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Small biz basics
SCAD grads show students how it's done
Ashleigh Spurlock & Emily McLaughlin, co-owners of Fabrika Fine Fabrics

If you haven't heard of Ashleigh Spurlock or Emily McLaughlin, it's time you got to know them. These co-owners of Fabrika Fine Fabrics in Historic Downtown are shaking up Savannah's downtown business scene in a big way.

Both SCAD graduates, the friends returned to their alma mater as keynote speakers for the 2012 LEAD Conference on Jan. 27, an annual one-day conference that offers leadership workshops, roundtable discussions with working professionals and an invaluable opportunity for students to network within their field of study.

Spurlock and McLaughlin are a success story in their own right, but they credit SCAD for helping them take over the fledgling fabric shop in 2009 and establish a client base that keeps them in business year-round.

"Honestly, it would have been so hard to do this without having the connections from SCAD," Spurlock, concedes.

"The students come here because they know they can trust us and we've helped them throughout the year. And because we go out of our way to help them, the newer students continue to come back to get the stuff they need."

As two of SCAD's most identifiable young professionals, Spurlock and McLaughlin now spend much of their time encouraging students of all backgrounds to follow their passion and take risks, albeit small ones at first.

"You don't go huge," Spurlock laughs amidst shades of glorious reds, pinks, and vibrant blues at Fabrika's East Liberty Street location.

"You don't open, and go ‘Oh, I have five million square feet of stuff and its crazy big and I can have everything everyone could possibly ever want.' It's just not possible."

She's not kidding. The two have come a long way since they first bought the store, wasting no time refurbishing the business and creating a brand that speaks to Savannah's small-town aesthetic.

Their shared passion for locally made, high-quality materials fostered a long-time friendship between the two, but a love of all things "Savannah" inspired Spurlock and McLaughlin to put down roots and take a chance on a business together.

"Because we're small we can't have a ton of stuff, but we like to support people who are trying to make a living doing what they love. We like to do ‘Savannah' and we make sure that all of our stuff is local. If it's not local, we like to make sure that it has a Savannah influence."

Perched above neighborhood staples The Six Pence Pub, Gallery Espresso, and new-comer, Red Clover, Fabrika Fine Fabrics is establishing itself as local favorite among tourists, amateur seamstresses, Project Runway fanatics and even some local celebrities.

Jessica Knapp, for instance, graduated from SCAD in 1999 and has since become a nationally recognized toy-maker.

Her signature wall-mounted stuffed animals are displayed throughout some of Savannah's most popular boutiques.

April Johnston, likely the most widely recognized designer of the bunch, purchased more than 90 percent of her materials from Fabrika Fine Fabrics to design her Fashion Week Collection after her elimination from Project Runway.

This mutually beneficial relationship between the artist community, the student community and the small business community have made Spurlock and McLaughlin poster girls for a newer, more youthful business climate in downtown Savannah.

And while they're grateful for their success, they're not about to let 2012's graduating class off the hook. Spurlock and McLaughlin urge students to step outside themselves, especially if they decide to become small business owners themselves one day.

"Whether you like it or not, you're a community leader as a small business owner," McLaughlin says. "Be part of something and make a difference in the community in which you live."

Getting involved, whether it is at the Ronald McDonald House, where McLaughlin currently volunteers, or the local pet rescue like Spurlock, is vital to the sense of camaraderie between local entrepreneurs, and ultimately, the dialogue between local consumers and businesses.

More importantly, Spurlock and McLaughlin can't stress enough how important it is for talented SCAD students to take pride in their community and consider remaining in Savannah after graduation, though they do have some words of advice for those looking to follow a similar path.

"Know the market and know the demand. It's tough times to be doing something like this, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do something. Just do your research."

As SCAD students buckle down for another round of midterms, Spurlock and McLaughlin certainly have room to grow in their space.

That is assuming they can keep up with the demands of this year's crop of future April Johnstons and Project Runway Winners. cs