WASHINGTON'S LEADING BUSINESS MAGAZINE

Seattle's a Fashion Industry Player

It’s a concept rooted in history and simultaneously au courant.
Susan Phinney |   March 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Plume dress from Suzabelle, one of Seattle’s hottest fashion houses.

Seattle's high-tech, biotech and aerospace clusters are familiar to us all, but mention that the region also has an impressive fashion-design cluster and you're likely to raise a few eyebrows. After all, isn't this the place best known for Gore-Tex and grunge?

Turns out that Seattle ranks fourth—behind New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco—as a major area of fashion design and apparel talent. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Seattle has 240 fashion designers as defined by occupation codes, a high concentration. And those designers are the elite corps of an industry that supports more than 50,000 jobs in Washington state. In 2010, Enterprise Seattle, formerly the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County, published an Apparel Industry Cluster Study that made the case for encouraging its growth and development. And that was before Seattle-based Amazon.com dramatically ramped up its fashion presence online by making apparel a major focus of its e-commerce scheme.

“We identified 500 to 700 fashion headquarters companies in the greater Seattle area,” says Karen Leonas, who worked on the study. She is a professor and chair of apparel merchandising, design and textiles at Washington State University.

To be sure, Seattle’s fashion presence is tiny compared to New York and Los Angeles, which boast large garment districts. Most designers still fly to Los Angeles to attend shows and buy their fabrics and other supplies. And there is a noticeable absence of widely attended fashion shows and trade shows here at which designers, suppliers and buyers can meet and mingle.

But some of that situation may be changing. A long-running Northwest fabric show that once catered largely to quilters will open its first exhibition later this month as the renamed Seattle International Textile Expo. Producer Steve Matsumoto hopes the trade show will allow more apparel makers to source supplies from local representatives. And while you won’t find many Seattle designs on Paris runways, there is a growing community of innovative designers popping up in the region.

“We are seeing designers right out of school who are designing impeccable, classy clothes,” says Eduardo Khawam. Khawam produces Metropolitan Fashion Week, a newly launched event that will include three fashion shows later this month showcasing 30 to 35 designers, more than two-thirds of them local.

Seattle is hardly new to the apparel industry. The city has designed and manufactured clothing since about 1898, when prospectors heading for the Alaska gold rush stopped here for