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Life of a Fashion Designer and Couture Dressmaker


Finish your race with style. Mary Grace Narkaj, a former collegiate swimmer and now fashion entrepreneur shares how she translated making beautiful things into making beautiful relationships. 
 
Listen to the radio show with Chris Godfrey here:
(Below is a transcript of the Sandwich Generation Radio Show aired on Redeemer Radio.)
_______________________
 day in the life of a fashion designer couture dressmaker

Beauty Outlasts the Beast

Sandwich Generation Opening-

This is the Sandwich Generation with Chris Godfrey. Chris was an offensive lineman with the Super Bowl 21 champion, New York Giants. Today he is an estate planning and elder law attorney in South Bend, helping families make the most of their home field advantage.

 

Chris- 

Hello, I’m Chris Godfrey and welcome to the Sandwich Generation, where the "Friends of God" really shine. Scripture likens the word of God as lamp unto our feet. In other words, it helps us to see where we are going. It contains very lofty thoughts like the Gospel of St John, whose symbol is the eagle. But it also contains very practical advice and inspiration. Take for example Proverbs 31. It contains words from a king to a son about being chaste, upright, and courageous. And it's very interesting to know that he got these instructions from his own mother, which is a great example of the sandwich generation in action. But I think this proverb is most memorable for its description of a worthy woman, "an excellent wife who can find her worth far above jewels". And then it goes on for the next twenty verses with beautiful descriptions of what such a woman looks like. And at first blush, you think, “Gosh. She's busy.” And maybe you think that is totally unrealistic. But if you’re looking beyond the superficial- merely tracking her activity, you see that it’s her heart that is most praiseworthy. And after considering both the behavior of the son and the wife in Proverbs 31, you simply conclude- it's all beautiful.

And beauty has always been of interest to our guest. She's also a bundle of energy. That’s why her mother and I put her in swimming at a young age. And she's a newlywed and has started a family or her own, which gives her even more opportunity to create beautiful things.

Her name is Mary Grace Narkaj. I was really lucky to grab her because her and her husband, Nik – who is a wonderful guy- are in visiting. And moreover, it took a little bit of persuasion because she usually works in isolation, and not used to having to talk and speak, -much less on a radio show. But nonetheless, she's here. So welcome to our show Mary Grace.

 luxury flower girl dresses

Godfrey family photo from Nik and Mary Grace Narkaj's tiny wedding with family in Hartsdale, New York at Our Lady of Shkodra Albanian Church.

 

Mary Grace-

Hi, Dad. Good to be here.

 

Chris-

While you were swimming in college, you returned to one of your childhood hobbies. What was that?

 

 Mary Grace-

Sewing

Handmade Ukrainian wedding dress

Mary Grace sewing her silk and Ukrainian hand embroidered wedding dress. 

 

Chris-

And what made you do that as you kept up with the demanding schedules of being a college athlete? I think you swam twice a day, then you had homework to study economics. So, what made you do all of that?

 

Mary Grace-

I always took my arts and crafts college with me. But I didn't begin sewing again until I prematurely ended my swimming career with injury, and I found myself with all this time on my hands. I always wanted to create my own wardrobe and sew clothing like my grandmother. So, I believe I saved up my babysitting money and bought a sewing machine just as I finished my swimming career (senior year in college). And ever since then I've been sewing!

mary grace godfrey catholic fashion designer

Back in time, Mary Grace convinced her older sister to model for her launch of new handbags on Brika.

Chris-

What are some of your early projects?

 

Mary Grace-

My earliest projects were in high school. I believe I convinced you to pay for some sewing lessons and I made my graduation blouse for my graduation party. And then in college, you know, I got a fresh sewing machine. I started doing accessories and handbags for my friends. Then, it gradually grew from there.

 

Chris-

How did you learn your skills? Are you self-taught?

 

Mary Grace-

My grandmother was a Ukrainian immigrant and she worked as a professional seamstress. So, I was exposed to watching her sew, going into your sewing room and seeing all her fabrics. In fact, that graduation blouse that I made was her fabric!

And my mom sewed our school cloth book covers, Halloween costumes, some of our alterations. And then, it wasn't until after college that I received formal training.

 

Chris-

Sounds like you just picked it up from being around family.

 

Mary Grace-

Yes. I mean, you learn at a young age that you can take something 2D and make it into something 3D.

