PORTLAND, Ore. (The Tribune) — As Nike and Adidas battle for global attention at the FIFA World Cup during the next month, other Portland sportswear brands might look like flies circling the 800-pound gorillas.
Add Columbia Sportswear to that list since they decided to try on prAna’s yoga pants for $190 million.
At the big firms, designers and marketers come and go, executives switch countries and silos, and everyone who isn’t climbing the corporate ladder is either dreaming of a startup or an acquisition.
Nonetheless, there are small players who find ways to thrive in this ecosystem, which is an interesting mix of the analog and the digital, the face-to-face and the virtual, the global and the local, the screen based and the tactile.
Kyle Stevens and his wife make running tops in their garage two nights a week, under the brand One Leg Crow. These “technical” garments are made of lightweight wicking fabric that runners prefer because they don’t chafe or hold sweat. Stevens, 34, prints using the new sublimation technique, which works with high-resolution images up to 600 dots per square inch.
“I’ve been running for about six years and when you go to a race and look around there are only about four different types of shirts. I know runners want something a bit more colorful to express their individuality, so I decided to make my own.”
He bought the $15,000 printer and press himself. It’s a 44-inch Epson that prints on a special matte paper, which is laid on the polyester fabric. It is then pressed at 400 degrees F. The ink turns to a gas and is absorbed permanently into the fabric.
Stevens, who has a BA in Global Supply Chain Management and works at Daimler, is a serial entrepreneur. His two other businesses, which he sold, were a reusable garden bag and a screen printing and embroidery shop in his home town Coos Bay.
He has no problem fulfilling orders for $60 shirts — by hand — late into the night. He sells on Etsy.com, which is good for exposure. He pays $7 a week for their search optimization service, but he does much better selling direct on the website www.onelegcrow.com, which has only been going since December 2013.
One Leg Crow gets its fabric from Rose City Textiles near Montgomery Park, which in turn refers startups to him who want sublimation printing done. The most recent one was a woman who is making brightly-colored yoga pants.
“Some people have an idea and want to outsource every bit of the process they can,” he says. “I like the equipment and the process. The only two things I know I can’t do are sewing and selling.”
For now, he thinks he could make a living selling 450 shirts a month direct, since the margins are good. But with a new job and a new baby, he is doing it alone, taking it slowly and letting social media drive sales.
Annette Leiser has been at Rose City Textiles for 35 years and sees a stream of Portland entrepreneurs who want to make athletic and outdoor apparel. “And dresses, and bags, blankets, shoes…They come in fearful of their idea being stolen. They’re baby businesses. I try to get them to crawl, then to walk, then to run out the door.”
For $150 anyone can take a four-hour course in using a Digital Cutting Table, which works from a computer program and cuts through several layers of fabric at once.
Sewing is $35 an hour, as is grading (making different sized protoypes). People can also get certified on a Direct-to-Garment Trencher, another printing method, for $35 an hour.
“Portland is a hub right now,” says Leiser. “It’s the hip place to be, whether in supply chain or protoyping. You can feel the creative energy of all kinds of artists undertaking new things.”
Icebreaker is a medium-sized business which makes much-imitated Merino wool garments beloved of runners, skiers and — if they crack this market — hunters. The New Zealand company moved its US HQ to Portland seven years ago, preferring it to the A&C cluster around Boston, MA.
“Portland’s in a good time zone and it’s on the right coast to get to New Zealand,” says Lisa Thompson, president of Icebreaker USA in the open kitchen of her Pearl District office of 70 people. There are 80 at home in Wellington.
“It has a similar sensibility – wanting to get outside – and there’s a strong talent pool.”
The Portland office is home for global product development, retail and e-commerce, and she can find all those people locally, trained by firms like Nike, Intel and Adidas.
“And it’s relatively easy to encourage people, even at executive level, to move to Portland.”
In this case, Portland is more nice than weird.
“There’s an absolute willingness here to share insights experiences, not trade secrets and innovative ideas. It’s easy for me to call up presidents of other brands and ask them how they’re experiencing something. It’s pretty neat.”
“On” (on-running.com) is a six-year-old running shoe company from Switzerland started by a two friends and a three-time Ironman champion who was injured and whose feet needed achilles tendon support. On’s US headquarters were in Tampa, Florida, (home of Ironman) until the founders discovered Portland. In 2013, they moved it to a storefront in the Pearl District. Sacks of chunky soled shoes show up at the space, which is really a customer service office. Curious passers-by have to be politely pointed to the website or retailers.
Adrienne McClellan, On’s North American Marketing Manager, tells a familiar story. The dozen or so US staff love Portland so much that when they recently held their sales conference here, the highlight of their trip was running together in Forest Park.
On has five shoe styles, ranging from serious runners to casual walkers.
“In scale and energy, the founders thought Portland and Zurich were similar,” she says. “They like the vibe and the athletic community in Portland. They all ski, snowboard and surf and hike, and they wanted that feel here.”
Bill Amos is the founder of NW Alpine Gear which makes high-end mountaineering clothing: $600 jackets and what he calls “the perfect climbing pants.”
