Vested and Invested

A local coffee shop honors the history of the once booming Kansas City Garment District

Hundreds of customers walk through its doors every week, order their caffeine fix, flash a smile to the barista and continue on with their day. But if you linger long enough in Vested Coffee in the Kansas City Garment District, you will walk away with much more than a cup of joe. Its walls are covered in representation of what used to be and the name Vested itself is a nod to the heritage of its location. 

The term means to clothe with authority, power, or the like; to put in possession; to invest; to furnish; to endow. The definition could not have been a better fit for combining history and community into a thriving downtown coffee shop, exactly what owners Susan and Nolan Dees envisioned when they opened Vested in March 2019. 

“We Googled synonyms for 'Garment' and 'Vested' was one of the answers. We also liked vested because we wanted to be 'invested' in the neighborhood and in our customers,” owner Susan Dees said. 

The neighborhood draws in plenty of people, more than just those who live and work in the district. Denise Morrison is the Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs at Kansas City’s Historic Garment District Museum and sees lots of foot traffic from history seekers. 

“I’m fascinated with how many out-of-towners know about our district and particular businesses within the district,” Morrison said. “Granted it’s older folks, but I really enjoy talking to those people who come to the museum. I think it was a much bigger deal than many people in KC today realize.”

This neighborhood, stretching roughly from Sixth to Eleventh Streets and from Washington to Wyandotte, has seen much change throughout the years. Kansas City’s Garment District took off in the 1920s and became the second largest garment district in union memberships only to New York City by the 1950s. Blue jeans, dresses, sailor dresses and suits were some of the more popular offerings in Kansas City. 

After World War I and through the 1940s, the area employed more than 4,000 people and boasted one out of every seven women in the United States purchased a Kansas City-made garment.

The Nelly Don Label was instrumental in the success of sustaining and growing the garment district. Her factory alone was making five thousand dresses per day and earned over $3.5 million in sales, according to the University of Missouri’s Historic Costume and Textile Collection. During World War II, Nelly Don was one of the largest manufacturers of women’s military and work clothing. 

“The district developed a method known as the ‘section system,’ in which each worker was assigned to make only one part of a garment, over and over,” Morrison said. “This meant not everyone hired had to be perfect seamstresses. Some credit Nelly Don for this; she took note of how Henry Ford made cars and put that method to work in her company.” 

In the building occupied by Vested Coffee stood Bond Shoe Company, a men’s shoe store that was built in 1899. This little known fact is marked only by a simple copper plaque on the side of the building and the way Susan Dees does not let the history of the Garment District go unnoticed. 

“It was a time KC should be proud of,” Dees said. “Customers enjoy the vibe and the architecture of our shop and the neighborhood. Our wifi password is ilikeyouroutfit and gives us another opportunity to share about the area when customers ask for the password.” 

The participation of citizens like Susan and Nolan working in tandem with the Kansas City Historic Garment District Museum is certainly keeping the history of this district and its people out of only history books and on the forefront of minds. 

“I hope Kansas Citians will take pride in knowing their city helped clothe the nation at one time,” Morrison said. “And so many of our visitors come because a family member worked in the district, so I hope having something visible for them to see keeps their family members alive for them.” 

If a history lesson is your cup of tea…or coffee…you know where to go! 

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