Skyway vacancy offers chance of a lifetime for clothing maker

Rammy Mohamed poses for a portrait
Rammy Mohamed poses for a portrait at Ramadhan Designs on Friday in St Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Updated: 1:30 p.m.

As with other commercial areas, the St. Paul skyway has seen an increase in closed businesses over the last two years.

Retail shops and restaurants shuttered by the dozens as the pandemic kept customers away.

But for clothing maker Rammy Mohamed, this crisis has led to an opportunity of a lifetime.

Rammy Mohamed works on a sewing machine
Rammy Mohamed works on a sewing machine at Ramadhan Designs on Friday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“I was one of those lucky refugees that got to settle in the beautiful city of St. Paul,” Mohamed said.

Rammy Mohamed immigrated here from Oromia — a region in east Africa — in 1999. The Muslim American, University of Minnesota graduate quit her full-time job three years ago and began designing clothes in her basement.

So when she had the opportunity to sell her clothes in a store, she didn’t think twice. Ramadhan Designs transformed from a URL into a real-life boutique. At the store, customers can buy everything from hand-made sweaters to fancy gowns.

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“I’ve always dreamed of a place like this but it’s a small business so there’s no way I could afford a place like this let alone in a historical building as the Wells Fargo place,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed got help to realize her dream through a program created by the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance.

The program, called Grow Downtown, works with entrepreneurs like Mohamed. The idea is to fill vacant storefronts with businesses and match entrepreneurs with available vacant properties. They then negotiate for a rent-free arrangement for six months to help entrepreneurs start their business and see if they can make it a success.

Joe Spencer is the president of the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance. He says 25 percent of the storefront and skyway businesses his organization tracks, closed permanently or temporarily during the pandemic.

“When you go past vacancy after vacancy it really is kind of a gut punch to your impression of our downtown and your experience of downtown,” Spencer said.

Rammy Mohamed works with a dress on a dummy model
Rammy Mohamed works with a dress on a dummy model for her next fashion show.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

He says playing matchmaker between business and property owners has proven successful so far — even if the rent-free part of the program only lasts six months.

“It was an amount of time that we thought property owners could be comfortable with and an amount of time that business owners could help get them up on their feet,” Spencer said.

Mohamed spends hours in her shop sewing. Basquiat and Monet books sit on the table next to racks of unique, hand-made pieces. Mohamed's designs are influenced by her culture and religion.

“I have to represent where I’m from and what I am and who I am,” said Mohamed. “I’m a Black woman who is also a very proud Muslim.”

Mohamed’s designs are sewn with edginess and modesty in mind — long, loose-fitting clothing designed using bright colors and various fabrics.

“I made sure that we have women in hijab to be represented in the fashion industry. I was the first designer to ever show at Minnesota Fashion Week with women in hijab,” she said.

Rammy Mohamed poses for a portrait
Rammy Mohamed poses for a portrait at Ramadhan Designs.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

For Mohamed, it's a chance for her to get out of her basement and interact with people who may be more likely to buy her pieces after getting to know her. The all-glass storefront allows passersby a glimpse into the process.

Mohamed would also like her shop to be visible and accessible to young people.

“I'm reaching out to middle-schoolers and high school students to make them come and see and make them fall in love with the art of making your own clothes,” she said.

Mohamed is the first entrepreneur in her family. She says this could change the trajectory of her life.

“I want to create a factory here in the Twin Cities that will dress every woman and man in the world,” she said.

If everything goes well, Mohamed says she could become a permanent tenant. But if not, she'll go back to making clothes in her basement.

Correction (Nov. 23, 2022): An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance. The story had been updated.