Skye Barker Maa sees Denver’s fashion industry through rose-colored glasses. Literally.
It was more than a half-hour into arriving back at Factory Fashion, a small batch manufacturing studio in north Aurora, on a recent October afternoon that she even realized she still had the glasses on.
Barker Maa had been across town at a fabric shop picking up more supplies so that the team at Factory Fashion could continue assembling her first collection to be shown at Denver Fashion Week, Nov. 12-20.
“They asked for 12 (pieces), but I’m sending 14 because I can’t control myself,” Barker Maa said with a laugh, sketches of the vibrant ensembles splayed out across a coffee table at the front of the studio.
The line is called SKYE|AIRE and the first collection has its roots in Denver, by way of the deep sea. The pieces mimic the patterns and shapes of stingrays, jellyfish and other aquatic life. Barker Maa has dozens and dozens of photos on her iPhone from the Denver Aquarium, where the inspiration struck earlier this year.
“My 14-year-old son and I had a mom-son date, and he wanted me to take him to the aquarium and I was cranky about it, because I didn’t want to spend 30 bucks a pop. I’m like, we’ve been to the aquarium a million times. Let’s go to the movies or something,” Barker Maa recalled. “But he took me to the aquarium and I was just watching these stingrays and I was like — that’s it. I saw an entire collection in the Denver aquarium.”
Factory Fashion, which employs a dozen sewers with full-time work, is Barker Maa’s latest creative endeavor. She also owns Factory Five Five, a self described funky art warehouse, co-owns the Sky Bar, a cocktail lounge that “celebrates the golden age of air travel,” and sold Neighborhood music, which she started after her son expressed interest in learning piano, earlier this year. All are located in or near Stanley Marketplace, the former manufacturing center for Stanley Aviation, in north Aurora.
Like the other businesses Barker Maa has started, Factory Fashion was a jumping-off point. The new designer’s background is in corporate sales and political campaigns. Sewing classes at her theater company quickly turned to a full-blown manufacturing concept where Barker Maa has been able to create opportunities for up-and-coming artists, designers and anybody interested in producing their own textile products.
“I think Denver is a great place for it,” she said. “And I think there’s a good solid need for it, but finding a place where you can pay the rent and do that is hard. The arts in general are like that…You’re not going to drive the Mercedes in the arts, but keeping the lights on and keeping people paid and hopefully driving the Honda that works is kind of the goal. But there’s a super high need for what we’re doing.”
Geli Hayes, one of the workers at the studio, started customizing her own clothing in high school a decade ago. It turned out to be a career with Factory Fashion, where she helped construct pieces in Barker Maa’s fashion week line. The challenge, especially in creating ultra-structured stingray-like wings, is good, she said.
“I didn’t start making clothes probably until 2017… and I basically didn’t pay rent, and I bought my first sewing machine, and it just took off from there,” Hayes, 27, said. “I wanted to go to school. However, I felt like I was learning so much on YouTube and from other people that I already knew…I kind of just wanted to master my craft every single day.”
Factory Fashion has also been a place where refugees and immigrants have found work they might not have otherwise. Najibullah Dowrankhil was a professional tailor for the U.S. military for 17 years in his home country of Afghanistan. He moved to Colorado in 2021 and says working at Factory Fashion is his “dream job.”
Barker Maa hopes the inspiration she found underwater in the Mile High City will continue to grow. She wants to take her ideas and future collections global, perhaps to fashion weeks in New York or Milan, though she’s also invested in growing the scene locally, too.
“I’ve been interested in fashion all my life and have been a consumer and a follower and devour of fashion for my whole life. But it never occurred to me that I could be in the industry,” she said. “When we started with sewing classes, I was so intrigued, just by the possibilities, we started with kids and with the stuff they were cranking out was insane…
“(Now) our students are actually designing for professional models. And then they send them down the runway, do hair and makeup, the whole nine yards. It was insane what they threw down the runway, and now we’re doing it again. I’m just so blown away by that innate core that exists in so many people.”