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Walking through downtown’s farmer’s market on a Saturday morning, East of These stands out as a cute, colorful booth with products like brightly-patterned headbands, hair bows, and big scrunchies—but there’s more to the shop than meets the eye. In addition to creating ethically sourced products, owner Taylor Ard, 35, has used her experience as a domestic violence survivor to create flexible job opportunities for female survivors of domestic abuse, emotional abuse and homelessness.

Owner Taylor Ard (center), alongside production manager Katie Boll (left) and director of operations Ashley Gruber (right) have built a fashion-forward, customer friendly business that continues to grow.

When East of These began, that team included just two people: owner Taylor Ard and her friend, Jessica. As Taylor recalls, the shop began very organically. Jessica had recently bought a large amount of fabric, and she asked Taylor to teach her how to sew. It didn’t go so well. 

“Within five minutes of teaching her how to thread the machine she was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this,’” Taylor recalls, laughing. “So we just came up with a plan for her to get her money back and started making some simple things for our community.” 

From there, the turban-style headbands Taylor made gained more and more popularity and the business just kept growing. Though Jessica moved to Tennessee, Taylor kept up the work and officially launched East of These in 2020. 

East of These has grown and evolved into what Taylor calls “a local brand [that] specializes in small handmade textile clothes.” In addition to hair accessories and baby products, the shop creates custom branded, handmade items for businesses. The success has led Taylor to rent a space for the shop in Catapult, an entrepreneurial marketplace in downtown Lakeland, as well as have a consistent presence in Lakeland’s many markets.

Creating and selling accessories began as a way for Taylor to help her friend and bring joy to the community; but she ended up helping herself in the process. When Taylor started the business she was recovering from an abusive relationship, and she found healing in the work.

“It helped in getting back on my feet and combating verbal abuse that I’ve [experienced] over the years,” she says. “It’s very therapeutic [to] take something that has very little form and create something out of it that someone values.” 

Taylor chose to share that gift of healing with others by hiring female survivors of domestic violence, emotional abuse, neglect and homelessness. The business name is a nod to the phrase “the least of these” from the Bible, which refers to anyone who is marginalized, impoverished or in need.

“When I was at my lowest, it was very difficult because I have always prided myself on being self-sufficient, and I wasn’t anymore,” Taylor admits. “Experiencing people helping me and having very little choice in that was very humbling. It definitely set me up for wanting to help others.”

Taylor’s help doesn’t end at employing survivors—she also creates a flexible work environment that supports their recovery. For example, one employee is a graduate from Gospel Inc., a Lakeland nonprofit that provides work opportunities and homes to  those who have previously experienced homelessness. The employee is now self-sufficient in part because of her flexible full-time job at East of These.

“It’s very therapeutic [to] take something that has very little form and create something out of it that someone values.” 

“[Another] one of our ladies is recovering, and she’s a single mom of three,” Taylor says. “We’ll watch her kids. It really is like a family here—it’s not just them working for me, it’s like, how can we holistically help [each other]?”

East of These is also environmentally conscious. Products sold at East of These are handmade, ethically-sourced, and locally produced. For example, the majority of their products are printed in North Carolina. 

“It’s sustainable and we only print exactly what we need,” Taylor says about the process. “As far as our waste, we make products out of our scraps [and] try to repurpose them. Everything is paid for with fair wages.”

Additionally, the unique prints featured on popular items like headbands and oversized scrunchies are frequently crafted by local artists and designers. East of These has worked with many artists in the community, such as Gillian Fazio, Bump Galletta, Rebekah Firmin, Gaby Escalera and Tate Krupa; but Taylor hires independent artists from all around the country. Since she has lived “all over the place,” artists and artisans are easy to find – and social media helps fill in the blanks. 

“I just reach out to different people,” she explains. “[For example], there’s a girl who’s viral on Instagram who sells handlettered stuff on her Etsy shop, so we engraved her hand lettering on velvet scrunchies.” 

Clearly, Taylor has a lot to be proud of. But in her opinion, the biggest success yet has been employing a team of incredible women. 

“Outside of that, working with amazing businesses like Bonnet Springs and Born & Bread has been great,” she adds. “[And] we’re going to be opening our little shop in the location where The Poor Porker used to be.”

Taylor is also very thankful for the store’s farmers market presence, which has doubled in size and sales for the company in the past year.

“We have an amazing community that comes out every week and shops with us, so we’re really grateful for those relationships.” 

“As far as our waste, we make products out of our scraps [and] try to repurpose them. Everything is paid for with fair wages.”

As the shop continues to make its mark on Lakeland, Taylor hopes that in the future East of These will expand in scale and products—and the new location is a great start.

“We’re trying to grow our brand into clothing and home,” she says. “Something that has a really strong brand identity, but offers more.”

East of These is so much more than a business. Just like its team of incredible women, the store carries a story with it—a story of healing, and a story of the ripple effect of kindness. Not only Taylor’s kindness in crafting a healing environment for her employees, but the love and dedication those employees put into crafting products that bring so much joy to others. East of These products are paying kindness forward. 

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