WASHINGTON, Mo. — For the last 14 years, 20-something-year-old Sarah Riley has been a vegetarian. That means she not only avoids meat, but she also doesn't wear real leather or any clothing made from animal fur.
Yet, at the same time, she loves fashion and looking stylish.
Yes, it makes shopping a challenge, Riley admits, a 2003 graduate of St. Francis Borgia Regional High School.
"I have an awful time finding cute accessories, like shoes and belts, not made of leather," she said.
Purses, however, she has covered. She makes her own under the label Lucky Penny Couture.
Using only eco-friendly materials that are sustainable, biodegradable or recycled from vintage pieces, Riley designs and sews totes, bags, clutches and zipper pouches that are both eye-catching and functional.
Last year, she quit her full-time job with Randa Accessories in Chicago to focus more on growing her own brand.
Lucky Penny Couture is now sold in four stores in the Midwest, including Fern & Sycamore in downtown Washington, as well as online at www.luckypennycouture.com.
The line also has been featured in several publications.
Riley credits her grandma, the late Viola Garbs, with teaching her how to sew and inspiring her to have a career in fashion.
"I was threading needles probably before I should have been," she said, with a laugh. "She really fostered that love of being creative and working with my hands."
By the time Riley was 10, she had her own sewing machine and was known to make her own patterns to make whatever she was seeking.
"I would lay out my clothes and cut around them to make a pattern to make play clothes, purses, whatever," she said.
After graduating high school, Riley enrolled at Dominican University, a small Catholic college just outside of Chicago, where she majored in design and merchandising with a minor in business.
"I wanted to take on as much as I could," Riley said.
College is where she received the formal training and fundamentals of design, pattern-making and how to put things together.
She began her career on the corporate side, working in product development and manufacturing, first for Paramount Apparel in Bourbon and then Randa Accessories.
The entire time, she kept her eyes and ears open, learning things about the industry to help her create her own brand and develop her own line.
"The moment I graduated, I was thinking of ways I could work for myself one day," said Riley, noting even as a young girl she used to sell bracelets.
Lucky Penny Couture grew out of that desire coupled with her frustration from not being able to find eco-friendly fashions that were stylish and modern.
"My inspiration for the brand was fostered by my love of the fashion industry and the environment — two things that don't often go hand in hand," Riley notes on her website.
"I had been a vegetarian for nearly a decade when I started conjuring ideas for the brand. I wanted to do something different — I wanted a fashion line with a conscience. ... Most vegan lines were uninspired and miles away from the trendy runway fashions I loved. I knew I needed to merge the two ideas to create something eco-chic."
Riley uses organic cotton or organic cotton canvas, natural fibers that haven't been treated with pesticides or chemicals. She also uses vintage fabric that she finds in thrift stores or antique shops, even on websites.
Old bed sheets and curtains with fun, vibrant patterns make great lining material for Lucky Penny bags and clutches, Riley said.
Vintage fabric is her favorite.
"The patterns are bold and poppy and fun," she said. "Remnants ... that someone has been holding on to in their attic ... that makes it unique."
Riley does use burlap in many of her designs, but she uses it sparingly or pairs it with other materials that give it a modern edge.
"It's about marrying and balancing the earthy with a punch of color," she said.
Even the hang tags on Lucky Penny's products are created from recycled materials, and so are Riley's business cards.
Working on the corporate side of the fashion industry, Riley saw a lot of things that made her cringe — from the fabric waste that ends up in landfills to the carbon footprint created by shipping goods back and forth overseas.
"I have traveled to Asia and been to factories to see the environmental impact," Riley said. "Shipping goods there and back ... when we could just be making it all here. My primary thought is to bring jobs here."
At Lucky Penny, Riley designs and sews all of the samples for her items. She recently hired a sewer in Chicago, as well as an intern to help grow the business and an outside sales rep.
"It's all made in the U.S.A. and as local as possible," said Riley, who now lives in St. Louis.
Relocating from Chicago has been key to the success she's now experiencing.
"I have never been surrounded by so many people who want to help me succeed," Riley said. "It's nice to have that support."
Looking ahead, Riley is hopeful and optimistic about where Lucky Penny is headed.
"My goal now is to open more doors," she said. "I want a bigger piece of the market."
She anticipates adding to Lucky Penny's product line and said her dream would be to become a household name.
"I would love to be the eco-Kate Spade or J.Crew, to bring fashion to the masses," she said. "It's scary, but it's also exciting, because if you're not hungry, it's not going to happen for you."