DESIGNERS DISILLUSIONED WITH FAST FASHION LOOK TO CREATE A GRASSROOTS GARMENT INDUSTRY ONE CITY AND ONE HANDMADE SHIRT AT A TIME
Laura Lee Laroux is full of confidence, even though some peers say she shouldn’t be.
Laroux, 36, moved to Bozeman, Montana, with seven sewing machines and 12 rolls of fabric in a U-Haul earlier this year, intent on making the rugged town at the northern foot of the Gallatin Range the new headquarters of her clothing line. She calls it RevivALL because she upcycles old materials into new garments, such as ruffled dresses fashioned from men’s shirts and hip bags revived from leather scraps bought from a recreational vehicle manufacturer.
Laroux had been overly busy and underearning in her previous home of Eugene, Oregon, running a clothing boutique, co-producing a local fashion week and, in the snatches of remaining time, working on developing RevivALL. But then, like so many bold Americans, from the pioneers to Kerouac on down, she concluded that her destiny, her chance to leave the old muddle behind and pursue her dream full time, lay elsewhere. “I just got some kind of rumbling inside me that said I have to leave Eugene,” said Laroux.
But Bozeman, population 37,000, isn’t New York or Los Angeles, teeming with seamstresses, fashion buyers and media. Why does she think she can make it there?
The same could be asked of legions of other upstart fashion designers setting up shop in locales such as Lawrence, Kansas; Nashville; and Detroit, none fashion capitals likely to be featured on Project Runway.
Something is afoot.
The odds of upstarts breaking profitably into the $2.5 trillion international fashion business remain long, but American entrepreneurs like Laroux have been newly emboldened to try by a confluence of cultural and economic forces. These include an appetite among some activist consumers to opt out of the fast-fashion system; Web stores like Etsy that connect small makers to buyers everywhere; low costs in postindustrial American cities; the decline of New York’s garment district; and fledgling pockets of support for apparel startups by government and not-for-profit groups. The result of all this has been the growth — sometimes halting, occasionally stunted, but often encouraging — of grassroots garment industries across the American landscape.
“Not all designers have to come to New York,” said Lisa Arbetter, editor of the influential fashion magazine StyleWatch, which has a per-issue circulation of 825,000. “Every line doesn’t have to be sold in Saks.” A LITTLE IS ENOUGH It might seem counterintuitive, but the fact that 97 percent of the clothing sold in the United States is now made overseas, up from 50 percent in 1990 and 10 percent in the 1960s, has created opportunity for American makers. While Zara, H&M, Gap and Fast Retailing, the parent of Uniqlo, have annual sales of more than $74 billion combined, some of the fashion-forward want to wear clothes that a million other people aren’t also slithering into.
What’s especially sweet about the kind of apparel businesses those like Laroux are starting is that a little success can be enough. Their ambition is not to become the next Betsey Johnson or Yves St. Laurent, but merely to gain the satisfaction of earning enough money selling dresses made from shower curtains, cruelty-free handbags or bespoke belt buckles to quit their boring day jobs.
“I’m close to making a living on my own stuff,” said Leslie Kuluva, who has seen sales of her line of LFK T-shirts printed in Lawrence, Kansas, rise every year since 2006. Kuluva says when she started, “I used to print them on my living room table and lay them out on the couch to dry, and cats would be walking all over them.”
Now, the “stuff” she creates in her professional print shop on East 8th Street in the college town includes men’s ties she buys at thrift stores and upcycles by printing clever designs on them, along with baby onesies and adult shirts she buys wholesale and unprinted from American Apparel, adds LFK logos to and sells at a profit of roughly $10 a garment. The line is carried at downtown shops such as Wonder Fair and Ten Thousand Villages eager to support local makers.
MORE THAN A HOBBY Of course, having one artist or even a dozen eke out a living printing shirts one by one is not on its own enough to jump-start the economy of a town or change fashion as we know it. The challenges in taking a step up from that by launching a relatively small national apparel brand are formidable, as would-be entrepreneur Lisa Flannery learned over the past few years. A veteran of two decades of toil in various roles at big brands in the Manhattan fashion business, Flannery attempted to start her own surfwear line.
“You need serious capital for development and production; unlimited amounts of time for sourcing, designing and fitting,” Flannery shared in a long and deeply detailed gush during a short break from her current job as a technical design manager at a national clothing brand. “And a partner or really good friends and family to help you with the sales, marketing and PR, legalities and accounting, etc., because you need to handle design and production, which are really jobs for multiple people — if you can manage to handle that, then you confront massive minimums, which is why you need all of that capital — minimums on fabric, trims and the amount of units the factory will produce for you — most China factories want at least 3,000 units — otherwise you are making small lots locally at very high prices, which your potential customers scoff at because they are used to Forever 21/Zara/H&M prices. And then if you do manage to get some traction, you can bet someone is going to knock you off at a much lower price.”
