RACINE, Wis. — It's been a big year for Alex Upendo.
He officially launched his own business, designing custom bow ties and snipping out a portion of the profits for charity.
He took part in a fashion show in Milwaukee, earned a grant from a local arts council and received a proclamation from Gov. Scott Walker.
And he's only 10.
“I just want to do this to help people," Alex said. "I never thought I’d get this far.”
Alex's passion for fashion began early in life. At age 3, he put on a bow tie for a school photo and has worn one every year since for picture day. A couple years later, he said, he was tired of seeing “tons of glamorous girl fashion but dull boy fashion."
“I got the idea from my mom because she’s a fashion designer and I wanted to be like her," he said. "She taught me to make something easy-peasy like a bow tie.”
He was too short to reach the pedals of the sewing machine, so his mother, Karee Upendo, showed him how to make a bow tie using a glue gun. Alex partnered with his mother, founder and chief executive of Karee Couture, and created bow ties for her fashion line.
Some other things were going on in Alex's life, too. He felt bullied in school and was called a "nerd" and "dork." He knew those names were linked with stereotypes, like people wearing glasses and bow ties.
“I took the negative term nerd and turned it into something positive — bow ties!” he said, beaming.
He also was inspired by his grandfather who died from cancer earlier this year. Alex promised him he would go to college, study molecular biology and "find a cure for cancer."
Soon after that, Alex split off from his mother's business to found Build-A-Bow LLC. Proceeds from his bow ties sales are divvied up with 40% designated for his college fund, 40% for his nonprofit, Build-A-Bow for a Purpose, and 20% for spending money.
“I just thought it was going to be a hobby," his mother said. "I didn't expect him to turn it into a whole empire and then turn it into a non-profit.”
Alex organizes monthly workshops in Racine through his nonprofit, where participants paint fabric or choose among bright, patterned fabrics for hair bows and bow ties. He finishes their designs on his sewing machine and ships the product. September was childhood cancer awareness month, so Alex sent the workshop creations to children receiving treatment for cancer. This month, for diabetes awareness, he included glucose meters in his shipment.
Alex sells his bow ties at different shows with his mom and takes orders online. The price starts at $5 and goes to $10 or sometimes higher, depending on the size and fabric.
He usually works on the bow ties, complete with yarn or Velcro straps, for two or three hours after he comes home from his fourth-grade class at Gifford School. He dreams of one day having a storefront where people walk in and "there are tons of bow ties around you," but in the meantime, he is considering a mobile shop in a truck or van, taking inspiration from food trucks.
As he thinks of his other projects, like an upcoming children's book, Alex said he still loves pulling together unusual, zany patterns and textures — plaid, sparkles, fringe — to make a unique bow tie.
"I can put all different kinds of fabric together and still make them look nice," he said. "It tells me everything's not perfect, but it looks nice. I can still make it work."
To learn more about Build-A-Bow, visit www.facebook.com/BuildABowtie.
Follow Ashley Luthern on Twitter: @aluthern