In 2011, Jamie Barker’s family moved from Memphis to Charlotte in search of employment opportunities for her husband. Barker grew up in Memphis and had family there to help with his three children, ages 6, 4 and 1 at the time. In Charlotte, she had to acclimate to a new city without her support network, so she gave up her job as a high school English teacher.
“But I had always worked, and I had a college degree, and something in me…” Barker pauses. “I just wanted to work,” she says. “I’m kind of entrepreneurial.”
Barker, now 48, has been sewing since her twenties. She had more time for this after moving to Charlotte, and she sewed for herself, her friends’ children, and her youngest child and only daughter, Millie. Some mothers in her neighborhood asked her to also make dresses for their daughters and encouraged her to open a business. She started with an Etsy shop, which she called Poppy Whitaker, the name she gave boys in college when she didn’t want to use her real shop.
Most of Poppy Whitaker’s designs are for cotton, A-line, ready-to-twirl dresses, sizes 18 months to 14-year-old girls. They are colorful and original, some with messages like “Extra salty”, “That’s a bad idea, what time?” »? and “A Little Less Conversation” screen-printed on the bodice.
Barker mixes up non-traditional patterns and themes, and she doesn’t assume all little girls like rainbows and unicorns (although she certainly makes clothes for those who do). Clothing themes range from STEM, outer space and aviation to chess, music and star wars. She designed a Beastie Boys-inspired dress with a birthday balloon skirt and the lyrics “You gotta fight for your right to party.” She makes each dress by hand, and no more than 100 copies of each model. Prices range from $58 to $68, and the dresses are available online and at Charlotte Collective.
“You’re not going to show up to a birthday party,” she says, “where someone else is wearing the same dress.”
Barker had no business experience before launching, and she has spent the last decade trying to operate on a profitable but still manageable scale. Two years later, the Etsy shop had enough orders for Barker to move the business to its own website and hire help. By 2015, it had hired five employees. The following year, she moved sewing operations to factories outside the city.
It was too much for her, and outsourcing resulted in a decline in the quality and distinction essential to the Poppy Whitaker brand. Barker reduced its workforce to one full-time employee and a few contractors in 2017 and brought sewing back to Charlotte. She still outsources screen printing but sticks to local businesses: Imago 658, a nonprofit in Commonwealth Park that provides jobs for refugees, and MacFly Fresh in Camp North End.
Barker sources most of Poppy Whitaker’s fabrics directly from manufacturers, but occasionally creates her own, including a popular smiley face print and a sun and moon print for the 2019 lunar eclipse.
Millie, now 12, continues to inspire the brand. Barker says she’s worn Poppy Whitaker almost every day since she was a year old. “I think 95% of her wardrobe was handmade by myself or friends I met doing similar work,” Barker says. “She wouldn’t hesitate to let people know that her clothes were designed by women or were from women-owned businesses.”
Although she’s started to outgrow some of the quirky designs, Millie still embodies Poppy Whitaker’s attitude. “She’s fun, sassy, smart, and so proud,” Barker says, “the aspects we bring out in our designs.”