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In the last year, these students used time at home to establish businesses and create their brands

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Lewis Barbe stands with arms outstretched in a uniquely upcycled purple sweater that features a distorted face with many eyes on the front. Noah Rawlings repurposes clothing such as this sweater to create sustainable, new designs. // Photo courtesy of Noah Rawlings

Western Washington University students have turned their art and passions into small businesses, working from their homes to create imaginative and ambitious brands. 

Noah Rawlings is a Western student and he decided to take a gap year last fall when classes moved online because of the pandemic. He plans to return to Western this fall to study agriculture and explore his interest in sustainability and farming. 

Rawlings started making clothes in 2018, but it wasn’t until his gap year provided him with more free time that he started selling his art through Instagram. 

“I wanted to make clothes I hadn't seen before,” Rawlings said. 

Rawlings said he prioritizes sustainable practices when making his clothes. He uses recycled materials and thrifted garments. 

“I hope to keep it as sustainable as I can while at the same time pushing my creative ideas forward as they continue to grow and change in the future,” said Rawlings said. 

Rawling said the book “Let my People go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia Inc., is one of his inspirations for how he wants to run his business. 

Rawlings described the ethics shared in the book as being people and earth oriented and he said it gave him a better understanding of what he wants his clothing and business habits to reflect.

“It taught me that you have to enjoy life for what it is; go outside, take care of each other and take care of the earth,” Rawlings said. 

Anna Gnagy found herself in a similar position as Rawlings, taking a gap year from Western because of online-only classes. Gnagy moved to Belligham to attend Western in 2019 but had to move back to Indianapolis, Indiana when the pandemic began. 

With the extra time she now had, Gnagy started experimenting with stick and poke tattoos, giving them to her friends, roommates and herself. 

She has since moved back to Bellingham and in January, Gnagy got a business license to officiate herself as an independent tattooing business

Gnagy said that her work is expanding more rapidly than she expected and she finds herself with client bookings five to six days a week. 

Gnagy is completely self taught and said that her motivation is rooted in her trust in her ability to learn and that her friends have been a foundational support system in her growth as an artist. 

“Most of my clients are my friends, and it’s really amazing because we will go out in public together and someone will compliment one of their tattoos and they’ll point to me and be like ‘she did it’ and then all my friends will whip out their arms and show their collections of tattoos that I did for them,” Gnagy said.

Kevin Hoult is a certified small business advisor and the manager of strategic initiatives at Western’s Small Business Development Center. Hoult emphasized the importance for young people starting new businesses to get connected with others in similar positions, as well as with those with more experience. 

“Whatcom County is dynamic and a resource rich place for people interested in businesses of any and every kind,” Hoult said. 

Along with in-person community networking, Hoult said that platforms such as Youtube and TikTok provide an extensive amount of learning opportunities, as well as opportunities for small businesses to market their work. 

“Understand that there is a tremendous need for you to be effective in creating your brand and marketing what you do,” Hoult said. “Part of this is talent and part of this is making the world aware of your talent.”

Jesa Chiro is a second-year at Western and the creator of Coco Culture, a small clothing brand, and she has been working to understand how to effectively use social media as a marketing tool.

“I always thought TikTok was out to get me, but I wasn’t using the algorithms right,” Chiro said. “I have been posting every single day, responding to comments and actively making content. It can really drive a business.”

Before Coco Culture, Chiro’s work consisted of clay and resin earrings. She said that she began making them at a time when she needed an outlet. 

“During that time me and my friends were protesting a lot,” Chiro said. She made earrings with messages and symbols to protest against police violence. “Being able to wear my own designs to protest and seeing other people with them was really cool.”

In March, Chiro bought herself a sewing machine and taught herself to sew and since then her business has shifted to producing a hand-made clothing line. 

Chiro said that her clothing designs have allowed her to cater and connect with an audience within her own age group. 

“Everything that I make, I would wear. I made that promise to myself and that really helped me creatively excel,” Chiro said.

Chiro said that at first it was hard not to compare her success to the success of other businesses, but she has now found peace in learning to avoid a comparative mindset and instead celebrate other small businesses around her. 

In the future, Chiro hopes to give back to the Black community through collaborations. She said that Black femininity and the desexualization of Black womens’ bodies is rooted in her business and in the clothing that she makes.  

She is currently studying fashion and entrepreneurial innovation at Fairhaven College and she said that her business is what guided her academic plans towards fashion.

Chiro wants to continue to design and make clothes and she aspires to be a part of events such as New York Fashion Week one day. 

Lindsey Payne Johnstone, the program director of Bellingham Downtown Partnership, said she encourages those with new businesses to get involved with the community and local events. 

First Fridays hosted by the Bellingham Downtown Partnership, and previously known as the Downtown Art Walk, is a good opportunity for new businesses to do pop-ups and experiment with a smaller scale store front, Johnstone said. 

“It creates monthly opportunities to give it a try and get your name out there. There are ways to connect with venues and get on the map to start exploring,” Johnstone said. 

Johnstone echoed Hoult’s advice and said promoting and establishing a product and brand is essential, especially when interacting in-person with clients. 

Brianna Poulos is a third-year News and Editorial Journalism major and a reporter for The Front. She enjoys exploring art, community, and events in her writing and has also written for Whatcom Community College’s publication, The Horizon. When she is not reporting, Brianna spends her time painting, watching movies and baking. She can be contacted at briannapoulos.thefront@gmail.com.


Brianna Poulos

Brianna Poulosis a third-year News and Editorial Journalism major and a reporter for The Front. She enjoys exploring art, community, and events in her writing and has also written for Whatcom Community College’s publication, The Horizon. When she is not reporting, Brianna spends her time painting, watching movies and baking. She can be contacted at briannapoulos.thefront@gmail.com. 


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