Portland Garment Factory caters to independent fashion designers
By JULIA SILVERMAN | DECEMBER 10, 2010
Like women everywhere, but particularly in their chosen industry of fashion, Rosemary Robinson and Britt Howard can be coy about their ages.
The accomplished co-owners of the city’s hippest cut-and-sew salon, thePortland Garment Factory in Southeast Portland, aren’t sure they want customers to know how young they really are.
Twentysomethings they may be, but they’re taken quite seriously in a sector that’s been on the rise in Portland during the past decade or so.
Long known for fleece and sneakers, the metro area has produced three winners in eight seasons of “Project Runway,” the reality TV competition that’s the nation’s highest-profile mass showcase for emerging designers.
There’s also a growing core of independent designers here, many devoted to the city’s eco-hip ethos, who need help with all aspects of production — pattern drafting, size grading, sample construction and sewing final garments — to meet demand for their creations, whether in local stores or online outlets.
Enter Howard, Robinson and their humming new Montavilla warehouse space, the third location for a business that’s been bursting its own seams since it began a little more than two years ago.
It was Howard who started the business in 2008. A mother at 17, who has worked both as a model and an Oregon Zoo researcher, Howard had been hand-sewing chic little outfits for her second child and getting inquiries from boutique owners about selling her designs.
Stores, of course, want to carry multiple sizes of different styles, and Howard was thrown by the time commitment for such production. She hoped to find some help, someone with an interest in design and a reverence for her garments, and most of all, someone local, instead of in Los Angeles, New York or China, where so much clothing is made. She asked friends in fashion, but it didn’t take long to determine she’d found a niche to fill.
A Belmont beginning
So the self-taught sewer opened a tiny storefront on Southeast Belmont Street, and, at least in the beginning, did most of the sewing herself. Still nursing her baby girl, she rifled through books when she needed to learn a technique, and to drum up business worked her connections in the creative community as a sometimes model married to a musician.
By 2009, Howard had enough clients to move up to a space nearer to her home in revitalizing Montavilla, where rent is still cheap but cool new storefronts pop up all the time. More importantly, it’s close to the heart of Portland’s Vietnamese community, where Howard found skilled sewers.
Robinson, a San Francisco State University graduate experienced in pattern cutting, walked into the Belmont location as a potential client, took one look at the operation and figured out two things: It was a great idea, and Howard needed help. A few months later, they were business partners, later launching First Friday gallery and fashion display events in their storefront, the forerunner to the now-rollicking and regular First Friday celebrations on Montavilla’s Southeast Stark Street main drag.
Kate Towers, who opened Seaplane, an influential, early adopter boutique that was one of the first citywide to showcase locally owned designers, says Portland Garment Factory is “something that the city was really missing. I like that it has the term factory, but it is really much more of a grass-roots place, just like everything else here. Suddenly, there are all these people here that are making clothing, and this is still keeping it local.”
Employees and interns
These days, settled into a hangar-like space that has been a mechanics shop and woodworkers studio, Howard and Robinson have six employees and a cadre of interns. They offer everything from fit sessions and initial pattern-and-sample making to design consultation and production of entire lines of clothing, as well as fabric goods like slippers, pillows and baby slings. They’re size-blind, accepting jobs as small as 10 pieces, and working with some of Portland’s bigger fashion names, including Project Runway winners Leanne Marshall and Gretchen Jones.
Commissions from outside the area have been growing. Florida-based A-Bird, a spendy, trendy baby/toddler line, has placed orders for hundreds of pieces, and the Seattle fine-dining restaurant Canlis placed an order for custom jackets for its women servers.
Profits go back into the business — Howard and Robinson recently swallowed hard and wrote a check for more than $3,000 for equipment, including machines that can sew leather — and they’ve only recently quit second jobs waiting tables. But they’ve got no debt, though not for lack of trying — “No bank would give us a loan,” Howard laughs. Plans call for sourcing fabrics for clients and representing designers to boutique owners.
Howard and Robinson know they’ll never be as cheap as having clothes made in China, because labor costs will always be higher here, they say. But local designers say the quality control, and chance to keep production logistics simple and local, are worth the cost.
Barbara Seipp, who owns Phlox boutique on Mississippi Avenue, had been frustrated by the lack of care put into garments made for her own line, sold at her store. Then she started working with Portland Garment Factory.
“We struggle because Portland doesn’t have the same resources for fabric shopping, production, promotion,” she said. “So for them to be here is amazing. These guys are realistic about what we need, and their prices are reasonable for locally made small volumes.”