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.

provisions. For years, firms like Eddie Bauer and Filson provided classic, sturdy outdoor clothing that was widely distributed and admired. The region also has a long history as a supplier of animal pelts and is the home of the American Legend Auction (formerly the Seattle Fur Exchange), North America’s largest auction of animal pelts.

But the “fashion” industry here really got going in 1973, when Walter Schoenfeld, head of a small Seattle neckwear company, saw a pair of faded blue denim slacks in the window of a London shop. He tracked down the designer, found the manufacturer and created Brittania jeans as fashionable alternatives to the dark denim Levi’s that were so prevalent at that time.

Schoenfeld sensed a hot trend and ran with it. In less than 10 years, Brittania Sportswear was selling 30 million pairs a year and Brittania—Schoenfeld spelled it that way to distinguish his brand from the Royal Yacht Britannia—had a team of 40 to 50 designers and about 400 employees in Seattle. Schoenfeld sold most of his shares in the business in the early 1980s. He says the label is now owned, but unused, by North Carolina-based VF Corp., which also owns the Vans, Lee, Wrangler, Timberland, Nautica and JanSport labels.

But the Brittania legacy endures. The team Schoenfeld put together went on to start other companies that today are part of a business cluster generating about $16.4 billion in revenues annually, mostly centered in the greater Seattle area. Excluding retail, the sector encompassing apparel design, manufacturing, wholesale and corporate headquarters generates more than 17,000 jobs and contributes $6.7 billion in revenues.

Consider Seattle Pacific Industries, the privately held company that produces Unionbay, Saltaire and other labels sold throughout North America and Asia. Stephen Ritchey, president of Seattle Pacific, is a Brittania alumnus. Like most of the region’s apparel companies, its sportswear is made in Asia, shipped to Seattle and distributed from here. The company’s Seattle location is no accident. “We can bring products into Seattle faster than competitors in the Midwest or East Coast [can],” says Ritchey. “Our port is less crowded than Los Angeles and, logistically, Seattle is better for moving product in and out of Asia.”

Seattle businesses were among the first in the United States to use the local design/offshore labor model. The approach has continued to evolve to adapt to an industry where fashions can change overnight. “Our development time,” Ritchey says, “has been reduced

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