The heart of country

Photographs by Sean-Micah Siegel and courtesy Vintage Heartland

Kate Liegey has combined her love of all things country with more than 20 years in the fashion industry to introduce Vintage Heartland.

And the lingerie line launched just weeks ago is designed to do much more than just look sweet and pretty – though it does that quite well.

As customers are quickly learning, there’s plenty of meaning behind the obvious charms of the new collection from the designer who spent part of her childhood in Stamford.

“I spent all my summers on Shippan Point,” she says.

And Liegey, who today splits her time between Manhattan and Nashville, has fond memories of those days.

“Stamford was a small town,” she says. “We ran around and left our doors open. I was brought up with that small-town mentality.”

Liegey, who attended School of the Holy Child in Rye and still has family in Stamford, also has ties to North Carolina. Her time in both regions, she says, led to her forming a devotion to small-town life and the country way.

“It’s a very diverse genre as far as who loves country, what it’s all about” – and it’s far beyond the music, she says. It’s affected her very outlook, which includes strong support for American workers, farmers and all-around integrity.

During her earliest days in North Carolina, she says she remembers seeing factories closing.

“I watched them go away and disappear and it was heartbreaking. I saw this struggle from a really young age.”

But it was an event that played out in the big city that set Liegey, who originally wanted to be a lawyer, on her course in life.

She was shopping at Macy’s in Manhattan with her father when a serendipitous meeting with a business bigwig led to Liegey being suggested for the department store’s training program.

After studying textile design and merchandising at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., Liegey did indeed join that Macy’s program and would also go on to work for J.C. Penney, eventually traveling the world and over the years, helping develop a number of celebrity brands.

“I loved the business and the industry and mostly that I could travel,” she says. And she would be on the road, from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, from India to China.

Over time, “I manufactured for everyone, from Tommy Hilfiger to Ralph Lauren.”

Eventually she had her own consulting business.

“I was a big proponent for compliance in factories,” she says. “It was a real fight for me to keep integrity in the industries.”

With all her experience, Liegey had a clear vision when it was time to design her own line of lingerie – and it had nothing to do with trends.

“I wanted to take all the pads out,” she says. “I was just so tired of seeing these young girls exposing the big boobs … I wanted to have a brand that was realistic to young girls.”

To that end, she used emerging and amateur models that included a singer-songwriter, an accountant and several students for her catalog.

“I used real girls,” she says. “We did not use any Photoshop on their bodies.”

She wants to be known for sending a positive message, “not have a T-shirt that says ‘Sleep with me.’”

Those who wear Vintage Heartland, she hopes, will be promoting a clear message – “Hey, I can be pretty and feminine in this lingerie and not be slutty and sleazy.”

The line, with most pieces selling for less than $50, is described by Liegey as “tastefully nice, sweet and pretty.”

She passed on offers that would require her to change her image.

Launching Vintage Heartland has reminded Liegey of her early days in the industry, when she was able to exercise her creativity and explore.

“I would go to my boss and say ‘I heard there’s a new flea market in Paris,’ and he’d say ‘OK, go over there for a long weekend.’

“Every time I went there I would pick up a piece of lace, an old shawl, a doily,” Liegey says. “I probably have $200,000 in vintage samples that I’ve collected over 30 years from around the world.”

She would equally be inspired by pieces of jewelry in India or art from Haiti.

“All these things were just my imagination running wild.”

Having an affinity for China, Liegey decided to go back there to teach when she lost her last job in fashion.

“I would get on a plane and go to a Third World country and teach and come back and use that money,” she says of the way Vintage Heartland came about. “It’s an unbelievable labor of love.”

And while in China, Liegey says she was making a splash.

“I really became an advocate in China,” she says, both for factory safety and for breast-cancer awareness (a cause close to her heart as a survivor).

“I kind of became this celebrity over there known as ‘Country Girl,’” she says.

“What I also learned while I was over there were programs, how to automate a factory,” she says. She wants to reverse the order of things, help sell her – and other American – products back to China.

“That’s how my concept called Sprout Concept Factory came about.”

The mobile setup needs just 5,000 square feet and is something that could come into a town and, Liegey says, turn the local economy around. She is determined to have the first one built in Nashville. Helping spread the word is a YouTube hit called “Bringing It Back to America.”

“Within a week, I had 140,000 hits on it,” Liegey says.

The song, written and performed by Stephanie Urbina Jones, has been used to help introduce the idea of the Sprout factory and what it can mean for American manufacturing.

“The public still has the perception that ‘Made in America’ is going to cost more,” Liegey says. It may, she says, cost a nominal amount more – but the benefits far outweigh the pennies.

Vintage Heartland has been Liegey’s focus the past few years.

“I’ve been on this quest of building my own brand,” she says, doing it all from the design to overseeing the manufacturing.

Despite her years in the lingerie industry, it was still tough to get the company off the ground. Backing was hard to come by.

“Nobody wants to come in and help a woman do a startup, especially at 50 years of age,” she says.

Rejections, though, fueled her further.

“In a sense all these guys really pushed me to the finish line.”

She says she finally found an “angel” in Dallas who contributed the final amount to get it all in place.

“I think that’s an incredible testament to the power and strength of women,” she says. “I’m not sitting here patting myself on the back. I want women to understand they can.”

And Liegey certainly does.

Her commitment to her ideals is evidenced in every aspect of Vintage Heartland.

She even had her catalog photo shoot at Glynwood, a sustainable farm in Cold Spring.

“We give back to the farming community,” she says.

Next delivery will be “Buy Local,” a line of American-made T-shirts with proceeds to support American Farmland Trust’s No Farms No Food campaign.

Vintage Heartland is already gaining attention, having been selected for the gift bags at the American Country Awards in December.

In the next two years, Liegey hopes to expand to sleepwear, jeans, a full range of T-shirts and shoes.

She wants to put the unemployed – especially veterans – back to work.

As Liegey says, “That’s really my mission of what I have done in Vintage Heartland.”

And that’s pretty sweet.

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