Flannery ended up spending more than $10,000 and gave up when, after subsisting on four hours of sleep a night, her health started to fail. She’s not optimistic about the long-term prospects for Laroux and others.
Such barriers to big dreams are why Karen Buscemi runs the Detroit Garment Group (DGG), a three-year-old nonprofit with an ambitious agenda. “We are trying to make Michigan the state for the cut-and-sew industry,” said Buscemi, a former fashion magazine editor.
Funded by donors including two automobile seating manufacturers, the DGG offers as one of its five major programs a fashion incubator. It takes up to 10 fashion entrepreneurs; installs them in offices in Detroit’s Tech Town building; gives monthly workshops on making business plans; provides access to high-end design equipment for free; assigns seven mentors across legal, sustainability, sales and other fields; and, at the end of a year, sets up a showroom where retailers come and hopefully buy clothes and start a wholesale relationship with the incubees. Those not admitted to the full program can sign on as an associate member for $100 a month to use the high-end printers, pattern-digitizers and other machines to create a fashion collection.
DGG’s apprenticeship programs in pattern-making and sewing machine repair promise to help convert the unemployed into garment workers. (DGG’s certificate classes in industrial sewing are offered at a few schools, including Henry Ford College in Dearborn, which is not affiliated with The Henry Ford.) Meanwhile, DGG is working with a variety of state agencies to establish a full-blown garment district, taking advantage of the decline in New York, where the district, due to high costs and foreign outsourcing, is a shell of its old self. Los Angeles has already shown it can be done, becoming a new apparel-making center.
The idea could very well work in Detroit, too, said StyleWatch editor Arbetter. “They are training people in a manufacturing skill that dovetails into the history of that town as a manufacturing center, and by doing that, they are creating businesses and creating jobs. It seems that particular city is ripe for this.”
One key, Buscemi said, is starting small by helping young designers find stable footing. “They want to come out the door from college and be entrepreneurs,” she noted. “But unless you have had experience, how are you going to do that and turn it into a real business rather than a hobby you are doing on the side?”
A COMMUNITY WITHIN Apparel brands can change a city. In Nashville in 2009, the jeans shop Imogene + Willie opened in a former gas station on 12th Avenue South. Its informal vibe, with cool folks lounging on couches next to stacks of blue jeans and thick belts — a few doors up from the famed guitar shop Corner Music — helped establish a neighborhood aesthetic.
As co-owner with her husband, Carrie Eddmenson explains in the brand’s online statement: “The way Matt and I operate has always involved a mix of uncertainty reinforced by intuition, call it a gut feeling.”
The words could be a manifesto for Nashville, where guts, gut feelings and flights of inspiration have for a century oozed through the city’s honky-tonk veins, only recently spilling out into creative fields beyond music.
Although the jeans are made in Los Angeles, the store’s bustling neighborhood, now known by the hipster moniker “12 South,” is one of the emblems of Nashville’s ferocious resurgence. Chef Sean Brock credits the city’s apparel scene for his decision to open a Nashville outpost of his award-winning restaurant Husk. “I came back to visit friends,” Brock said, moments after slicing a local ham for thrilled patrons in the dining room last winter. “And there was just a buzz. People were coming from New York and LA to do things like make leather belts.”
In Bozeman, Laroux has identified what there is of a garment industry and has taken steps to become a part of it. There are companies producing backpacks there, and Red Ants Pants, a brand that is like Carhartt for women, is headquartered in Bozeman. Even though not all of these companies produce apparel in Montana, their presence, Laroux figures, means there must be expert seamstresses, fabric cutters and other production people around, some of them likely willing to take second jobs for an ambitious, youngish designer.
In her first 10 days in town, Laroux met with a woman who runs a coworking space and a screen-printing business, another who has a clothing boutique and another, Kate Lindsay, who founded Bozeman Flea, a market for artists and makers. Laroux’s goal is to start earning $50,000 annually, after expenses. Some of that income may come from selling patterns for her dresses for $10 each via websites such as Indiesew; some from showing at an upcoming fashion event in Helena, Montana, and at Bozeman Flea; some from opening a local shop with other designers; some from sales of sock garters on the e-commerce maker superstore Etsy; and some, perhaps, from catching the fancy of a buyer from a national retailer looking for a unique American-made product.
The extra bedroom in the faux colonial she rents with friends, her share being $600 monthly, has become, for now, a design studio and sewing room. Not for long, Laroux said. “In three months, in my ideal world, I would have this little storefront I’ve been looking at downtown, with my studio in the basement and three other designers that have studio space, and we take turns running the shop.”
Long ago at fashion school in New York, Laroux had a burned-out professor who told the class none of them were ever going to really make it as designers. “’You’re just going to be getting coffee for people at design houses,’” she recalled him saying, acting as if administering this dose of reality was a favor.
Maybe it was. He made her angry, and now she’s making her stand, assembling a fashion posse.
By Allen Salkin for The Henry Ford Magazine. This story ran in the June-December 2016 edition.