A custom-made solution keeps family's sewing factory in business

Owner Kristin Dixon displayed place mats, napkins and runners at the Caught Ya Lookin' boutique in Lexington. Customers may design their own purses, luggage and other items.
Owner Kristin Dixon displayed place mats, napkins and runners at the Caught Ya Lookin' boutique in Lexington. Customers may design their own purses, luggage and other items. HERALD-LEADER

Nearly four years ago, the Pharris family business was beginning to unravel.

The family from Leitchfield had owned a sewing factory for 30 years, making coats, pants, purses and a host of other items for high-profile names such as Ralph Lauren, J.Crew, Talbots and Coach.

At its peak, the company, Phar Shar Manufacturing, had 550 employees.

But over the years, business had dwindled as more and more clothiers chose to go overseas to have their products made.

"Each time, they would take everything to China because it was cheaper," said Rose Pharris, who operates the company with her husband, Mike.

Then, in July 2008, the factory's last customer, a Louisville-based purse company, left.

At the same time, the Pharrises' oldest daughter, Kristin Dixon, was undergoing a crisis of her own.

Dixon had handled Internet marketing for Dawahare's. The same week the purse company left her parents' sewing factory, Dixon lost her job as Dawahare's sought bankruptcy protection and announced it was closing stores.

"We had to do something because everybody was out of work," Rose Pharris said.

To keep the factory doors open, the family had its employees make purses and other products, and the family began showing those goods at craft fairs and Junior League shows. They enlisted representatives to host in-home "purse parties." And they began wholesaling, "just to keep people working," Pharris said.

Having spent decades making products for other brands, the family developed its own line, Caught Ya Lookin', a name Mike Pharris came up with after watching women ogle the custom handbags his wife and daughters carried everywhere they went.

Rose Pharris opened a Caught Ya Lookin' boutique in Leitchfield, offering customers the opportunity to design their own purses, luggage, kitchen linens and other items, which then would be made in the factory.

In September 2010, Dixon opened her own Caught Ya Lookin' store in Lexington.

It's hard to pass by the East Main Street shop, with its bright pink awning, and not swivel one's head to see what's new in the colorfully decorated front windows.

Dixon said the Christmas line, which includes tree skirts and stockings, are the company's best-selling products.

"We sell thousands and thousands of stockings," she said.

Baby and kids' items such as bibs, blankets and diaper bags also are major sellers, followed by purses.

Building on the success of the baby items, Dixon said, she and her mom designed some basic children's clothing this year.

Customers may choose from 200 upholstery fabrics to have anything they see in the store custom-made at the Leitchfield factory. They also can mix and match design elements, including pockets and hardware.

Monica King has been a customer of Dixon since before Dixon opened her store. The women became friends while working together at Dawahare's, and King said she began having items made at the factory then.

Over the years, she has had purses and wallets, gifts such as monogrammed baby bibs, and place mats and an extra-long table runner for her dining room table made to order.

"I love that the products are made here in Kentucky," King said. "Every little part of their process, down to the snaps on the wallets, are made in the United States."

Because of what the family had seen in their own business, the Pharrises are careful to buy U.S.-made products when they're out shopping.

"We're very conscious now about what we buy," Rose Pharris said. "I look at the tag every time."

The company has wholesale customers in 49 states and eight countries, she said. Many of them are hospital gift shops, Hallmark stores and gift shops at attractions including Dollywood and Busch Gardens, she said.

The factory continues to do work for other retailers, including New York-based rag & bone, and Jean Shop. They make pants for the Amish and beekeeping attire for Walter T. Kelley Co. in Clarkson.

And when they can get it, they still do work such as sewing on buttons for brands including Ann Taylor and Guess.

Recently, Pharris said Ann Taylor approached the company about repairing 1,000 lovely white linen dresses that had been made overseas — with a gaping hole in every one.

She said that when Phar Shar named its price — about $5 a dress to remove the lining and fix the hole — the retailer opted to toss them out instead.

"They ended up just throwing them in the garbage," Pharris said.

Pharris said the company today has fewer than 20 people sewing in its factory.

Many of those employees are seamstresses who have been with the company since her late father-in-law, Osco Pharris, started it 33 years ago.

Some of the women are in their 70s and tried to retire but ended up coming back because they couldn't make ends meet, she said.

Dixon said her father wants to keep the factory open until all of them are able to retire.

"It's almost like they're family," she said.

But it hasn't been easy.

"It takes so much to keep them busy," Dixon said, and the employees work only four days a week. "We've lost a lot of money."

Business is "pretty steady," Rose Pharris said, but "the economy hasn't got any better."

She said the stores they wholesale to are "still real conscious about their money."

But the family is determined to keep trying.

"We'll just go until we can't go anymore," Pharris said.

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