October 26. 2013 1:19AM

Port City sports apparel business up and running

Union Leader Correspondent

PORTSMOUTH - Kara Welch had hardly hung her shingle before word got out in the athletic apparel industry that she was starting her own business.

After 15 years in the industry, working for the likes of Reebok, Timberland, New Balance and Vision, Welch gained a reputation in the field of athletic apparel product design and development.

She started Athena Apparel Solutions LLC in 2010 out of her home. Through word of mouth, the company has grown to three employees and a small office in the heart of Market Square in the downtown.

In three short years the company can also already claim big name clients including Reebok, New Balance, Sperry Top-Sider and Sauce Hockey.

In 2014, New Balance will launch a new golf apparel line designed by Athena, and an area company, Spirit Designs, will launch a new line of paddleboard wear also designed by Welch and Athena employee Kim Ortengren.

Welch said what makes Athena unique is the full service provided for clients, from ideas to production.

Athena can handle design, technical design, development, sourcing, merchandising, as well as researching trends in fashion and innovation of fabrics.

Welch said she always knew she wanted to work in the clothing industry. Her mother was a seamstress, and Welch began sewing at a young age. She earned her undergraduate degree in clothing and textile design at Framingham State University and went on to do a post-graduate program at the Paris Fashion Institute.

"I followed my dream and passion even though many guidance counselors said 'No, you are not going to make any money,'" Welch said.

From Paris, she launched directly into the industry, traveling from Reebok to Timberland to New Balance and back to the Seacoast, an area she fell in love with when she came to work for Bauer Hockey in 2003.

Welch said she also knew she wanted to focus on athletic wear, and gets excited talking about the things fabrics are capable of. The newly developed golf shirts feature SPF, effective moisture management and are anti-microbial.

Working with athletic wear, Welch said she feels she is doing more than just designing clothes.

"You are contributing to someone's overall feeling about their performance," Welch said.

Working in the industry she saw a need for a company like Athena to which larger brands could outsource.

"Sperry knows footwear, not apparel, so we are able to take a lot of risk and weight off them. They don't have the overhead and headcount, but still have control over the product by working with someone like us," Welch said.

She said someday she hopes Athena will launch its own line, but right now she is content to help other companies achieve their dreams.

"I take great pride in someone else being successful because of the services we can offer," Welch said.

She said she is content with where the company is right now, but would like to see it grow.

"Everything is working really well so we are ready for that next step. We really want to grow our client base," Welch said.

Welch said about half of her clients currently come from Massachusetts, and many friends wondered why she did not locate in Boston.

"I find Portsmouth to be a very entrepreneurial city. I am surprised by the amount of friends I have with their own business, or freelancing or consulting," Welch said. "It has been an inspirational place for me to pursue my dream."