When Nicole McGrew says she went to law school because she thought she should be doing “serious work,” she’s not kidding.
The Alexandria resident’s resume reads like a real-life superhero. As a Georgetown Law grad, McGrew went to work at the Department of Justice in the general counsel’s Office of Justice Programs, where she worked on mass violence responses to tragic events like the shootings in Newtown and Aurora. In 2016, she was tapped to join the Obama administration’s White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, where she addressed issues surrounding opioid addiction, including substance abuse treatment and breaking up drug trafficking rings. During her time as an attorney at DOJ, she also worked on issues such as victim assistance and offender re-entry.
“You knew you were doing good, but it was hard,” recalls McGrew of the emotionally taxing assignments.
But, today, after over a decade of practicing law, you can find her in a very different career. In May 2018, McGrew opened Threadleaf, a women’s clothing boutique in Old Town Alexandria that sells responsibly made apparel and accessories. This month, she’s moving to a new Old Town location on Fayette Street and more than doubling the size of the store.
The career change may look like night and day, but it was actually a long time coming, she says.
McGrew originally started her schooling at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, but soon transferred to study history at Hofstra University and then went on to law school. She never lost sight of her original love of fashion though. When her time at the White House came to an end, she decided it was time to return to her roots.
“Part of my thinking was ‘This is the best it’s ever going to be as an attorney under [the Obama administration],’” she says. “I remember thinking ‘What can I do to top this?’ and I’d always had this dream in the back of my head about opening the store.”
Threadleaf doesn’t simply sell women’s clothing though. McGrew’s do-gooder sensibilities are front and center.
“Fashion in general is a heavily polluting industry,” says McGrew. “When you think about all the touch points: There’s the labor and how the workers are treated; the actual textiles and how they’re grown; or, if they’re wool or silk, how they’re harvested; there are the dyes; even how you ship the products. So there’s all sorts of things to think about with clothing. If you just move the needle a little bit, you’re helping.”
With that in mind, everything McGrew stocks adheres to her responsibly made motto—meaning what she sells must be produced using fair labor (“Workers are paid fairly in conditions that we would be comfortable in ourselves,” she explains); be made of natural fibers; and use natural dyes.
But this doesn’t come at the expense of fashion. With so many designers joining the responsibly made bandwagon, there’s no shortage of brands to carry.
She stocks environmentally friendly labels like Isobel & Cleo, an American-made brand of hand-knit apparel and accessories that uses organic and sustainable yarn; Zuri, which makes shirt dresses and supports the local economy in Kenya; and Miranda Bennett Studio, an Austin-based company that makes plant-dyed apparel and employs refugees in America.
She also strives to carry brands to go up to size 18 and keep the prices relatively affordable. The dresses she carries, for example, are, for the most part, under $300.
And with a much larger space starting this month, McGrew is also using her professional background to bring some career lessons to her customers. She says she’s planning to offer in-store workshops on topics like salary negotiations and career transitions, plus, of course, fashion-focused trunk shows. “It will be a blend of your traditional retail events and these other kind of substantive work-life type things,” she says.
As she settles into her new space, she’s on her way to creating not just a clothing store, but a community.
“I just really have this vision of what a responsible business can be,” says McGrew. “Part of being responsible is your product, but it’s also how your business complements the community that you’re in. I’m looking forward to being able to implement the vision that I have because it’s about more than just the clothes.” // Threadleaf: 102 N. Fayette St., Alexandria
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