Portland fashion business growing, not without problems

9-10-13-portland fashion week
Lights illuminate the Portland Fashion Week name on the concrete floor of the Oregon Convention Center Sept. 10, 2013. (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (The Tribune) — The lights of Portland Fashion Week have faded. Pop-up shops folded their wares into trunks. After parties died down. Models went home to eat a sandwich. And designers put away their 2014 collections.

Now what?

Is Portland on the fast track to becoming the next fashion mecca behind Los Angeles and New York? Some think so. The city boasts more Project Runway winners than either of those cities, four as of the 2013 season. Beyond the realm of reality television, the city incubates dozens more fashion designers who go on to earn national and international acclaim and, more importantly, support themselves doing what they’re really good at.

However, the city often loses its design talent to bigger markets. Some stay, of course. Seth Aaron and Michelle Lesniak, both Project Runway winners, remain firmly planted. Stephanie D. Couture has been successfully designing vintage-inspired bridal gowns and other ready-to-wear pieces in Portland since 2008. Adam Arnold set up shop in 2002 in Southeast and has been designing and producing his own clothing since then. And family-owned Pendleton Woolen Mills continues to age “like a fine wine,” says Refinery29, the largest independent fashion and style website in the US.

However, Pendleton is one of the only fashion houses in the city offering living wage jobs. And that’s what it all comes down to, says Tito Chowdhury, original owner of Portland Fashion Week, now FashioNXT.

“There are so many designers who are doing good fashion and then have to work three or four other jobs,” he says. “You cannot have an industry when you don’t have living wage.”

The Art Institute of Portland, a presenting sponsor at the new Portland Fashion Week and the source of all designers for the final evening of runway shows, keeps employment statistics on its graduates. In 2011, the most recent year it reported, graduates with a Bachelor’s degree in apparel design were earning only $24K a year.

Designer Bryce Black graduated from the school, went on to become a contestant on Project Runway and was recently named Best Emerging Menswear Designer at the 2013 Portland Fashion and Style Awards. Despite his apparent success, fashion design doesn’t pay the bills. The same is true for most designers in Portland, Black says.

“You can’t really sustain your business just selling in Portland or around the northwest,” he says. “There are so many designers here. If you sell to one shop, the other shops don’t want you because they want you to be exclusive.”

He has considered relocating to a bigger market, but even that can be cost prohibitive.

“There’s only so much you can grow in Portland,” he says. “People want to keep us here, but they need to invest in us.”

A large part of the problem, according to Chowdhury, is that fashion is not recognized by the city as one of its core sectors. Consequently, big fashion houses are not attracted to the city with tax breaks and other incentives. If that were to occur, it would have impact beyond the local fashion scene, he says, with athletic wear companies such as Nike and Adidas able to recruit local talent instead of spending hundreds of thousands recruiting designers from larger markets.

Another challenge for local designers is having their garments manufactured. While sending designs off to China is a solution for a few, unit minimums make it out of the question for many.

However, the Portland Garment Factory, created in 2008 by Britt Howard, gives life to the vision of many fledgling designers and accommodates everything from individual prototypes to complete collections. Howard has a far more optimistic take on the fashion industry in Portland and has seen many individuals come in with just a sketch or an idea and go on to successfully execute a product line year after year.

Designer Adam Arnold maintains a similar perspective. He owns and operates a full-service studio out of Southeast Portland where he creates custom garments for a loyal local clientele. Born and raised in Vancouver, he left the area to attend school in San Francisco and then settled in Seattle where he worked for London Fog.

“I didn’t move here [initially] because I didn’t think there was a market here,” he admits. But a lot had changed since he left and on a visit to his parents, the city captivated him. He set up shop in Southeast 2002 and has thrived with strong client relationships and through word-of-mouth advertising since then.

Like any business, he has faced challenges but says, “It’s a creative industry; creativity is necessary when there are challenges or problems. But I love what I do. I love my studio. I love my work. It gives me joy. It’s hard work. Feeling like I’ve worked hard and smart on a project… that satisfies me.”

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