Kiya, the wife of Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin ’95, L.H.D. ’08, and the mother of three, lives a similar life and wanted to make clothing for women to navigate their day with ease, comfort and class.
In August of 2018, Kiya expanded her business by selling and manufacturing the brand’s clothing under one roof, opening the Kiya Tomlin Work/Shop in Etna, eight miles north of downtown Pittsburgh. The expansion gives customers a rare glimpse into how clothing transforms from rolls of fabric in a factory to an outfit for work or play.
“In my heart I felt if I could design, manufacture and sell in one place, that would be a dream,” Kiya says. “That seemed like success.”
A sewing machine from Santa
Kiya, who grew up in northern New Jersey, began designing and making clothing at 10 years old for a practical reason; she struggled to find clothes for her petite frame.
“I wanted to wear clothing that I would see fashionable people wear, but that type of clothing wasn’t available in children’s sizes, so I asked Santa for a sewing machine for Christmas,” Kiya says.
The new sewing machine quickly became a regular fixture on the family’s kitchen table, says Susan Winston, Kiya’s mother. Winston dusted off her eighth-grade home economics skills, read the sewing machine’s manual and the two learned how to operate it together. First they made a stuffed duck in order to learn the basics. Then Kiya made her first garment: a chambray jumpsuit with tapered legs.
By the time Kiya reached middle school she was making her entire wardrobe, shifting back-to-school shopping from the mall to the neighborhood fabric store. Despite her natural skill and interest in making clothing, Kiya didn’t envision herself pursuing a career as a fashion designer. She wanted to study medicine.
“I always wanted to be a surgeon,” Kiya says. “Fashion was just a hobby. I just considered it a fun and a creative outlet.”
Her mother tried to steer her toward fashion after high school, but Kiya wanted to be a doctor.
“She was an excellent student, but I didn’t see the same passion for medicine in her as I did for fashion,” Winston says. “I didn’t want to discourage her, but I didn’t see it. I saw fashion designer.”
A Tribe called William & Mary
Kiya and her two siblings knew that to attend college outside of New Jersey they needed scholarships. Her first trip to William & Mary was during a college tour the November of her senior year in high school.
“I knew I didn’t want to stay in New Jersey, so I worked really hard to get a scholarship,” Kiya says. “I had never heard of William & Mary, but I knew I wanted to do gymnastics. I was offered an athletics and academic scholarship. Those scholarships made it possible for me to attend William & Mary as an out-of-state student.”
Kiya, a psychology major, balanced books with gymnastics, where she held the record in the uneven bars category for several years. Kiya used her spare time to make custom clothing for fellow students, including her roommate of four years, Romanda Williams ’96. The two met their freshman year when they stayed in DuPont Hall 3C.
“Kiya showed me a picture of her prom dress and I said can you make me that same dress in black?” Williams says. “I also asked her to make me a dress for the winter formal. I had many requests. It was so impressive to me that she could just whip up a dress.”
The two have remained friends and try to visit one another at least once a year. Williams still wears Kiya’s designs.
“I think her career definitely suits her,” Williams says. “I was there for the opening of her store and got a few pieces. The fabrics are nice and the fit of the clothing is nice. I have seen her evolve as a designer through the years.”
I made your clothes
The Kiya Tomlin Work/Shop is a modern storefront in a quite rustic strip of downtown Etna. The mom-and-pop shops that are open nearby have preserved the small-town charm of this borough. Kiya wanted to move into an area with little commercial influence with hopes of spurring economic growth.
Prior to opening the Work/Shop, Kiya had a storefront in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh and a separate manufacturing location. She says having both retail and manufacturing in one place has improved efficiency.
“When we had two locations, I couldn’t be at two places at once,” Kiya says. “When I needed to be at the factory, I would have to close the store. There were times customers would come by and say your store wasn’t open. By combining the two, if no one is shopping, I’m on my sewing machine or on my computer doing other things.”
The Work/Shop is an open contemporary space with exposed brick and drop light fixtures. There are also subtle art elements in the design of the Work/Shop that make it aesthetically unique. Professional photographs of models wearing Kiya’s designs hang on the wall by the same hangers that display her clothing in real life.
