Seattle Is a Fashion Industry Player

It's a concept rooted in history and simultaneously au courant.

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 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 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 by half [in about five years]. Everything is designed on a computer [and] electronically transmitted to the factory for execution.” This approach means fewer trips to far-flung factories and a weekly flow of goods instead of deliveries every couple of months. Although manufacturing overseas means fewer jobs here, the work that does remain in Washington state tends to be higher-skilled design and merchandising positions that pay relatively well.

Tommy Bahama is another Brittania offshoot with a major presence in Seattle’s fashion scene. Tony Margolis and Bob Emfield had left Brittania and were working in New York and Minneapolis, respectively, when they decided the world needed some upscale casual wear for men. Their third partner, Lucio Dalla Gasperina, said he would join the new company, but wanted to remain in Seattle. In 1992, they launched an island-inspired menswear collection that has evolved into a sophisticated-meets-casual lifestyle brand for men and women, with a chain of more than 90 Tommy Bahama retail stores and 13 restaurants.

Still based in Seattle, Tommy Bahama is now a division of Atlanta’s Oxford Industries, which also owns the Lilly Pulitzer and Ben Sherman labels. The three founding partners retired in 2008 and New Yorker Terry Pillow was named CEO. Pillow says he was told he could stay in New York and run the business from there. But once he visited Seattle, he chose the left coast. Today, Pillow presides over about 350 employees in the Seattle area from a six-story headquarters building near Lake Union, still marveling at the differences between East and West Coasts.

Tommy Bahama CEO Terry Pillow, left, with  Rob Goldberg, senior VP of marketing, at the company’s Lake Union headquarters. Photography by Hayley Young

“The talent we’re able to attract here is incredible,” Pillow says. “In New York, everybody’s a specialist. Here, the designers have to be generalists. They’re responsible for everything from fabric design to buttons. They have a broader scope.”

Rob Goldberg, senior vice president of marketing for Tommy Bahama, calls Seattle “an intersection of creative ability” whose relaxed, casual ethic influences designers everywhere. “Seattle is a community of first adopters—people who want to know what’s new,” Goldberg says. “They’re more open. They’re risk takers.”

At Tommy Bahama, that creativity is apparent in the palm trees in the lobby and in rooms hung with fabric samples, color swatches and racks of clothing begging to be touched. On one floor recently, an artist sat at a drafting table overlooking Lake Union, painting an intricate design that will become the pattern on a silk shirt for the 2013 holiday season. Textiles are designed in Seattle, then manufactured in Asia.

Tommy Bahama sales for the first nine months of fiscal 2011 were $324.5 million, compared to $289.6 million for the same period the previous year. Operating income for the nine-month period was $45.4 million in 2011 and $35.4 million in 2010. In the past 10 years, the Tommy Bahama menswear design team has grown from 10 to 50 persons. New store openings in New York City, Chicago, Tokyo and Hong Kong are slated this year.

IF THERE'S A THEME HERE, parlaying good international relations into profitable assets would seem to qualify. Rajnikant “Raj” Shah and Akhil Shah have used their worldwide connections to create Shah Safari, a global fashion company headquartered on Roy Street at the base of Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. The Shahs were born in Kenya and came to Seattle as teens, sponsored by their brother, Shashi, who worked at Boeing. The brothers arrived via London, a supremely fashionable place in the early 1970s. When they came here to live with a local family and attend high school in Edmonds, they were wearing London-style threads that got them noticed. “People told us we should get into the fashion business,” Akhil recalls. A couple of years later, while attending Shoreline Community College, they did, founding their company in 1975.

“Gauze from India was just becoming a hot fabric,” Akhil recalls. “We got samples from our brother in London and showed the designs to Jay Jacobs,” the late owner of a trendy Seattle fashion store. Jacobs not only bought their gauze shirts, Akhil says, but he also embraced their ideas.

“That was the beginning,” Akhil says. Soon, Nordstrom was ordering shirts from Shah Safari. In 1983, the brothers cofounded another company, International News, with the late Mike Alesko, to address a more upscale clientele. Today, the brothers’ fashion empire includes apparel for men, women and children and it operates a group of men’s apparel stores called Road as well as Zebra Club, a retail mini-chain that allows the Shahs and clothing manufacturers to test new products. Zebra Club is thriving, Akhil says, with retailers from all over the country coming to Seattle to see how clothing is merchandised and what’s selling.

Nordstrom, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla of this story. More than a national fashion specialty store based in Seattle, it is a virtual fashion incubator with a product development group working atop its downtown Seattle flagship store. More than 300 people work in the group, creating “house” labels such as Zella, Caslon, Classiques Entier and John W. Nordstrom—brands that make up about 10 to 12 percent of the store’s offerings. Like most local designs, they tend to be manufactured offshore, primarily in Asia.

Private label merchandise is crucial to Nordstrom’s ability to stay relevant to customers by offering fashions exclusive to Nordstrom. Buyers can work directly with designers to give customers what they want and need.

REI is another Seattle-based retailer that’s boosting its in-house design team. After working for years with a pattern maker and sample sewer, it began expanding its design team around 2007. Director Sean Smith says REI now has nine designers and four interns. Smith predicts REI will be looking for more in the coming years.

