When it comes to purchasing goods, there is a hierarchy of consumerism that goes something like this: knowing a product was made in America, good; knowing a product was made in Oregon, better; knowing a product was made right here in Portland, super bananas awesome. This line of thinking drives us to support farmers’ markets and mom-and-pop cafés over corporate giants and impersonal franchises. It’s no different when it comes to clothing. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, looked down at the label on our favorite sweater and thought “Made In... wait, where the heck is that country?” Ideally, we’d all sport duds made right here in Portland in hopes of supporting ethically-minded facilities (paging Kathie Lee Gifford) and boosting the local economy.
In reality, however, it can be extremely difficult for small, independent labels to create their own goods in a cost-effective (read: profitable) manner in Portland. Even if your latest to-die-for dress came from a locally owned boutique, chances are it was not manufactured in town. Portland is renowned for producing top-notch products in the form of beer, coffee, and cuisine. How far away are we from adding clothing to that list?
The answer has nothing to do with a lack of interest or effort on the part of local designers and everything to do with the simple economic model of supply and demand. Since there is such little demand for the equipment, materials, and labor involved in garment production, the prices of these essentials are extremely high and unrealistic for small boutique owners. On the contrary, in a city like Los Angeles, where there are multiple facilities producing fabric and sewing patterns, costs of materials and labor are much cheaper. Production companies in L.A. must be able to compete with similar facilities down the street; in Portland, there is no such competition.
This is not to say that there are no options for clothing production in town or that boutique owners are not trying their best to work within their means. Rather, hopes are high for change, and a few select business are blazing trails. Here’s a rundown of the current state of garment production in Portland from three very different perspectives.
Small Boutique Owner: Sarah Bibb, Folly
Sarah Bibb, owner of NW boutique Folly and designer of her self-titled line, hopes for a day when her designs can be produced entirely in Portland. Currently, Bibb sews some of the items herself in her store and has the rest made at a small production house in L.A. “As the cost of materials such as cotton rise, I have to keep my bottom line with labor costs or else I have to increase my retail prices." Bibb confesses that the logistics of her current method require much more planning to account for travel time, but, in the end, it is worth it to her in order to keep her prices accessible to her customers. To see faster change for businesses her size, Bibb believes it would take a well-established Portland brand such as Nike or Columbia Sportswear to start manufacturing here. “Big companies design here, but they don’t manufacture here. If they did, It would change the landscape and create an industry. The trickle down from the top would make a dramatic change in labor costs and availability of materials."
Local Production Facility: Britt Howard, Portland Garment Factory
One example of local sartorial production in town is Portland Garment Factory. Founded in 2008 by Britt Howard and her business partner, Rosemary Robinson, PGF is revolutionary for providing services beyond just sewing and pattern-making to clients here in Portland and as far away as New York City. Howard describes PGF as one-of-a-kind in its full-service offerings, which include pattern making, grading, cutting, and design consultation. “We are unique in that we are so much more than a cut and sew place,” Howard says of her gang of 12 including herself and Robinson. “We act as a liaison between our clients and the sewers. The vibe of our shop is one where, when clients walk into our space, they want their designs made here, even if it does mean paying extra. People can sense the close-knit atmosphere we have built, and they like that here they know their sewer by name.” Howard owes part of the positive feeling in PGF to the Rose City itself, praising clients here for focusing on sustainability and for making it a priority to support business that value their employees. Howard says keeping prices on par with other cities like Los Angeles and San Fransisco is a crucial part of PGF’s success thus far.
In-House Pioneer: Jennifer Thomas, Jet
Photos: Jet Clothing
Jennifer Thomas, President & Designer of Jet Clothing, recently opened her own production facility in April 2011 as a way to completely control all aspects of the designing process. Aptly referred to as “The Hangar,” the new facility is mere blocks away from Jet’s retail space on N Mississippi Ave and employs five women who handle all of the preshrinking, cutting, and sewing involved in Jet’s garment production. Thomas describes the Hangar as her “absolute dream” as a designer, saying that while Jet items have always been produced locally (a client of PGF), her goal has always been to have total control over all aspects of the product, including the timeline, quantity, and, of course, the design itself. Because all of the clothing is produced close by, Thomas feels that one of the biggest benefits of producing in-house is the ability to be flexible. “We create what we want to and when we want to, which enables us to give the best customer service we can possibly give to people. If a customer comes in and wants a skirt in a size we are out of in the store, it can take only two or three days to have that skirt ready for her.”
Thomas admits that what she is doing is still very uncommon in Portland and attributes her success with the Hangar to her crew of adept seamstresses. “Not many designers have the resources to pull this off. Many are independent and do not have a team like we do at Jet, a team which has taken years to assemble.”
The jobs created by PGF and the Hangar have been personal triumphs for the women behind these businesses. “I met a lady who had been looking for work for eight months when she came to me,” says Thomas. “She aced a sewing sample test and was immediately hired. I could not believe that such a highly skilled sewer could be out of work, but that is another hurdle we face in increasing this type of in-house production—the amount of blue collar workers in need of employment is enormous, and there are very few jobs for them.”
Bibb, Thomas, and Howard are all optimistic about Portland’s future when it comes to garment production. Citizens here are generally more conscious about knowing where products come from, making it easier to promote locally made items. As long as we remain committed to supporting independent designers like Bibb, and the work of innovators like PGF and Jet, the demand for locally made items will increase, making this type of production more attainable for businesses of all sizes. The more you shop, the more you know. Don’t hesitate to ask questions at your favorite boutique. Find out what brands are being produced in town and support them in whatever way possible.
Designers and boutique owners: What are the issues/solutions from your perspective?
Consumers: Do you have a favorite (locally made!) clothing brand?