Startup makes flame resistant clothing for women’s builds

Amelia Papapetropoulos rolls up the pant legs of her fire resistant coveralls up every time she wears them. The crotch of the dull, fire-engine red bodysuit almost reaches her knees and the sleeves come down to about mid-finger. 

"It’s like wearing your dad’s snow suit,“ Christina Knieriem, a fashion design graduate from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh commented as she watched Ms. Papapetropoulos pull the outfit onto her small frame. ”I feel like it can’t be that safe for her. If there was a hazard and she needed to run … it just doesn’t fit.“

The percentage of women in the energy industry’s workforce has grown from 8 to 35 percent in past few years and is continuing to grow, said Ms. Papapetropoulos, 29, who is among them.

She has been involved in the industry since 2009. She now works as sales director at Lightning Energy, a West Virginia company that provides conductor well drilling and oilfield hauling, and also operates a catering company that serves workers at drill sites.

Everyone is required to wear protective clothing while on a well site, she said, and the baggy coveralls that she was putting on in her South Side Slopes apartment were some of the smallest she could find. 

"I’ve been wearing this for years,” she said, tugging at the fabric. “I have a winter one that’s very similar ... just so bulky.”

Ms. Papapetropoulos believes the way people feel on the inside comes from how they look on the outside so she came up with Fire Within, a brand of fire resistant clothing for women. 

“We want to serve and work for this niche market because women deserve to have everything that their male coworkers have in this industry to succeed,” she said. “To feel like men out there because we're wearing the same thing as them — it's not fair.“

Even though she knew there was a market for her idea, Ms. Papapetropoulos realized early that she had no fashion background or what regulations covering such materials were. She contacted the Art Institute of Pittsburgh last year to see if any students would be interested in helping her. That’s how she met Ms. Knieriem.

Ms. Knieriem, 23, and two other students spent months researching energy companies and regulations, as well as talking with engineers and site workers about what they wished their clothing provided.

The biggest concerns they found were the need for more pockets to store personal effects and equipment, and the overall fit of the clothing. 

“Then came out the pen and paper and they came out with some sketches and it kind of grew from there,” Ms. Papapetropoulos said.

Ms. Knieriem said different companies have different rules for employee apparel at drill sites.

"It all depends on the setting you're going to be in and how close you are to a potential hazard,“ she said. “If you're working on the rig and you're in the first place fire would go in the event of an accident, then you're held to a more stringent regulation.”

Fire Within is starting small, with initial designs that include jeans, a knit T-shirt and coveralls. The coveralls are modeled after Nascar racing suits. 

"They can't be catsuits but they're as feminine and tailored to a woman's body as we think you could get and still allow for movement,” Ms. Papapetropoulos said. 

“It's not just something that was made for men that they made in an extra small and said women can buy it,“ Ms. Knieriem added, in between pinning fabric on Ms. Papapetropoulos and flipping through her sketch pads.

Ms. Papapetropoulos did not have specific revenue figures for the business because it is only in the prototype stage, but a run of their numbers show she has invested more than $20,000 into the project already. It is run out of her apartment with an online store under construction. They’re also looking for partners to help with distribution and promotion.

"I think starting small is the best bet because I’m trying to fund it myself,” Ms. Papapetropoulos said. “I’m going to see how it’s received in the industry and kind of go from there.”

She said she does not know of any other companies offering similar lines and is hesitant to talk about her plans. "It’s so hard as an entrepreneur to get out there and talk about it and risk someone taking your idea, but we’re so at the end phase that, unless you’re a Carhartt, you’re not going to catch us,“ she said. Carhartt manufactures work wear and also sells flame-resistant clothing.

Aside from flame resistant clothing, the two want to expand on their women’s line with undergarments such as sports bras, shorts and tank tops. More feminine colors might also be possible, offering a change from the blues, oranges, yellows and browns most manufacturers offer. 

“After we get some money running through the door and sell some things, we’re going to look at actually dyeing the fabric,” Ms. Papapetropoulos said.

After their first female clothing line, they hope to create a men’s line and offer accessories that include metatarsal boots, safety goggles and hardhats. Ms. Papapetropoulos said they’re working with a manufacturer in the United States to make the clothing.

The first of their inventory will be made using a plum-colored fabric and each item will have an inspirational quote on it, something such as “You’re beautiful,” to help women remember they are changing the industry,  Ms. Papapetropoulos said.

“We’re still in the process of choosing fabrics, but most coveralls are made of high technology blends of fibers like Kevlar or Aramid fabrics,“ she said. The material meets the highest safety regulations, because safety is first and foremost, according to Ms. Papapetropoulos. Fashion will always second, she said.

"But that doesn’t mean it can’t be there,“ Ms. Knieriem said.

Madasyn Czebiniak: or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak

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