Some apparel designers and wholesalers have small local footprints but wide distribution beyond Washington state. Galen Jefferson, for example, has been creating her Two Dog Island line of upscale women’s casual wear here since 1995. Working with just one assistant and producing in China, she sells two collections annually through independent representatives and regional apparel trade shows. The former Nordstrom executive—she was co-president of the company in the early ’90s—says her retailing background and familiarity with offshore manufacturing have made it easy for her to operate in Seattle. But she says production in China is becoming more challenging as wages go up and the cost of manufacturing increases accordingly.

Farinaz Taghavi has an office/studio/showroom in Pioneer Square for the collections of separates she sells to Nordstrom and specialty stores on the East Coast. In business for eight years, she says she produces goods in Vancouver, B.C., because it allows her to be “hands on”—to know the factory owner, pattern maker and those who sew.

Jefferson says she’s noted evidence of “grass-roots creativity” in Seattle that’s similar to the edgy, “garage-based” designers of Los Angeles, and she has observed local customers responding to it. To encourage such entrepreneurial endeavor, she’d like to see the resurrection of the apparel mart that once flourished as part of the Seattle Trade & Technology Center on Elliott Avenue—a place where many designers and companies could have showrooms, a one-stop place for retail buyers to scope out local offerings.

Some envision such a sector developing in the SoDo or Georgetown neighborhoods of Seattle, where many designers are based. One intermediate step may be the decision by the Pacific Northwest Apparel Association, which has operated the longest-running West Coast women’s wear show, to move to the Pacific Market Center to get a bigger exhibition space for its five-times-a-year show. The hope is that an infrastructure can develop to support the many designers that are popping up in the region but may not have the access to pattern designers and fabrics.

One thing that sets this region’s fashion sector apart is the networking and mentoring that takes place, often among competing companies. There is also a broad range of educational institutions providing talent for the industry. Washington State University has a four-year program with options in merchandising and apparel design. Leonas says WSU’s graduates understand everything from basic design principles to factory production and marketing; many of them are working in the Pacific Northwest as well as in Los Angeles and New York. Seattle Central Community College has been graduating apparel design students for more than three decades. The Art Institute of Seattle and the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tukwila also offer classes in fashion design.

The Northwest’s apparel industry, according to the Enterprise Seattle study, is very much a “second tier” region when comparing its impact to that of New York and Los Angeles. New York has 10 times the national average of fashion designers; L.A. has five times the national average. Seattle has 1.2 times the national average. Still, for Seattle to trail only San Francisco among the second tier of cities with fashion industry clusters is remarkable, given that the sector is very much a “work in progress” according to Jody Crow, a 30-year veteran who has worked in product development for Nordstrom, Cutter & Buck and four blue jeans companies. She also owned her own active sportswear company, one of the first to offer clothing that incorporated a rayon-spandex blend.


Ironically, for a region that has such a high concentration of technology businesses, local fashion companies have been relatively slow to adopt technology. Crow now teaches clients how to use Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software, which gathers and maintains the technical details that go into manufacturing a garment. “It means we can communicate all that info to overseas manufacturers without an email or a FedEx package to them,” Crow explains. “A design team here can send info to the Far East late in the afternoon and have manufacturing teams working on the projects when they arrive at work the next morning.” Crow predicts Seattle’s apparel industry will evolve and “continue to be a hotbed of new companies.”

Schoenfeld, the man who gets a lot of the credit for putting Seattle on the fashion map, sees no reason why the city shouldn’t be second to New York. That may be more of a stretch than all the spandex in the world can enable, but stranger things have happened. Who could have predicted the phenomenon that is

In fact, Amazon has become a major player in fashion retailing with its entry of into the web-based flash-sale realm pioneered by such “stores” as Ideeli, RueLaLa, Gilt Groupe and Haute-Look (which Nordstrom acquired last year). It’s not unusual these days to see Amazon advertising for fashion stylists, uniquely embodying Enterprise Seattle’s suggestion that the fashion sector leverage the Puget Sound Region’s technological assets.

Will all of this make the world forget grunge fashion? Probably not, since everything lives forever on the internet. But embracing technology could go a long way toward realizing Schoenfeld’s vision of Seattle as an even bigger player in fashion.

To that point, Chris Mefford, principal author of the Enterprise Seattle study, says, “Our region is so strong in information technology that any industry that can leverage it for growth and transformation is an industry we should be focused on. The fashion industry is at the forefront of that application right now, and we need to foster integration and partnerships that leverage that talent to support the fashion and design firms.”

According to Enterprise Seattle’s fashion sector study, local fashion and apparel leaders and stakeholders believe that retaining Washington’s best design talent and fashion entrepreneurs should be a lead strategy to growing the industry locally. Industry experts identified these addition strategies as useful.

Incubators. Creative, talented individuals rarely emerge as entrepreneurs backed with a depth of startup capital. Design incubators provide tools and resources at low cost to entrepreneurs. Fashion and apparel incubators foster synergy and collaboration.
Professional Networking. Established and emerging niches in the industry rely on creative exchange and collaboration. Industry leaders identified the need for networking resources, access to financing and expert training for international customs and business relations.
Training. Educational institutions can better prepare students to succeed by integrating business and fashion education.

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