Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing idea a finalist for Walmart’s U.S Manufacturing Innovation Fund

By Bart Taylor | Sep 08, 2015

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A highlight of last year's inaugural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit was the exquisite timing and passionate comments of a determined, spunky economic developer from Phillips County, Colorado. Julie Worley, executive director of PCED, rolled into the Summit from Holyoke, on Colorado's eastern plains, with a desire to learn about the state of apparel manufacturing in the state, and an idea.

What she needed was an education. "Before the Summit last year I knew very little about the cut-and sew labor shortage," Worley says. "As a rural economic development director, I was always on the lookout for industry that would work in small towns. I had done some limited research prior to the Summit, and what I learned through that research was enough to make me realize that cut-and-sew centers would work in our small, rural towns -- and provide much-needed jobs and industry."

The dialogue (here's a recap) exposed Worley to apparel's hard knocks and the mother of all barriers for emerging brands: the lack of domestic labor and modern equipment that today's apparel and sewn-product entrepreneurs need to thrive. But halfway through the discussion, to a rousing applause, Worley informed the crowd that the labor, work ethic, and capacity to learn resided here, in Colorado, in the small towns of the Eastern Plains. Worley's towns.

A year later, on the eve of the 2015 Apparel Manufacturing Summit, comes the stunning news that the idea, transformed with the help of collaborators Carol Engel-Enright, Darlene Carpio, Jack Makovsky, and Lisa Elstun, is now a finalist for the Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund. RCAM, short for Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing, with local investors already in tow, is making national news. And it could get even better.

RCAM aligns with Walmart's push to reshore American manufacturing jobs and in the apparel sector decades of offshoring have decimated the cut-and-sew labor pool. It's this sector's version of the workforce challenge that most U.S. manufacturers wrestle with. Consumers have played an important role in revitalizing demand for U.S. product -- think food's locavore trend -- but circumstances in Asia are also creating opportunity for American makers. Rising labor costs, instability in China, and the fatigue of managing long supply chains are factors.

Quality is another. As the RCAM outline explains, "Overseas manufacturing has resulted in 'fast fashion,' with the lowest price for the least style, poor quality fabric and materials, and poor craftsmanship. Domestic, local apparel production could bring a return of high quality craftsmanship and construction to the apparel industry if demand remains steady."

Here, there's little reason to believe it won't. Colorado's already a destination for entrepreneurs launching lifestyle businesses. This year's Summit should feature a new crop. RCAM could be a catalyst, though the prospect of the state becoming a mecca for emerging brands seems more daunting without the resources and support other manufacturing industries receive here. Apparel and sewn-product manufacturers are companies without a home in Colorado's statewide economic development plan.

That reality doesn't diminish Worley's enthusiasm a bit, though her view is informed by an authentic dose of modesty. She's a bit overwhelmed her idea has gone this far. "I'm very pleased -- and somewhat in awe -- of how the RCAM network is coming together," she says. "With the possible opening in the not-too-distant-future of the Wray center, the vision will soon be a reality."

It's here, in the small towns of eastern Colorado, where economic opportunities are sometimes far and few between, that RCAM could mean everything. The RCAM proposal calls for startup and operating capital for six months and is specific in identifying advanced equipment like a digital patternmaker and a laser cutting system as well as digital textile printing systems.

But it's the people factor and rural setting that inspires Julie Worley. "Revitalizing economic development efforts in our rural communities -- that's what really got me excited," Worley says. "For a variety of reasons, it is hard to locate any industry in the small, rural areas of the state, but this industry will work in small towns -- and that's what we need in the country."

In the 'country.' Indeed.

Don't miss the 2nd annual Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit, September 24 in Denver's RiNO. Registration and details here.

Bart Taylor is founder and publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.