And then I went back to school to receive some formal training.

 

Chris-

I've seen some of my grandchildren in your studio. Are you having fun, training them and teaching them some things?

 Mary Grace Godfrey Narkaj Couture Catholic Dressmaker

Mary Grace and Gigi in the Anagrassia Atelier. See more fun "behind the seams" videos on her Instagram

Mary Grace-

Yes. I am shocked. My niece since a few weeks old, she's been hearing the sewing machine and watching me sew. My husband I came back a few months ago.  Gigi walks right into the studio, picks her fabric, turns on a machine and starts making my husband a shirt. I was impressed that she was making the sleeve. It wasn’t the best quality, but the fact that she could imagine what she wanted to make. And then go ahead and dive right in and create something- was impressive.

 

Chris-

So you're listening to the sandwich generation on Spoke Street Media, I'm Chris Godfrey. My guest today is Mary Grace Narkaj, a small-scale fashion entrepreneur who got her start just working around mom, grandma, her nieces, and all the rest. Your hobby became a business. It grew into a business. Would you tell us a little bit about that?

 Ukrainian embroidered linen dress

The first Ukrainian dress Mary Grace hand embroidered and designed/sewed. Read more about this dress and her grandmother on her blog: Ukrainian Embroidered Dress

 

Mary Grace-

Yes, I believe it was the spring of 2013. I made my first Ukrainian hand embroidered dress.

And my Ukrainian grandmother always encouraged us to pass on the arts and tradition, the language, and the religion. Since I couldn't pick up the language, I focused on the embroidery.

I was really excited to finish my first dress. I had it ready for Easter but she passed away just days before Easter. I was bummed that I never got to show her the dress.

So instead, I created a blog and told the story about the dress.

Then a few months later my best friend and sister got married. I created bridal separates for both weddings and I posted photos of the products on my blog. The images went viral. The designs went viral.  Ever since then, I've been working long hours grinding in my studio making bridal separates.

 

Chris-

The internet's become a big part of your business. It’s not like you have a storefront or anything like that.

 

Mary Grace-

Nope, I’m just small-time designer and entrepreneur in South Bend, Indiana, who is making dresses for children all around the world.

 

Chris-

What are the challenges of having a small business? I bet you have to wear a lot of different hats.

 

Mary Grace-

Yes, I do everything from creating the designs, doing the sewing, executing the marketing, the customer service, the bookkeeping, and taxes. There are a few times, I got stuck in the details and grinding long hours in the studio and not growing the way I needed to grow. This forced me to stop orders, take a break, readjust, and come back with a new business plan.

 

Chris-

Online business must be interesting because you meet people from all around the world. Do you have any interesting stories to share with us?

 

Mary Grace-

Yes, I found out that some of the weddings that I worked with and made dresses for the bride, the little girls in the wedding were children of royals or celebrities. So, it's been a lot of fun working with brides and mother the brides from around the world. They all have their unique ways of communicating. They all have different styles, weddings, and religions. Then, they send photos back to me. And sometimes I’m shocked at who I made the dresses for and the extravagant and beautiful weddings.  

 pitching designs to Bergorf Goodman NYC

Mary Grace in front of luxury fashion store, Bergdorf Goodman, in New York City. If you like fashion and designers, you can watch an interesting documentary of Bergdorfs: here

Chris-

That's very nice. Didn't a large luxury designer store once contact to about selling some of your original products there?

 

Mary Grace-

Yes. A couple years ago, a Bergdorf Goodman, a high-end luxury store in New York City, buyer contacted me. I pitched my work to them. But due to the nature of what I do- custom work. It wasn't necessarily going to work with them. It's hard to add a third party when you're doing custom work. So, it fell through. But in some ways it was a good thing because COVID hit soon after and I avoided the large hit.

 

Chris- 

I remember that day. In fact, we went out to New York together and I had a dinner to go to. But it turns out, we were there for a couple of days and I was short one dress shirt. And so, when you're in Bergdorfs- and your meeting with your big storyboard with all your design suggestions and ideas- I went looking for a shirt to wear later that night for dinner. The cheapest dress shirt, they had in the store was $400 and it didn’t fit so well. So I remember going to the cologne counter and finding something I like and walking out with a sample.

 

Mary Grace-

I think you left with a sample that I chose for you wear, which was probably quite feminine. (laughing)

 

Chris-

Okay, that's interesting.

