Long Story [Short]

The Incubator

Sharon Blair

By Eden Dawn June 22, 2012 Published in the July 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Daniel Root

IN PAST LIVES she’s been everything from a beauty queen to an investigative journalist. Now, she’s the matriarch of Portland Sewing, an incubator and sewing instruction center that helped advance the careers of, among others, Holly Stalder and Kate Towers (cofounders of the groundbreaking independent boutique Seaplane) and Gretchen Jones (winner of Project Runway season 8). And that’s in addition to churning out two collections a year with her own ready-to-wear line, Studio SKB, for the past two decades.

WHEN I WAS A KID and my mom tried to make me do chores, I was sewing doll clothes and selling them to the girls in the neighborhood. I never wore things bought from a store. As I was sitting there making clothes for other people, I said to myself, “I guess this is it.” This is what I want to do. It’s what I love to do.

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 2006: my friend Laura and I were at a fashion seminar in San Francisco, and we started talking about what was missing from Portland’s fashion scene. Like, why were we in San Francisco to begin with? We started with patternmaking and sewing, but it organically evolved into things like, “OK, how would you like to take a jacket class? Or a tailoring class? Or to learn how to make pants and jeans?” I now have something like 14 contract instructors and another six to help teach business classes. And we have a roster of 25 class offerings.

I CALL MY BUILDING the “Bullis Building” in honor of my aunt Marilyn Bullis. Auntie M and I were sewing buddies. Every Sunday we’d chat about ideas and trends. Among all my relatives, she was the one who encouraged me when I first thought of this as my career at age 8. She shared my dreams. When she died in 2006, I was surprised to find she’d left me a legacy. I matched the seed money with my savings to start Portland Sewing and buy a building. The sale actually closed on my birthday—January 26, 2010—so it all felt like it was meant to be.

WE WERE ABOUT a year into Portland Sewing when it became apparent that half of our students weren’t just doing it for personal pleasure—they really wanted to launch their careers. And over the years, I’ve had students like Holly, Kate, Gretchen. It became a matter of what can we do to show them how to not only make something, but to get involved in the business. So we made this program that’s a mix of construction and business classes, so they could start focusing on questions like: Who is my customer? How can I reach them? How do I promote my product, get the sales, benefit from the sale, and distribute products in a timely manner?

IT ALL STARTS WITH TALENT. But that goes nowhere without perseverance, a positive outlook, absolute passion for fashion. It takes maturity to know fashion design is what you want. Michael Kors said, “Fashion isn’t for sissies.” He was right. The only reason you would do this is because you cannot imagine living your life without it.

I’VE BEEN A VEGETARIAN since my 20s. I barely ever drive. Leaving a light footprint on the earth is my life. But I’ve also always known that my life would be in an industry driven to instant obsolescence with each new season. I reconcile the ideas of sustainability and apparel design by seeking the perfect garment:the one dress that can take you from work to dinner, the jacket that helps you weather Portland rain with style, year after year.

PORTLAND SEWING is a model for incubators. Every community has its own dynamic, but I believe Portland has the right mix of talent and resources. I kind of always feel like I’m doing my best to be obsolete in people’s lives. I just want to be that person who opened a door and helped it happen, and then I’m in the distant past—and that’s great.

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