A Project Runway alum is proving how stylish Cleveland can be
How does a nanny/seamstress/dog walker turn into a fashion designer featured on cable television? She starts a business in Ohio, of course. That’s the story of Valerie Mayen, founder of Yellowcake Shop on Cleveland’s west side. In a decade, she went from an unsure career path to a combination of TV stardom and the design job of her dreams. And along the way, she’s promoting the kind of responsibility and sustainability that she’s always valued.
“Yellowcake is a contemporary, handmade women’s clothing company branching out into accessories and other small goods and now even manufacturing, PPE and consulting on manufacturing prototypes for other small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Mayen. “We decided to call it Yellowcake because we felt that yellow cake was a metaphor for the initiatives and the people in our community that we support. Yellow cake is the stepchild of desserts — the forgotten favorite, the underdog. In the fashion industry, the people that are often forgotten are those that are most important to the process: women and children who are exploited to make cute clothes for Americans. We wanted to highlight the fact that we worked really hard to support the underdog by paying fair living wages and making our products domestically, sustainably and ethically.”
Early in her career, Mayen got a major break when Bravo’s Project Runway came calling. She found her way onto the show in 2010 and returned on the show’s all-star season in 2016. To get her life as a fledgling designer to a place where she could go on the show, she credits her mentor and friend Lisa Luciano, who she met when she began nannying for her family. The show would expand Mayen’s horizons and open new doors for the business that started in 2009.
“Project Runway just kind of landed in my inbox,” she said. “I was only a year into my business and I had only been sewing for two years. Lisa encouraged me to take the leap, gave me an advance on my paycheck so that I could afford to pay my rent while I was gone and helped me buy my first industrial sewing machine. Once the show happened, everything with the business started slowly increasing and building over time. It gave me a little bit more of a platform and more exposure in Cleveland. We did a bunch of pop-ups and eventually I had a storefront in Gordon Square before I moved to a studio space on 78th street.”
Yellowcake isn’t just about great fashion. Mayen isn’t interested in being just another designer that outsources work and takes advantage of cheap labor and materials. Her hope is that the success of Yellowcake can show that it’s possible to create great work while being responsible and setting an example for others by providing a better product and business for people to invest in.
“A big part of the reason why we do what we do is because we want to make a difference and to educate consumers on the impact they can make with their buying power,” she said. “We don’t want to make people feel bad for shopping at big-box stores — I do too — but we want to do our part to mitigate some of the negative impact fashion has had and try to help other small businesses in ways that we were helped. We’ve been really lucky to win some minority- and female-based grants and we’ve had the help of organizations and mentors that believed in us. A lot of entrepreneurs try to go at it alone too often and they end up landing themselves in negative situations.”
Ohio is rapidly building a reputation for fashion, and Mayen is using her successful business and time in front of the camera to sing northeast Ohio’s praises, proving that you don’t need to be in New York or Los Angeles to create world-class designs. Along the way, Mayen and Yellowcake have forged local partnerships, worked with organizations like JumpStart and even used the State of Ohio’s PPE Retooling and Reshoring Grant to produce masks for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I went on Project Runway, a lot of the other contestants were from New York or LA and asked me, “Why do you live in Cleveland?” I would tell them how much I paid for my rent and how much square footage I had and they said, ‘Wow, OK, that makes sense.’ But it’s not just about the cost of living. I don’t see the need to start over somewhere else when I already have loyal clientele supporting our business from the very beginning. And a lot of people don’t realize the resources that are available to people in Cleveland and in Ohio, from grants to collaborations and other partnerships. People are down to earth here, and you can still surprise people with your product.”