But one of the things that I recall that is very difficult about your business is intellectual property. From a legal background, we (other fellow attorneys) are used to being able to protect our ideas through patents, things like that. But that's not the case in the fashion world. People steal other people's ideas.

I was flabbergasted when you told me other companies and China marketplaces had stolen all your stuff. And some even used your birth name and company name to even fool consumers into thinking they were buying your stuff. And you said you have received calls and emails from consumers complaining about quality from the rip-offs in China.

Tell me about that.

 

Mary Grace-

I've experienced everything.

I've joked with my best friend, who I created the first design with, about all the jobs that she created. Many companies were built or grown from the bridal separates I made for her wedding.  

I've seen small businesses and big companies use my images. Even the words on their website, catalogs, and blog posts are copied and pasted from my website or blog. I’ve seen images of myself and my nieces on their website. And some have even bought my products and used them in their trade shows and marketing materials. So, I've seen it all.

There are moments that I felt like I drove myself crazy. I took it personally. I didn't have my own kids, so my business was my baby.

But I had a really good and wise friend tell, “You know Mary, fashion is the belly of the beast. Maybe God put you in this position of influence for a reason. Use it in a good way and give them something good to copy and mimic. You can inspire others to love beauty, appreciate quality, and dress modestly.”

 

Chris-

I'm Chris Godfrey and you're listening to the sandwich generation, a production Spokestreet medium. And with me is fashion entrepreneur Mary Grace Narkaj and we're discussing making beautiful things.

Mary, what really kept you going when you had those challenges and people liked your ideas too much that they stole them. And you feeling bad about it all. It was higher ideals that kept you going. In fact, there was one statement attributed to St. John Paul II that we both like. The statement says- beauty gives us enthusiasm for living. And that's so true; beautiful things do raise our sights.

 And you also like Giorgio Armani's saying that- the difference between style and fashion is quality. Why is it become important to focus on quality, style, and something that you called, sustainability, in the things that you create.

 

Mary Grace-

I'm going to quote Andrew Goodman, past president of Bergdorf Goodman. He said the cliche of price and quality is true. If you buy a $5,000 mink coat, it will last you 10 years. If you buy $3,000 mink coat, it only lasts you a year or 2. So quality lives on. It lives longer. I always feel like if I'm going to make you something custom it should be made with quality fabrics. I persuade my clients or customers to splurge on the high-quality fabrics. I also think well-tailored clothing is timeless and chic. There's much less consumerism and waste. People cherish their clothing and have smaller wardrobes that last you much longer than the disposable clothing that you see in stores now. I also think with COVID, the supply chains have had their hiccups, especially the retail industry. It's even harder to find quality clothing in retail stores now. So, there's a bit of a niche our there for me right now!

 

Chris-

Well, you've been inspired by a lot of interesting people- a couple of whom you've introduced. One was a Sir Roger Scruton. The late Roger Scruton said- If you put usefulness first, you lose it. Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever.

And another inspiration of yours was the Spaniard Cristóbal Balenciaga. Tell me a little bit about why he appealed to you. I think it was not so much what he created but how he worked.

floral black silk gazer gown
Here is a dress Mary Grace created that was inspired by Balenciaga. Read more about the gown on her blog here: Silk Gazar Gown

Mary Grace-

Yes! He is a great inspiration to me. Not many people know about his personal life. He was very quiet and private. He didn't talk to the press and give interviews. A historian compared someone in the religious life. He had such a devotion to the craft and worked in isolation. He didn't judge his craft on what people thought of him. He was one of the very few designers that could go from his/her design concept and make it by his own hands from start to finish. He was phenomenal at his craft. There are very few people and designers today that can do that. I'm inspired by that, especially in this world or environment that is full of “influencers” and people trying to get buzz from social media and hyper focused on marketing. It's an inspiration to see how he did business and how much he loved the craft. He really forged it through.

 

Chris-

You actually had a more direct application of your Catholic faith by making a new line of baptismal gowns, special or custom-made baptismal gowns. Tell us a little bit about that.