Amos, 33, worked in the outdoor program at Mount Hood Community College for six years where he taught climbing and whitewater raft guiding.
“My dad was an entrepreneur, he started a ton of companies when I was growing up. I thought ‘There’s no way I’m ever starting my own business,’ having seen how much work it is.”
However, fate intervened. “I’d studied economics in college and in 2008 when the economy was tanking, I became fascinated with the recession and really interested in starting a business. I figured the only way the economy would recover was by making things and bringing manufacturing back to the US.”
Having been an Alpine skier and ice climber all his life (there’s a new route on the east face of Mt hood called the Frick Amos) chose outdoor apparel. He got help from Cheryll Dailey of the contract garment factory in Newberg, Frontline Apparel. He wanted clothes that let him focus on climbing, not worry about snagging them on a crampon — a stripped-down design and a fit that suited the athletic climber. Hence the super lightweight (4.9 oz) waterproof Eyebright Jacket made from Dyneema fabric, which is a bit like Tyvek.
NW Alpine has just Amos full time and five freelancers as design and production staff.
He too praises the Portland talent pool. He found his first people on Craigslist, although he had to sort through some crazies before he met a woman with experience who guided him thought the manufacturing process.
“Local people makes the process a lot easier — making samples and prototypes, having fit meetings in person with the technical designer, model and pattern maker.”
NW Alpine is a small company, with sales of a couple of thousand units every year, but it has doubled every year since 2010.
Now at the point of needing an injection of capital, it’s difficult, as Portland is not known for its rivers of investment cash. He has thought about crowdfunding, but is worried it works best for startups rather than established brands.
“Portland has done a really good job of promoting the city as an athletic and outdoor industry town,” he says, praising the Portland Development Commission, which recently took his and eight other companies on an export mission to Japan. He networks with the PDC-run Athletic and Outdoor Young Professionals group. He also has benefitted from help from Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, and has made trips to the Expo show in Germany representing the state.
He also took a class in exports and has worked with the U.S. Commercial Service, a Federal organization which promotes exports.
The goal is to stay with the core of climbing apparel, but at some point to launch a sister brand of technical lifestyle wear, rather like Patagonia did.
City boosterism seems to be working. According to PDC, there are 800 A&O companies in Oregon, with 15,000 jobs, 80 percent of which are in the Portland area.
Sucheta Bal, Athletic and Outdoor industry liaison for Portland Development Commission, has seen some brands come through the agency’s peer-to-peer round table of nine A&O companies. Seamus Golf, a retro golf apparel store, was in the Startup PDX space at SE Salmon and Grand Ave, as was Flipside Hat, a bicycling hat company, and Handful sports bras.
“There’s definitely this culture of nurturing centers in this city, as opposed to ‘Oh they’re just the competition,’ because everyone’s paths have crossed before,” says Bal. “There’s a good ecosystem of services and suppliers, of advertising people, marketing, fabric…people with deep ties in this industry who make it easy to get some help.”
Bal says Los Angeles is more heavily focused on fashion and apparel, Boston on footwear, Utah on ski and sow. “We are the only city to have a collection of all those.”
The PDC released its five year economic development plan in 2009. AO was chosen as one of the core traded sectors because it creates jobs and influences outdoor recreation. “It was audacious and it turned out to be a prophetic document,”says her colleague Shawn Uhlman, the Public Affairs Manager at PDC, adding that the PDC is working with Mayor Hales’s office on what comes next.
David Sypniewski is the Founder and CEO of running shoe company SKORA (www.skorarunning.com). Its asymmetric running shoes may look odd, but they make sense. They follow the line of the average foot, which is longest at the big toe rather the middle toe. SKORA makes a goatskin shoe that can last 1,000 miles, as opposed to the usual 400 miles of a synthetic shoe.
“We established ourselves in Portland, one, for the talent pool of footwear designers and marketers. And two, for the variety of environmental conditions: we can test our shoes in four seasons in extreme conditions all year around: hot, cold, wet, desert, coast or mountains. “
SKORA, now with eight staff, launched in 2012 but took from 2008 to get from concept to reality, finding factories and sourcing capital. Shoes range from $90 up to $180.
“The industry is very small and connected. Portland is a hub and it’s nice being able to have beers after work with the others. We are local, but many of are global too.”
So far the talent traffic has been one way. “We hear there is considerable poaching at the executive level, but we’re not part of that yet,” says Sypniewski.
The barriers to being a startup were, one, he came from outside the industry, just an injured runner who wanted a better running shoe.
Two, it takes an immense amount of capital to start making shoes. He compares it to the automotive industry.
“The cost of initial tooling and production testing is incredible, and without the immense marketing dollars of Adidas and Nike, penetrating that market is extremely expensive. That’s why many brands don’t make it. I’m in my mid-30s and I can count less than five running shoe startups in my time.”
He says the market for running shoes is growing at 6 percent per year because running is still growing. “The average marathon now has more women then men.”
Sypniewski didn’t like the arduous process of going through the angel investor network. Instead, “I was lucky enough to find a wealthy individual investor who had an appetite for consumer products and the food and beverage industry.”
He says SKORA is now growing at 110 percent a year but is “still under $10 million in yearly sales.”