At 80 years old, Inka Mims can still be found in her store on Sherwood Forest Boulevard, helping people find the right uniforms. Her “retirement plan” doesn’t include retiring so much as it does working fewer hours each week than she did after founding Inka’s Uniforms in 1995. Photography by Don Kadair
A single wedge shoe sits on a credenza behind Inka Mims’ office desk, a small reminder of the long path she has traveled.
Mims owns Inka’s Uniforms, a family-run business on Sherwood Forest Boulevard that sells and monograms school uniforms, medical scrubs and business clothing. She placed the shoe in her office as a daily reminder of her mother’s tenacity and strength.
Srecka “Lucky” Fredotovich made the open-toed leather sandal, its pair and countless other shoes during World War II while living in Split, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). She created the shoes from scraps of leather purses and exchanged them for food to feed Mims, her grandparents and aunts. Food was scarce during the war, Mims says, and her mom did whatever she could to care for her family while Mims’ dad was away.
“My mom was a housewife during the war and my dad was a chief engineer on ships, and we were separated from him for nine years. Four of those years we didn’t know if he was alive,” says Mims, 80. “So my mom made shoes and she traded them for corn and other items for us.”
Lucky also wore the shoes—the one that Mims keeps in her office and the other one that she keeps in her home—on their voyage to America. They left war-torn Croatia to meet Mims’ dad, Vinko, in New Orleans.
“My dad paid for us to get on a first-class ship,” Mims says. “My mom took the first one available.”
A NEW LIFE
They traveled for a month by cargo ship and Mims, who was 10 years old at the time, kept herself entertained. She roller skated on the deck while the ship sailed through a seemingly endless sea toward a new beginning for her family.
In 1947, Mims and her mom docked in Port Arthur, Texas. Though she had last seen her father when she was just 1 year old, she instantly recognized a man dressed in a suit with a hat pulled low over his eyes and carrying a briefcase as her dad.
The family settled into an apartment on Jackson Avenue in New Orleans where her dad worked for United Fruit Company and transported bananas. After living in a country where food was scarce, Mims was excited to eat bananas but she missed home.
“I had always heard that money grew on trees in America,” Mims says. “But I didn’t see any money. I saw wooden shacks.”
It was a shock for Mims, who grew up walking on marble streets in a city flanked by beautiful mountains and overlooking the clear Adriatic Sea.
Her first year in America was a tough transition. She did not speak English and did not understand how to write the language.
“In my country,” she says, “the language was completely phonetic.”
She spent a year in public school and then transferred to Academy of the Holy Angels. She slowly learned to speak English by listening to others. She spoke differently and dressed differently. She proudly wore her mother’s hand-sewn jackets and shorts only to realize that all the other girls wore dresses. Some of the girls were mean. She recalls one in particular who told her to go back to Africa, even though Croatia is in Europe.
But she learned to adjust and adapt, and her family grew to five when her parents had two more children, a girl and a boy.
Mims graduated from high school and enrolled at LSU, where she met her husband, Sam. They married when she was 19 and by the time she was 28 she was raising four children: Tania, Sam, Inka and Ben. They had moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and later to Odessa, Texas. She loved Texas but did not care for North Carolina.
“We spent eight long years in North Carolina and six very short years in Texas,” she jokes.
The family moved back to Louisiana when both Mims’ and her husband’s fathers were ill. That’s when she decided to pursue a career.
“I was a lady of leisure in Texas,” she says. “But my kids were grown and I decided to look for some kind of work. I was a really good seamstress and knew how to make clothes.”
She saw an advertisement in Baton Rouge Shopper for a job with Young Fashions, a school uniform shop, and decided to apply for it.
“It read something like, ‘Do you like to travel?’ Yes. ‘Are you bored?’ Yes,” she recalls. “And there was no experience necessary, which was great because I never worked.”
She interviewed for the junior buyer position but decided it wasn’t quite for her. She turned it down multiple times before then-owner Ernest Dampf convinced Mims to take the job.
“He said, ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’’’ she recalls.
Mims spent nearly 20 years working for Young Fashions, traveling across the country, working her way up to vice president and eventually taking over the uniform division of the business. She decided what fabric to purchase, oversaw manufacturing in San Antonio and created a uniform that could be altered onsite.
She loved her job and was good at it.
“I told him as long as it was fun, I would continue doing it,” she says. “Money was never an issue with me. Money wasn’t impressive then, and it still isn’t.”
When Dampf sold his share of the business to Tanya Kennedy in the early ’90s, Mims left shortly after. She worked with School Time for about a year and decided that wasn’t a fit either. That’s when her good friend and business associate, Sister Mary Michaeline, suggested Mims open her own business.
“She is a good lady, very creative and always cared about people, not making money,” says Sister Mary Michaeline, who met Mims during the ’70s when she was a principal at Holy Ghost Catholic School in Hammond. “She is one of the most generous people I’ve ever worked with, and she really believes in quality and service and is honest. I wish I could say that about all business people.”
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Mims took her friend’s advice, and in 1995 she opened two businesses—one in Drusilla Shopping Center and one in Harahan, just outside of New Orleans. She later moved from the Drusilla store to the Sherwood Forest location, which is more than twice the size, and includes a drive-thru service for people picking up and dropping off uniforms.
Inka’s Uniforms is a family-run business. Her husband, Sam, keeps track of the finances. Her youngest son, Ben, is vice president, while daughter-in-law, Amy, is a buyer and Mims’ granddaughter, Coral, manages the monogramming, silk screening and embroidering. She employs 13 people year-round for both stores but hires many more during their busiest season.
Many of her employees have been with her for a decade.
“I always say when Ms. Inka retires, I will retire,” says Regina Blanchard, 62, who runs the shipment and orders in the warehouse. “She is wonderful to work with. She has integrity and creates such a loyalty from the people who work with her.”
Mims estimates 85% of her company’s revenue is generated over six weeks in July and August as parents buy school uniforms for the new school year. And more than half of what she sells is manufactured in Eunice by 10 women who “bend over backward for me,” she says.
Mims says she loves people. And customers love her.
“When my daughter Isabella was in pre-K four, I brought her in to get a shirt and skort and the smallest size they had was way too big on her,” says Kristy Hammack, whose daughter, Isabella, is a student at Holy Family School in Port Allen. “So I stopped this tall, thin lady at Inka’s and asked her if this was the smallest size she had. I had no idea it was Inka, and she never told me. But she grabbed her tape measure and pins and took up the sleeves and took it to the back of the store, and 10 to 15 minutes later she brought me back a tailored uniform. And I don’t think she ever charged me for it. She was so humble and kind, and just wanted to help. I have only bought uniforms from her since that day.”
Mims continues to work in her store on what she calls a “retirement plan” where her hours are shortened. She spends her free time reading cookbooks, cooking and spending time with her 12 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. She loves to travel and returns to Croatia every year, often bringing a grandchild with her on the trips.
When she goes home, she loves to swim in the Adriatic Sea, in water so clear you can see the rocks on the seafloor from a window seat of an airplane. While both her parents are now deceased, their memories live on in the legacy Mims and her family have created at Inka’s Uniforms.
Along with the shoe that Mims keeps on her credenza, there is a framed sepia-toned photo of her mom. In it, Lucky is smiling while sitting in her Croatian living room and holding a shoe she just made. The photo reminds Mims of her mom’s zest for life.
“She was such a great spirit, and everyone loved her,” Mims says. “I keep this here to remind me of the support she gave all of us and of her happiness and joyfulness. And a lot of the times I look in the mirror and think, there she is.”