With increased restrictions on bags and purses at stadiums, arenas and concert venues, Abby Gross saw a need. And the answer was clear.
Gross, a 2005 Blair High School graduate, recently launched Chant, a line of clear plastic handbags that uses more environmentally-friendly materials.
“It's kind of a crazy world that we live in that one social issue — meaning security, safety, gun violence, whatever you want to call it in large scale events and arenas — is more or less going to cause a whole environmental issue because hundreds of thousands of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic handbags are being sewn and produced every year,” Gross said.
PVC, also known as the poison plastic, is harmful when it's being produced, used and when it is thrown away.
Initially, Gross, who has a fashion design degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had hoped to use all of the plastic that's being disposed of at these stadiums and arenas to create the bags.
“How can we already use the plastics that are being thrown away and use them to create an item that is necessary for these events?” she said.
However, Gross said, the science just isn't there yet.
Instead, she is utilizing thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), which is degradable and non-toxic, to create the fashionable handbags. She is also using recycled plastics melted down to create accessories such as keychains, which can be attached to the bags. She also has plans to create clutches out of recycled plastics.
Though she now lives in Omaha, Gross' fashion career began in Los Angeles, only a few months after she graduated from UNL in May 2009.
“I didn't even have a place to live when my mom and I packed up the car and drove out there,” she said.
Gross got a job promoting samples of various products, while searching for a “dream job” in the fashion industry. Within a few months, she landed a job with Lyric Culture, a small company that produced clothing with song lyrics on them.
“That's where I kind of learned a whole new college experience in just the actual production, design, marketing and sales world of fashion,” she said. “It was really a hands-on experience. It was down in the trenches, downtown L.A., where it's all sewn and dyed and screen printed.”
The company grew quite successful, selling its products on HSN, formerly the Home Shopping Network. During her last year with the company, it was sold to a larger corporation.
“That was also very interesting to see how the other world works where you can get a sample made in a day and not two weeks,” she said.
After seven years on the West Coast, Gross decided it was time to return to the Midwest. But she wasn't leaving fashion design behind.
“Even when I was living and working in L.A., I always knew that I wanted to do something of my own — my own fashion label, my own fashion company,” she said. “I didn't know where I saw that fitting in.”
Once she was back in Nebraska, Gross began developing her own company, East Campus Clothing, which preceded Chant. Gross initially produced three different Nebraska-themed sweatshirts but without using any licensing. She continued creating clothing for three seasons.
But after three years, Gross needed to determine the next step for her company. How would she continue to grow?
The logical answer, she said, was to add more states. She had often received requests for clothes themed toward Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and other midwestern states.
“That's not why I started East Campus. My heart lies in Nebraska and that's what I know,” she said.
In her last season of East Campus Clothing, Gross sold one clear bag.
“I literally just bought a clear bag off of Amazon for like $10, but then made my own keychains to add on to it,” she said.
The 20 bags she created sold out.
“Maybe I have something here,” Gross said.
Gross began working with the Omaha Startup Collaborative through the Greater Omaha Chamber to create Chant.
“They really stressed the importance of doing surveys and really finding out what the need and problem is before starting to find the solution,” she said.
That's when Gross discovered the heavily-used PVC plastic.
“I started researching PVC plastic, which is what these bags are usually made of. I haven't found any bags that aren't made of PVC. If they just say clear vinyl, that means PVC,” she said. “I went down this rabbit hole just trying to figure out why these are made of PVC when we live in a world where they are trying to abolish all of these plastic bags.”
Gross has other ideas to help people be fashionable yet become more sustainable that she hopes to launch in the future.
“I want it to become more of a lifestyle brand and not just a fashion brand,” she said. “There is a bigger vision of just helping people in general make their experiences at these large scale events more enjoyable and more sustainable and more environmentally friendly.”