The manufacturing area is adjacent to the retail space and gives shoppers a front-row seat to how designs are created. The words “I made your clothes” are written on a back wall. It is a space comprised of rolls of fabric, sewing machines, a wall of thread and design patterns.
Everything is done from scratch in the Work/Shop. Kiya and her staff draft designs by hand before cutting them out of cardboard to make a template. They spend hours sewing the fabric into wearable clothing to ship to boutiques across the country, fill online orders or build up inventory.
“I wanted to open the store up to manufacturing so people can see what we do,” Kiya says. “I think we lose sight of all that goes into manufacturing by buying our shirts at fast fashion retailers for $2. We don’t see the amount of work that goes into it.”
Marriage, medicine and Memphis
Kiya and Mike met in the training room at William & Mary while they were both injured. Kiya had a gymnastics injury and Mike was hurt from football. They were engaged the Christmas of her senior year and married two weeks after graduation.
The couple relocated to Memphis in the spring of 1996 because Mike was working as a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis. While in their new city, Kiya had been preparing to take the MCAT, but changed her mind the day of the exam.
“I don’t think I was nervous or anxious that morning,” Kiya says. “I think I had come to the realization that Mike wanted to coach. When we got married I didn’t know Mike wanted to pursue coaching as a career. I thought he would get his master’s degree, get a regular job and I would go to medical school and be a doctor and everything would be happily ever after.”
The long hours, travel and unpredictability that came with college coaching made Kiya second-guess pursuing a career as a doctor.
“He was already on his career path and I was just starting on the medical path,” says Kiya. “I thought, when the test rolls around next time if that’s really what I want to do, I’ll take it. I never thought about it again.”
On the road
The first few years of the couple’s marriage were spent moving to various cities as Mike pursued coaching positions in Tennessee, Arkansas and Ohio. Kiya continued to custom design and had customers in each city through word-of-mouth. Once settled in Cincinnati, Kiya enrolled in the University of Cincinnati’s fashion design program. Though she had designed for several years at that point, she wanted to learn new skills.
“I didn’t know the technical ways of doing things,” Kiya says. “I would have an idea and search for patterns that had similar concepts and I would mish-mash them together. For example, I would take the sleeves from one pattern, the neckline from another pattern and then cobble it all together. I wanted to learn how to do things from scratch.”
Kiya learned the foundations of design, which included pattern drafting and draping, two techniques designers use to create clothing without using commercial patterns. After two years in Cincinnati the couple relocated to Florida when Mike was offered a coaching position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The move to Tampa meant that school was over for Kiya and she needed to decide her next move. She launched a custom design business, specifically catered to creating wedding gowns.
“A lot of women who stay at home to raise their kids do an amazing job, but some of those women really struggle with what they are going to do after the kids leave. I didn’t want that to be me, I didn’t want to feel like my purpose was gone.”
“I always thought if you can make a wedding gown, you were on top because they are elaborate and require so much fabric,” she says. “If you can make a bride happy, you can do anything.”
During the five years in Tampa the couple had two sons, with Kiya continuing to design around taking care of the children.
“My kids always came first, the sewing and design business always fit in where it could,” Kiya says. “That was the one thing that I really liked about it. I could fit what I love to do around my own schedule. I put the kids to bed at 9 p.m. and worked through the night.”
Though she continued making wedding dresses, she wasn’t using the formal fashion designing training she had received in Cincinnati.
“Most brides know what they want,” Kiya says. “They really don’t want you to tell them what they want. I still didn’t feel like a designer, I felt like a dressmaker.”
In 2007 the family relocated to Pittsburgh when Mike became the head coach of the Steelers. By this time the family had grown to five with the birth of their daughter.
In a place like Pittsburgh where Steelers football and history define its identity, fashion is not a main attribute of the city’s DNA. There are hints of it here and there, but they are subtle at best.
