PHILADELPHIA – If you heard cheers coming from Aston, Pa., on Dec. 10, it was from the studio of Dance Happy Design. That evening, Aerie — a sub-brand of the behemoth American Eagle apparel company — launched online sales of Dance Happy's handmade canvas tote bags.
There were even giddier eruptions when the holiday season ended, because Aerie — pleased with how well the bags sold — decided to order more merchandise for 2020, said Dance Happy co-founder Emily Scott.
This is sensational news. Not just because a local business is getting national traction. But because one of its founders has a disability that, in the not too distant past, might've kept her from working at all.
Not that anyone had entrepreneurship in mind when Dance Happy's co-founders — Scott, Julia Tyler and Liv Helgesen — first met in 2012. That's when Scott, owner of a small boutique called Compendium, hired Tyler to work part-time at the shop.
Tyler, 24, has Down syndrome and lives with her parents, Karen and Jim. Back then, she was a year from completing the special-needs program at Strath Haven High School and her parents had to figure out what she would do upon graduation.
To help, the school district hired Community Integrated Services (CIS), which partners with businesses and organizations to find jobs for people with disabilities. CIS approached Scott to see if Tyler might help out at Compendium.
Tyler is quiet, not very verbal and moves slowly. Scott thought she'd do fine unpacking boxes when the weekly shipment of new inventory arrived. Working with Helgesen, a CIS job-support coach, Tyler also tagged and hung clothing. The tryout turned into a weekly position.
But Helgesen, whose background is in art, wanted Tyler to be creatively challenged. So she set up an art studio in Compendium's basement and taught her how to silk-screen images — cutout geometric shapes that Tyler created — onto canvas. Scott would then sew the finished fabric into funky tote bags, pillow covers, table runners and the like which were sold at Compendium, online and at craft fairs.
In 2016, they formalized their partnership, naming it Dance Happy because Tyler, who is always happy, loves to dance.
Last winter, Scott was invited to speak at "Embrace Ambition," an annual event sponsored by the Tory Burch Foundation, which aims to support and inspire women entrepreneurs. Scott spoke of Dance Happy's mission to "empower and celebrate differences." In attendance was an Aerie executive who approached Scott afterward, asked about Dance Happy, and then later, unbeknown to Scott, ordered a Dance Happy tote bag for her own inspection.
"She liked what she saw," said Scott. A few months of discussions followed, resulting in an order from Aerie for three styles of Dance Happy totes to be sold online during the 2019 holiday season.
Within days, one of their bags sold out. Scott is now in talks with Aerie about a new order and said that, this summer, a second large retailer will also begin selling Dance Happy products.
What has been gratifying about these sales, she said, is that "they aren't pity buys. These are corporations with high standards. They like that our merchandise is beautiful and high quality and that there's a great story behind it."