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Mentorship program uses fashion to teach business

Tweeny Project by My Ol' Blues enables youth to design their own apparel
Working from the My Ol’ Blues workshop in Gore Bay, girls in the Tweeny Project learn the ins and outs of business from mentor Kathy Antonio. This year’s cohort includes (from left) Bella Jefkins, April Torkopoulos, Jorja Croft, and Jordan Bailey.

At the tender age of 14, April Torkopoulos has already garnered experience in fashion design, retail work, modelling, marketing, planning, customer service, and résumé writing.

A participant in the Tweeny Project, Torkopoulos spends her summers in the My Ol’ Blues workshop, where owner Kathy Antonio takes girls aged 10 to 13 under her wing to show them the ins and outs of business.

“You can make something you love,” said Torkopoulos, who’s been in the program for a number of years. “It’s cool when people come in (to see our stuff).”

Antonio has successfully been designing and manufacturing her own clothing since 1993 under the My Ol’ Blues brand from her Gore Bay shop at the west end of Manitoulin Island. But in recent years, as she made the departure from wholesale to focus on retail, she found she had extra time on her hands.

A former figure skating coach who taught for 17 years, she was eager to share her business knowledge with local preteen girls, who are at an age where “everything is new and anything’s possible,” Antonio said.

“I created the Tweeny Project to give girls the opportunity to do something different and have some fun, try something else,” she said.

Through the Tweeny Project, the girls come up with their own clothing designs, which Antonio manufactures through her clothing business. She purchases the designs from the girls, who earn a royalty for their work, and she manufactures them under the 2 Blue Girlz clothing label.

“It’s more than having a little sewing program, because it’s not a sewing program,” Antonio said.

“The idea is that I’m offering them an opportunity to learn about business, learn to be creative, learn about design, and yet have the opportunity to make a little bit of money through a joint thing with My Ol’ Blues.”

But there are requirements to be part of the program. Prospective participants have to submit a résumé, outlining their work experience — it could be caring for the family’s pet, or helping do the dishes — as well as a personal portrait or portfolio that highlights their creative side.

Each girl receives a sketchbook to sketch out designs, keep fabric swatches, plan events, or write down what inspires them and their creativity.

In addition to the more “glamorous” jobs, like designing the clothing and modelling the clothes for photo shoots, participants are also required to take on some of the day-to-day operations of the business, including everything from choosing fabric to dusting and tidying the retail shop.

Antonio said the goal is to foster in the girls responsibility, initiative, and teamwork, while helping prepare them for their first interviews, first jobs, and, ultimately, the world beyond their teen years.

“It’s a start to a regular résumé, because when these guys go to apply for a job when they’re 15, 16, they actually can put that this is what they do. There are so many aspects of this program that are part of regular life that they don’t really hit on a lot at school.”

Eleven-year-old Jordan Bailey prefers to work behind the scenes. Photography is a program highlight, and her on-time cues were an integral part of the making the girls’ Canada Day fashion show go off without a hitch.

Bailey said she likes that everyone works together to come up with the designs. Even Antonio’s ideas must reach consensus for them to be approved for manufacture.

“It’s unique,” Bailey said. “It all comes from a group of people.”

Antonio launched the 2 Blue Girlz online store in June, and it’s starting to get some attention. It helps the girls see what’s successful, and, if something doesn’t work at first, try again.

“It’s neat when you have sales from that starting,” Antonio said. “It’s been exciting that people are finding it.”