How X Got Here
Emily Gartner '84
by C. L. Stambush
How Emily Got Here
Emily Gartner '84 caught the sewing and fashion design bug when she was 12 years old, in Mrs. Power's home economics class. She loved looking through pattern books at Cloth World and dreamed about fashion shows, not knowing they were in her future. But the road to couture started with a USI bachelor's degree in business administration with a marketing concentration and a lot of art electives: figure drawing with Lenny Dowhie, Professor Emeritus of Art, and color and design with Katie Waters, Professor Emerita of Art.
Before graduating from college, I secured a job with Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation helping vocational students find jobs. I was fine for a few years, but I needed to fulfill bigger dreams and decided to start looking for jobs in New York City. What’s the saying “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” I wanted to find out if this would be true for me.
I landed a job with a print cotton house as a sales assistant. Soon I moved to the company's fashion merchandising side, working with local NYC and national seamstresses who created our trade show samples.
In the middle of a trade show in San Antonio, Texas, I learned our company was shutting down and immediately started looking for my next job at the trade show. I landed a position with a lace and embroidery manufacturer that I'd worked with at my previous job.
I got married, had a son and started freelancing from home, making the trade show samples I used to hire others to do. As I built that business, I started sewing for the buyer of Chaus Sweaters, whom I’d met at church. She was a plus size and couldn’t find clothing in her size she liked. She went to industry fashion shows abroad and shared designs with me that I then recreated in her size.
I divorced and moved to Pennsylvania near the Poconos. I combined a patchwork of jobs to create the work I needed to feel comfortable. I was teaching art and sewing in Stroudsburg, PA, while also teaching art projects in the local resorts. On the weekends, I sold fabrics from a friend's outlet store at a flea market in town, earning the name ‘Material Girl’ from the other vendors.
I wanted my son to have a better education and moved to Allentown, PA, to send him to private school, taking a position with the Allentown Art Museum as Assistant Curator of Textiles and Art Educator. I oversaw their collection of nearly 12,000 ethnic textiles from all over the world. I also taught art classes related to the museum's exhibits. On weekends, I sold album-cover bags at local art shows when my son was visiting with his father. They were successful and gave me the confidence to branch out on my own and travel to regional shows.
When my father died in 2000, I leapt into doing art shows and selling my bags full-time, because life was too short. I spent six years doing nearly 42 shows a year as a solopreneur. These shows provided a better living than I imagined, but it wasn’t an easy life being away from my son and constantly on the road. As my art business grew, other artists copied my work and charged less.
I moved back to Evansville in 2010 and began designing my own fabrics with my signature pop-art-centric vibe using my own images of local landmarks: Alhambra Theatre, Reitz Home, Greyhound Bus Station. I expanded into dresses, umbrellas, shoes and watches under the name Emily Gartner Designs. The pop-art novelty bags lasted 16 years and were purchased by the Rockefellers and Broadway producers.
Shifting gears, I designed wearable-art clothes for women who were not shy about how they dress to express themselves, gained attention and participated in the state's first Indiana Fashion Week, making many connections. But participating in Italy's Milan’s Fashion Week was my pinnacle moment; one that opened my eyes and gave me confidence as a designer and a woman.
Two months before COVID-19, I relocated to Indianapolis and opened Art Threads Studio in an artist cooperative. I survived the pandemic through my wearable art business, but last June knew it was time to switch gears when gas and grocery prices went up. After 22 years of being in business for myself, I wanted the security of working for an established company where I could apply my color and design skills and fabric knowledge. I'm now a design consultant for West Elm, whose sustainabiity values align with mine. I was scared to death to 'get back out there,' but it's proven to be a good decision.