 

heirloom silk baptismal gowns

Recently, Mary Grace finished a silk baptismal gown inspired by St. Joan of Arc. Read more about the gown here:  Silk Baptismal Gown  Shop Christening Gowns here: Heirloom Baptismal Gowns

Mary Grace-

Yeah. I've always worked on baptismal gowns. In the months moving forward, I'm going to be doing more baptismal gowns because I'm transitioning my office and studio. I can't do as much of the bridal work during the transition.

It's an important sacrament. Many baptismal gown designs include the hand embroidery. They're also heirloom pieces and will hopefully be passed on to through the generations. Also, some of my customers’ garments are made from the grandmother and mother's wedding dresses, which makes the garment extra special!

embroidered one shoulder wedding dress

Mary Grace and Nik on their wedding day. The back train of Mary Grace's dress is being cut into her daughter's baptismal gown and bonnet.

 

Chris-

Speaking of weddings dresses, you just had your own not too long ago in January. You made your own wedding dress. Did you not?

 

Mary Grace-

Yes. I made my wedding dress. It was a quick wedding (Because we were not sure if the churches would be closed again due to Covid) and we weren't even sure if we could have more than just our witnesses at our Westchester, NY wedding. So, I decided to make the dress simple, but hand embroidered. My mom embroidered the dress, and she spent every minute of her free time to finish the embroidery for me.

I’m about to cut part of my dress off to make my baby’s christening gown and bonnet.

 

Chris-

And before that, did I see you working on a maternity gown this week.

 

Mary Grace-

Yep, I'm working on maternity clothes.

 

Chris-

How’s that going?

 

Mary Grace-

 It's a learning process. But’s only a learning process because I am learning what works for pregnant ladies’ bodies and needs.

I thought something would look good on me and then I realize, “Nope! This is not going to work on my pregnant or post-partum body.”

 It was hard to find any maternity clothes in stores. It's nice having sewing skills and being able to create the clothing I need for my body and lifestyle.

 

Chris-

How does that work? I know women are all different sizes. So, something may look good on one woman and not on the other. Is the same true for maternity or does every body work the same, in a sense?

 

Mary Grace-

Well, I guess most women will seek similar styles and want to fit and hide the same body features. I'm learning the little tricks of maternity clothing, like covering up the arms, adding or eliminating things to create an illusion.

Yesterday, I created a new dress design. I put way too much fabric in it, in particularly the back of the dress. It was not where you wanted extra fabric and it made the hips and butt look even bigger. So I had to correct that and makes changes to the final design. I also put a big bow on the shoulders to hide the back of the arms, which I would normally not do bows. In fact, my husband saw the bows and laughed. He did not think the dress looked like my usual style.

But, the bows were necessary and I left them on the design, which I can always adjust into normal straps later when I’m not pregnant.

 
formal maternity dress for wedding

Mary Grace in one of the maternity and postpartum dresses she made while back in her atelier

Chris-

So that must have been the easiest wedding dress you ever made. I'm sure the same with the maternity dress.

 Ukrainian silk wedding dress

Mary Grace on her wedding day in her hand embroidered silk wedding dress.

Mary Grace-

No, not quite. It was easy because I could do fittings on myself. But my brain couldn’t design and I hit a huge creative block.

As you know, I work with brides all the time. Sometimes, I don't quite understand them and may think in my head the bride is a “bridezilla”.  But when I became a bride myself, I realized that brides are full of emotion and foggy minds from all the big and small decisions and choices that are being made.

I always had a specific design in mind for my wedding dress. But since we were getting married quickly, I didn’t have time to embroider the dress and source the fabric, so I had to come up with an alternative for the quick and tiny wedding.

Because I kept adjusting the design and changing my mind, I was running out of time, and I was almost left with no design or hand embroidery.

I couldn't decide what to do until I came up with the simple and chic design, which I sewed for my final wedding dress.

But if I could go back in time, I probably wouldn't do that design again and stuck to my original plan. So, after being a bride myself, I realized how much stress brides are under.

 Prayer Booklet Friends of God

If you would like to join the Friends of God prayer group, please contact Godfrey Law Offices for booklet and more information.

Chris-

So that perfectly describes our listenership, people who are under stress. Why? Because they're trying to serve people above them in the generational world and their kids. And so, they have lots going on- not to mention their spouses and everything else.

One of the secrets as the Friends of God, which is a little subgrouping of how we see ourselves-these as opportunities to grow and holding us in closeness to God- is to make everybody's life more pleasant. Part of that is being cheerful and making things pleasant and beautiful, which is something you've always had an eye for.

