Designers aplenty but local manufacturing options are few

Seun Olubodun with Duke at Duke & Winston in Northern Liberties. He wants to produce his clothing line in the city but faces daunting and expensive challenges.
Seun Olubodun with Duke at Duke & Winston in Northern Liberties. He wants to produce his clothing line in the city but faces daunting and expensive challenges. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 11, 2014

In late 2012 - at the dawn of fashion's made-in-America revival - Seun Olubodun of casual clothing line Duke & Winston raised $31,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. His goal: to make the next year's samples in Philadelphia and start manufacturing an expanded menswear line here, too.

"I was so all about Philly," Olubodun, of Northern Liberties, said. "I wanted to build something here that was sustainable. I was committed to doing things here."

He spent months "combing every dark hole and random street in Philadelphia," finding either sweatshops or places that charged $50 to make a polo shirt he would sell for $72. Nothing was ideal.

"I was pricing myself out of business," Olubodun said, exasperated. "I had very expensive, and not well made, domestic products."

The city may tout its creative community and the growing retail scene - it even hosts a version of fashion week in September - but retaining that talent is a challenge, now reaching critical mass, when Philadelphia lacks skilled sewers, cutters, and patternmakers. "Everyone knows the quality is just not here," said Karen Randal, director of the office of business attraction and retention in Philadelphia's Commerce Department. "[It's] not what you expect to find at a good retailer."

Olubodun, like many young apparel designers, wants one day to present Philadelphia-made collections during New York Fashion Week, now underway at Lincoln Center through Thursday.

But current conditions - too few workers and manufacturing facilities that accommodate smaller orders - means they're stuck either sewing their own wares or spending money for larger runs they don't need. Either option makes it difficult to fill accounts with larger retailers - the road to brand recognition. Forget about affording a New York runway presentation.

Even worse, they may end up like Sarah Van Aken. A national pioneer of the locally sourced fashion business model, she shuttered her Kensington sewing facility and Sansom Street store in December. After having to dedicate too many of her resources to train workers, she ran out of money.

Rakia Reynolds, owner of PR firm Skai Blue Media in Center City, turned part of her office into a showroom for designers who manufacture locally.

But after a year and a half, she "put that part of her business on hiatus," in late 2013. Because of conflicts with manufacturers, designers were missing deadlines. "I was continuously having to apologize [to my accounts.]"

Designers are equally frustrated.

"If you are a young American designer introducing yourself to the market, there is demand and pressure to produce in America," said Bela Shehu of Nino Brand, based in Rittenhouse Square.

Shehu wants to stay in Philadelphia, and she is receiving double the orders she did a year ago, but "I'm not capable [of taking them] because I can't make it here. This problem kills me."

It is why some local designers don't even consider Philadelphia for manufacturing and go straight to New York - although the Big Apple is struggling, as well.

Mount Airy designer Nicole Vaunt of the design duo Vaunt & Sol manufactures her eclectic knitwear collection in the Garment District of Manhattan.

Imbue (formerly Laundrea), a machine-washable dress line by Rachel Godwin-Becker of Aston, also manufactures there.

Some Philadelphia designers handle production themselves. Lobo Mau designer Nicole Haddad and Project Runway winner Dom Streater sew around the clock to fill orders.

"I created a line with a simple, easy, minimal aesthetic out of necessity," said Haddad, who sells her dresses and single-seam tunics at the Old City, made-in-America fashion co-op US*U.S. "Not too many pockets, not too many zippers."

Like many other American cities, Philadelphia, once one of the country's top apparel-making hubs, lost manufacturing to overseas labor 20 years ago. However, within the last two years, the fashion community has recognized that the next generation of designers needs local manufacturing options.

The issue hit the national stage in 2012, when Americans discovered Ralph Lauren made the U.S. Olympic uniforms in China. Raw from years of job loss, legislators tried to take action.

Within months, the subject lost steam on Capitol Hill, but young designers inspired by reality television, the growing carbon footprint, and job loss launched companies that relied on local manufacturing. It was in vogue, and the cost of doing business overseas was rising.

By late 2013, there was progress. In September, the Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York teamed with Theory and the New York City Economic Development Corp. to revive New York's manufacturing industry, starting with a $1 million commitment. Two weeks ago, Walmart's CEO announced that company would fund a $10 million program to support Stateside manufacturing.  

Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia deputy mayor of economic development, tapped Randal in December to work full time to boost the city's manufacturing sector.

Randal's first priority is to create a workforce.

She's just started working with a Washington consultant to train the pool of local underemployed veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury to sew.

Randal also is working with Rachel Ford, a costume designer for the Opera Company of Philadelphia by day and couture sewing teacher by weekend at her MADE studio in Old City, to recruit South Philadelphia's Burmese immigrant population into the manufacturing workforce. Traditionally, Burmese women learn to sew as young women.  

In the meantime, fledgling fashion co-ops are gaining traction.

The Philadelphia Fashion Incubator is in its third year.

Menswear designer Ron Wilch recently opened a collective in Germantown. Shehu wants to work with other local designers to create a network to share information - resisted in the past for fear of competition.

"We are ready to cooperate now," Shehu said.

The city has identified some vacant space along Chestnut Street that may work as a small-run manufacturing facility.

But in the end, such a project needs money. Although the city would be willing to offer incentives, a deep-pocketed private entity needs to create a profitable and equitable business model for which there is no modern equivalent.

"We aren't anywhere near there yet," Randal said. "We are working on building - and rebuilding - a community. It's going to take some time."


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704 @ewellingtonphl

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