The second annual Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit took place at the Fashion Design Center Denver on Sept. 24. Over 150 attendees engaged in the ongoing conversation about the state of manufacturing apparel in Colorado. The Summit was sponsored by CompanyWeek, Colorado State University's Department of Design and Merchandising and Manufacturer's Edge.
This year's Summit took place amid strong demand for U.S.-made goods, including those companies leveraging the world-class lifestyle attributes and global cachet of the Rocky Mountain West. And there was, indeed, an underlying buzz about apparel manufacturing, which left the U.S. in waves for more than two decades.
A small but growing number of clothing designers and retailers are bringing some production back to the U.S. The obvious reasons: rising labor costs, poor quality, and long lead times in China. But reshoring was only one topic of conversation at the event.
Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who hails from a manufacturing family and is one of Colorado's most visible and vocal manufacturing advocates, talked about the role of manufacturing in Denver's changing urban landscape. Specifically, she addressed how the manufacturers here are a piece of the city's urban fabric.
"Apparel manufacturing is an industry that is so compatible for mixed-use communities like this one in Denver," said Kniech. "Not every form of manufacturing can do this, but yours can and you are important to our economy here in Denver. Urban environments provide diversity and opportunity, and we want to help you be successful in any way we can."
The subject of manufacturing in Denver then morphed into also branding in Colorado.
"Colorado is a brand and it is a brand to different people for different reasons," said Kurt Gray of Simply Gray Design. "Think about North Face and the image it evokes. That's what we need here." Gray has designed apparel (and sometimes gloves) for Helly Hansen, Carhartt, Obermeyer, and other big-name brands.
So just how does an apparel manufacturer in Colorado build a brand?
Scott Barber of Loveland's Scott Barber Apparel spoke about those foundations for building a successful brand in Colorado. He founded his menswear brand to provide office-appropriate sportswear to men who no longer was required to wear a suit and tie to work.
"We need to invigorate our online business and enrich websites," Barber said. "My advice is to get more money than you think you need, think about your brand, tell a consistent story, and be careful and thoughtful with your design. Also take care of all of the details, and make sure the customer is consistently happy."
But Colorado apparel manufacturers still face plenty of challenges. A common complaint that came up was the problem of not having enough skilled labor, as well as the importance of attracting talent and networking to bridge that gap.
The theme of the event was "Power Connections" and it was evident through networking by apparel and sewn-product brands representatives, including design, production (sewing, fabrication, and assembly), materials, finance, operations, and sales and marketing. Emphasis was placed on identifying and sharing resources and solutions across the supply chains that reduce or eliminate barriers to growth, and learning from history.
"I didn't know a needle from thread when I first started," said Jack Makovsky of Ralph's Power Sewing Machine, Inc. in Denver. "Now it's all about putting people together, suppliers, sewers, and build it the way it is supposed to be. We need to get computerized equipment, support each other, and have a factory in every little town."
Anne Fanganello, owner and founder of AnnaFesta in Denver, chimed in: "I am a bit of a product developer and a product manager. My business has developed into an art of training and helping others connect within the industry. I found my first seamstress on Craigslist and she just opened a tailor shop in Vail."
Alongside the discussion of powerful connections, the merits of efficacy and efficiency within manufacturing were also highlighted.
Jon Thomas, co-owner of Colorado Springs-based Janska, outlined how implementing the concepts of Lean manufacturing has helped his business, noting, "We decided to look into continuous improvement with Lean manufacturing with one-piece flow." He summed it up best, "Don't accept a defect. Don't make a defect. And don't pass a defect on."
There was a Power Connections Networking opportunity during which two-minute presentations were offered to all 20 exhibiting companies. It was likened to speed dating for the apparel industry.
But the common thread for the night was that, even amidst the obstacles, Colorado-based apparel manufacturers and designers are beginning to feel more optimistic. It may take a number of years, but the state's apparel manufacturers continue to build on the design skills and small manufacturing base.
The consensus? A significant movement of manufacturing back to the U.S. is exactly what our economy needs, and Colorado apparel manufacturers are feeling the progress right here in our state.