 

And as you head into this new life, have you found out the baby’s gender?

 

Mary Grace-

 Yeah, but I’m not announcing it on this radio show.

(Laughing)

Ok. I will share the news!

I'm having a girl. In fact, I'm using my wedding dress for that baptism gown- which gives away the gender of the baby.

 

Chris-

And you have a new little in-house model that you can make cute little things for now. You would be a little more limited when you're speaking about a boy and making overalls and suspenders.

So, what advice would you give to mothers right now with young girls, who have lots of energy or an eye for creativity? How would you encourage them to foster these latent skills that they might have?

 christian fashion designer dressmaker

Mary Grace working with her little helper and niece, Gigi, in the Anagrassia Atelier.

Mary Grace-

When I came back to my studio in Indiana and saw my niece walk in, come up with a sketch, walk over to the fabrics and machine, use all the tools and create something, I thought that was really neat. A lot of children might not be able to do that or have confidence to do that.

I encourage mothers to do crafts with their kids or even sew with the children by their sides. The children might not have to do anything, but just let them watch and make them think that they're helping by giving them some fabric to cut or play with while you're sewing.

It was nice to see my niece be able to do that because I don't think students are really taught to think that way in school. Things are more abstract, and students learn to repeat information back to the teacher.

 Catholic Fashion Designer dressmaker

Mary Grace's niece, Gigi, mimicking her aunt in the Anagrassia Atelier.

 

Chris-

You made your mark with wedding separates, lace tutus or those fufu princess dress- whatever you call them.

 

Mary Grace-

(Laughter)

Yes. I have sewn a lot of custom bridal pieces; lace leotards or bodysuits with tulle skirts for flower girls and brides.

 recycled wedding dress into custom communion dress

Here is one of Mary Grace's custom Communion dress made from the mother's wedding dress.

Chris-

You make some wedding dresses, flower girl dresses, and baptismal gowns. How about communion dresses?

 

Mary Grace-

Yeah. I've made many custom Communion dresses and it's actually my favorite product to make. Most moms give the girls freedom to choose whatever they want. So, I get to make something that matches the girls’ personality. The girls are very excited when they receive the dresses, and it becomes a very special and memorable day for the girl.

Some of the First Holy Communion dress orders were made from the mother's or grandmother's wedding gown. This just made the gowns extra special!

 This year, I'm really excited about my oldest niece receiving her First Holy Communion.

My sister, niece and I are already designing her dress for the spring. If you were to ask her what she wants right now, she would eagerly say, “BIG and “POOFY!” My sister rolls her eyes when she hears this and says she much approve my nieces final design.

My sister and I are pretty sure that we will use her long cathedral length veil, which had a really cool dotted netting design, for an illusion neckline and Communion veil. And we will let my niece, Gigi, have her big tulle and satin skirt that she desires.

 

Chris-

(Laughter)

Oh, nice.

Well, the word of God is good at linking spiritual ideas with ordinary life. In particular, I'd like the one: The housewife adds a little bit of leaven, to a new lump of dough- it transforms the entire batch. 

That's the kind of effect that people like you, Mary Grace, and our listeners have on others. You and the listeners love what you’re doing, and the love put in makes all the different in everyday tasks, tests, and duties.

No matter the circumstances, we can always make our environments rise a little bit closer to Heaven.

Thanks for being with us today, Mary Grace! Good luck with the baby.

If somebody would want to take a look at some of the things we've been talking about or perhaps talk with you about a special project that they have in mind for a special day coming up, how can they get in touch with you?

 

Mary Grace-

My business is Anagrassia and you can order products on www.anagrassia.com.

But like I said I'm taking a little break right now as I transition my studio and have a baby.

Listeners can also go to my sewing blog, Marusya Marusya. This is where you can see more behind the scenes and read about the stories behind the products or customers in the garments. I hope the blog inspires the listeners to love the craft or even sew themselves!

I also have a Facebook page, Anagrassia by Marusya Marusya, and Instagram account, @Marusyagrace.

 

Chris-

Okay, great!

I’m Christopher Godfrey, and you've been listening to the Sandwich Generation where we are better because of each other. I look forward to seeing you next time! Thank you.

father daughter dance during covid

Mary Grace and her dad dancing to Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" for their father & daughter wedding dance.

 


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