Designer partnerships

Wright State staff member Debra Radford is customizing a new career

The sights and sounds around Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton are a welcome sight for Debra Radford, a 2000 Wright State University alumna and director of strategic resources and partnerships. However, the sounds are overshadowed by the clanking of her Baby Lock EMP6 six-needle professional embroidery machine that’s been working overtime since she moved into the downtown location.

Radford is the owner of Designz by Dee, a three-year-old customized embroidery business that Radford started in the basement of her Dayton-area home during the pandemic. She opened the business after sewing custom face masks for children and quickly opened a storefront in Courthouse Square with high-profile clients in December 2023.

Radford’s store offers clients an opportunity to visualize what’s possible with their customized apparel and gift creations. The space is filled with hundreds of finished examples, including jackets, vests, hats, purses, hoodies and coffee mugs in various colors, to help inspire customers to create a one-of-a-kind item.

“People want to look unique,” said Radford. “They don’t want cookie-cutter.”

Debra Radford’s embroidery machine works on a sweatshirt for Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims Jr.

Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims Jr. is a repeat customer. Mims often wears suit jackets with an embroidered City of Dayton seal and his name and title on the breast and sleeve.

“Once I saw her work I was impressed,” said Mims, who graduated from Wright State with a Master of Science in Education in 1975.

Mims said Radford’s downtown storefront and her quick turnaround have been extremely helpful to him. He said his embroidered clothes help promote the city at events he attends. He often has Radford customize clothing for his staff as well.

“It’s a real honor to have someone who is from a local university who’s doing great work in the city of Dayton,” said Mims.

Radford said her experiences at Wright State and her role as the director of auxiliary services during the pandemic prepared her for the challenges of running her own business. Working through COVID-19-related challenges helped her to realize that starting her own business could be possible.

“We had to think on our feet,” said Radford. “Food costs were high, product costs were high, and we had to figure out how to make things work.”

Radford has turned to her family to help with the labor demands of opening her new storefront. Her husband, Marvin, and three adult children work at the shop in the evenings and weekends, and they offer a lot of creative feedback.

“My husband always has great ideas, and we always collaborate on how to bring things to the next level,” said Radford.

Radford said it has been great seeing her creations worn by people in the Dayton community, around the country and even online.

“We made a rhinestone sweatshirt for a rapper, and she wore it and then posted it on her Instagram page,” said Radford.

Radford plans to purchase additional equipment and use the shop to help young entrepreneurs in her community start their own custom apparel businesses.

“These embroidery machines cost a lot of money,” said Radford.

Radford said providing the equipment for beginning entrepreneurs will allow them to create and press their designs themselves without sending them away for production.

“Our plan is to constantly keep growing and evolving,” she said.

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