from all over Washington to its’ restaurants and night life. Events such as Shaw Day and Small Business Saturdays, to help with improving the local facades, helped Cheryl and other businesses grow and thrive.
Today, Cheryl Lofton Tailors serves a unique mix of old and new Shaw residents. Cheryl values her experience as an entrepreneur for providing her with options. “Being in business for yourself is hard in general; you don't get sick days. The upside is I didn't have a boss, I could go somewhere without asking someone for permission, and didn’t have to miss my sons’ sports games or PTA meetings – it gave me the flexibility to raise a family and be a mother.” The sense of community the shop engendered also helped her to raise her children while managing the responsibility of being an entrepreneur. “It was awesome” she says. “You could bring your children to your job. I had older women around me that would not think twice of taking a baby on their lap and comforting him while I worked.”
Cheryl’s experience as a woman entrepreneur also forms the basis for her vision for continuity and growth among the changing landscape. She considers herself a ‘tailoress’ – a distinctly feminist vision for what was a male-dominated business in her grandfather’s day. “I want to be able to expose more women to the art of tailoring, and imprint upon them the notion that they can use the services of a professional tailor too. As opposed to my grandfather whose clientele was largely male, my business now is about 50/50 women and men. A lot of my marketing angle is women. Women have to dress the part - bringing back color to the power suit. I believe you can roll up in a lavender suit and still be taken seriously.”
As CheryI thinks about future possibilities she sees great opportunity in the increasing importance of women professionals as part of the community fabric. “I want to start a line of women's clothes that are tailored to perfection.” But like her grandfather, she values the opportunity to continue to serve a diverse client base. While she sees the changes on socio-economic composition of the neighborhood, she wonders whether the pendulum may be swinging too far in one direction. “In my grandpa’s shop, there was never any racism. White and black folks would actually hang out at the shop, sometimes staying until late at night drinking and conversing. I would hope that Shaw would become a melting pot that is still affordable to everyone. Not just super rich or super poor.”