Image courtesy Portland Apparel Lab

It’s no secret to anyone who’s part of the creative community that Portland can be a frustrating place to be a maker. There are certainly perks: the waves of community support and the opportunity for collaboration—the way this band opens for that one or a jewelry designer is quick to lend pieces for a fashion designer's runway show—to name just a few.

But…making money here is hard.

It’s hard for a long list of reasons, but specific to the fashion industry it’s hard because our city doesn’t have the same resources or infrastructure that the big boys do. That, coupled with the fact that many folks still don’t understand why a shirt painstakingly made here by their neighbor trying to get by on a decent wage is going to cost more (and last longer) than the one at the big box store down the street carrying items made for pennies in poor conditions in Bangladesh or China.

And while some notable local companies have successfully made the jump from newbies to thriving—Betsy & Iya, Holly Stalder, and Bridge & Burn come to mind—many are stuck at that pivotal point of getting just enough orders or wholesale accounts to work themselves to the bone, but not able to leg up to the next level of hiring employees, or taking on a business manager to tell them where to invest time and money. Only a lucky few in this crazy industry have the mad genius required to design innovative clothing and be good at doing the books/marketing/customer service/etc. Over the years, I’ve seen many talented designers come and go, not for lack of creativity, but for lack of resource and business acumen.

But perhaps the times, they finally are a-changin'. Or at least we’re making very real attempts at that with two new offerings in the fashion business world.

The first, and most comprehensive, is The Portland Apparel Lab (PAL)a full-service, member-supported business accelerator offering Portland’s apparel and accessory designers early stage strategic and operational support—launches Wednesday, September 10 with an open forum discussion on who and what they are.

Founded by Crispin Argento (PINO menswear) and Dawn Moothart (founder of True, the Portland-based sewn products services company), the organization will attempt to bridge the gaps designers face here—from funding to studio space to access to proper wholesale fabrics and industrial machines, Argento and Moothart want to see the apparel industry go beyond a cottage industry.

“The concept of the Portland Apparel Lab is simple,” says Argento. “The Portland region is talent rich yet resource poor. Through PAL’s member-supported collaborative model, lifestyle entrepreneurs will have access to the tools, knowledge, and support to make their dreams, careers, and success, attainable.”

But how? 

Designers interested in hearing more about PAL can visit their first open forum discussion tonight at the completely packed inaugural talk at the Museum of Contemporary Craft at 6:30 pm

First by formalizing a central hub carving out a space for creative to come together and share resources. Using a membership platform (ranging from business to resource member) PAL pools money and resources allowing better resources to exist.

And the rewards are good.

While a possible $475 a month fee may send sticker shock down the spine of some, if PAL can deliver upon their promises, this is a hell of a deal. A quick round of math on some of the costs a designer would have to individually shoulder that PAL is offering (monthly studio rent, Adobe Creative Suite, the incredibly expensive subscription to WGSN trend forecasting, photo studio time rental, business management advice, wifi, healthcare access, etc.) means that designers could potentially save thousands a year going with this model.

But like all things that rely upon a community, one has to support this for it to exist. If only two designers sign on, the pool won’t be great enough to make it happen.

Next up, for those that are in need of business training, Portland Sewing—already known for its Fashion Forward program for newbie designers—expands its territory by offering a series of Business of Apparel classes.

Image courtesy: Portland Sewing

The 40 classes offered are different then just popping over to PCC for an Intro to Business class because they are tailored to the challenges of the fashion biz. What’s standard markup for wholesale to retail? How do you calculate your overhead? What happens at a trade show? A revolving door of guest speakers will answer these questions, from Nike professionals, local designers and boutique owners who are in the know, to legal professionals regarding contracting basics.

“With this unique and all-inclusive offering of apparel business classes, we strive to serve as a catalyst to make Portland a market center for the apparel industry,” says Sharon Blair, owner of Portland Sewing.  “And, the goal of our business program is to educate and enable students to become fluent in every aspect of bringing their line to market. From defining the product, pricing, manufacturing and distribution channels to educating creatives on what is and how to manage a ‘P&L,’ we help students develop the business acumen and financing to launch their lines.” 

Two options in a previously optionless land where sink or swim was the only choice? This is certainly a good thing. I would highly encourage any and all struggling designers to explore these or other ways to jump into the business aspect of this industry. The business part is, after all, what takes fashion from hobby to career.

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