Olivia Rae Davis flits about the City Sewing Room in a brightly patterned skirt of her own creation, looking through fabric swatches. From the time she was a pre-teen, Davis loved fashion, closely following popular designers and lines of the time like Kimora Lee Simmons’ Baby Phat and Juicy Couture.
“I was always really intrigued with designer brands and how their clothes differ from regular, off-the-rack clothes,” she says.
This early passion fueled Davis’ education and career path, leading her to start her own fashion line, found the Olivia Rae Design Academy to teach the art of sewing to children and adults, and, most recently, launch Craft Academy, an online platform providing live, one-on-one lessons in sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting and embroidery – all before turning 25.
Davis’ desire to sew began with her love of fashion in her pre-teen days.
“I wanted more clothes than my mom wanted to buy for me,” she says with a laugh. “She told me that I could make my own clothes if I wanted to learn how. I don’t know if she was being sarcastic, but I was like, ‘Sure, I can learn how to do that.'”
After a trip to a fabric store, Davis sat down, grabbed one of her shirts and cut it out against a piece of fabric, then hand-sewed the entire thing. She quickly realized she enjoyed it: it kept her hands and mind busy, and in the end, she got cute clothes that she could proudly say she made all by herself.
While she may not have realized what would come from the initial push to Olivia to learn to sew, Davis’ mom, Darlene, a CPA and entrepreneur, has remained an inspiration throughout her journey into young adulthood.
“She’s very encouraging and supportive of pretty much everything that I do. My whole life, she’s always just told me, ‘Don’t be scared to do new things. Don’t be scared to fail,'” she says.
Davis carried this fearless attitude to Ladue Horton Watkins High School, where she and a friend started a fashion club in which students would meet to discuss fashion, plan an annual fashion show with clothing they sourced from local boutiques and recruit students to model. They even planned a trip to New York, the only non-academic club to travel.
“I think that’s what really started my journey into starting things, really pursuing them and being dedicated towards a goal,” Davis says.
After graduating high school in 2016, she briefly attended Columbia College in Chicago before transferring to Howard University in Washington D.C. to study design and entrepreneurship. In 2018, Davis found herself and the university in a period of transition, so she decided it was time to return to St. Louis and make practical use of her skills and education.
“I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer. I’d been sewing for so long and I felt like I had a very strong foundation in sewing. So I figured I’ll just try and start a fashion brand,” she recalls. “I came back here and knew absolutely nothing about running a fashion brand; but I met a woman named Doris Peterson who ran a uniform manufacturing business out of the T-Rex building. I talked to her about what I wanted to do and she said she would help me. She really started to mentor and guide me. And then of course I met Anne Stirnemann at the City Sewing Room.”
Stirnemann opened City Sewing Room in 2016 in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood as a gathering place for those who loved to sew, share and encourage one another. With the help of volunteers and donations, it grew into a non-profit that teaches youth and adults in classes on various sewing topics. City Sewing Room allows anyone sewing there to use their donated fabric for free – making classes and activities accessible and affordable.
It was the perfect ecosystem in which Davis could realize her dream of starting a fashion line, while at the same time mentoring others.
“Our shop was set up at that time to foster new young designers and people who wanted to start their own business,” Stirnemann says. “We were charging around a hundred dollars a month for them to be able to come in and would give them access to the building and the fitting rooms. She really had free rein to develop anything she wanted here and we were always here to support her. Otherwise, she really did everything on her own. She’s very creative and very talented.”
At the same time that Davis launched her fashion line, Olivia Rae Designs – making women’s work wear, cocktail dresses, formalwear and custom garments – she went through the process of setting up a 501(c) (3) non-profit to teach as The Olivia Rae Design Academy.
“I knew I wanted to help people ever since I was little,” says Davis. “When I started working at the City Sewing Room, I would help with a lot of their classes and I realized I really enjoyed teaching sewing. I talked to Anne about it and I basically started my business in the City Sewing Room, teaching classes on the weekend.”
With the academy, Davis chose to focus on kids from eight to 14 years old to help teach sewing as well as other soft skills that come along with stitching.
“I started sewing around that age and I think that learning sewing really helps them to develop other life skills. It helps them with focus, self-discipline and motivation. It gives them a way to be patient. These are all the skills that I found I was learning when I was younger that benefit me a lot today,” she says. “I talk about why you have to be patient. Yes, you made this mistake, but you can go back and do it again. Nothing is set in stone.”
Stay-at-home orders in the spring of 2020 greatly affected the trajectory of Davis’ endeavors. With people not going out or to the office, custom garment orders stopped. The fashion line was put on hold. Classes could no longer be held in person. She realized that she needed to pivot.
“I started to teach a lot of online classes and there really wasn’t a space that had a dedicated focus to crafting and sewing with really qualified instructors who could teach in that virtual setting comfortably and still make sure that you are learning. So basically that’s what we wanted to create,” Davis says. “I noticed in the online lessons, there are pockets around the country that don’t have any sewing instruction, and I thought that was crazy, because there are so many benefits to an arts education.”
To build the platform she envisioned, Davis applied for and received a grant from The BALSA Foundation, designed to help first-time St. Louis entrepreneurs grow their early stage businesses. The grant included a 10-week entrepreneur training program and one-on-one mentoring that connected her to great resources. She worked with BALSA’s Program Director, Mel Lambert, who walked Davis through the process of creating and marketing the site. Once she had a framework, she engaged a friend with web design experience to help her build out the platform. Davis then put out a job posting seeking experienced craft instructors and got a great response from instructors across the country who were excited and passionate about her mission – some had attended fashion school or were running nonprofits of their own.
Davis launched CraftAcademy.org in August 2022 with a range of one-on-one live virtual classes taught by highly experienced instructors across the country. In each hour-long class, students work with the instructor on any project and create a plan of action to reach their goals, whether it’s finishing the project or learning a specific technique or skill. It’s already off to a great start, having received a grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation in St. Louis, as well as a Google Ads grant providing $10,000 per month in advertising and set-up assistance.
Davis credits St. Louis’ supportive ecosystem of entrepreneurs, creatives, artists and makers for helping get all of her projects off the ground. “I don’t think I would’ve started any of this stuff if I wasn’t in St. Louis,” she says. “Having lived in Chicago and D.C., they have great ecosystems, but St Louis’ is very, very supportive. It’s very different. So that’s what I love about this city.”
With her whole life ahead of her, Davis is uncertain what will come next, but she continues to follow her dreams and passions at every turn.
“I’m a fashion designer. It’s always hard for me to say what my job is, but that’s the one thing. I’m always sewing something. That’s something that has just been a part of my life for so long and I really enjoy it.”