“There is a very small fashion demographic here,” Kiya says. “People are just more practical. It’s not that they don’t like fashion, people are just more focused on being practical and comfortable and I think that’s what my designs accomplish.”
Kiya designed the Game Day Collection with the Pittsburgh demographic in mind. The collection features Steelers football team patches sewn onto select garments.
A signature design
The first design idea for the Kiya Tomlin fashion brand came years before she officially launched her business. It stemmed from the absence of Mike’s clothing in the couple’s laundry bin early in their marriage. Kiya was preparing to wash clothes and noticed the only garments in the basket were her own.
“I was wondering where are all his clothes?” Kiya says.
Kiya observed Mike’s routine, which included leaving their home before sunrise and returning around midnight. Every day he would wear sweats — the same sweats. Still puzzled, she decided to ask him about his dirty clothes and was surprised by his answer.
“He and the team would work out three times a day and they would have all the laundry and shower facilities there,” Kiya says. “So when he came home, he would have just had a shower and put clean clothes on. He gets back up at 5 a.m. and puts on the same clothes and goes to work. There was no thought to it — he would just get up and go. He gets to wear sweats every day and he wears the same sweats every day. I was like, there is something to that.”
Mike’s routine sparked an idea. “I decided to just make myself a uniform,” Kiya says. “Something that I could put on every day that I didn’t have to think about. It needed to be practical. Something I can run around with my kids in or dress up for a client. Or if Mike and I wanted to go out at night, I could just throw on some heels or some jewelry — all in the same outfit. I came up with the Signature Dress.”
The Signature Dress wasn’t intended to be the start of the Kiya Tomlin clothing brand, but it was. Made of bamboo, cotton and spandex sweatshirt fleece, the Signature Dress is sleeveless and has a classic cowl neckline, deep front pockets and a reverse high-low hemline.
To Kiya, it was a comfortable dress to wear in her busy life. Unbeknownst to her, she would become a model for her own brand.
“I would wear that dress all the time, with tennis shoes, heels, over leggings or jeans,” Kiya says. “People would stop me everywhere I went to ask about that dress. I thought, maybe I will make a couple of these as a side hustle to the custom wear.”
Though her custom business continued to grow as she raised her children full time, Kiya decided to wait until her daughter entered kindergarten before fully launching the brand.
“A lot of women who stay at home to raise their kids do an amazing job,” Kiya says. “But some of those women really struggle with what they are going to do after the kids leave. I didn’t want that to be me, I didn’t want to feel like my purpose was gone.”
Kiya’s designs are loose fitting and soft to the touch but durable. Her designs are simplistic without sacrificing style. The clothing is comparable to the comfort of a sweatshirt, but does not feel like a traditional one. The bamboo fabric softens the garment, allowing it to retain the same level of comfort after repeated machine washes, Kiya says.
While the brand’s target customers are women between 30 and 60, customers who fall outside that range often buy her clothing.
“Within one day I had a college freshman and an 80-year-old woman on a walker who each bought something,” Kiya says.
The most popular garment is the French Terry Peep Shoulder Tee, which has an elbow-length sleeve and exposed right shoulder. It retails for $138. The average garment sells for around $150. The Beautiful T-shirt is also very popular and sells for much lower, at $48.
Several celebrities have found comfort in Kiya’s designs, including Robin Roberts, Kaley Cuoco and Gayle King. The Kiya Tomlin fashion brand has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, in Essence and People magazines, on the “Today” show and “Entertainment Tonight.”
But the accolades do not influence the next design for Kiya. The customers do. Just as she sought out a sewing machine to create custom clothing to fit her better at the age of 10, she strives to deliver a personalized fit to women who buy the Kiya Tomlin brand.
“When I see different body types in my pieces, the custom designer in me always wants to make it work,” she says. “If you have an hourglass figure, the Signature Dress is for you. If you have a pear shape, the Signature Dress is for you. If you have an apple shape — the Signature Dress is not for you. What can I make for the apple? That is really the inspiration for all my designs. I’m constantly trying to fit women’s bodies better.”
To see Kiya’s designs, visit www.kiyatomlin.us.