A who's who of Colorado's clothing and gear makers converged in Denver to talk cut-and-sew hubs of the future.
Two themes were front and center: places and people. The places are the apparel and outdoor industry manufacturing hubs of the future, and the people are the skilled cut-and-sew workers who will drive growth in Colorado's manufacturing sector.
Since 2014, the summit has been in the middle of the conversation. "It has been an amazing journey, and we're going to talk a lot about that journey tonight," said Bart Taylor, CompanyWeek's founder and publisher.
Carol Engel-Enright of Colorado State University's Design and Merchandising program spoke of the event's beginnings in 2014. She said AOI launched with a simple question for local brands: "What would it take to reshore manufacturing?" The answer revolved around "high quality and high standards of sewn goods in the needle trades."
The hypotheticals have since jumped off the drawing board, as new models start to take shape in the state. Taylor gave kudos to Engel-Enright for her work with Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing, or RCAM. "You're rediscovering the institutional memory this country has lost in terms of apparel manufacturing," he said.
"For the first time, we're not talking about it, we're doing it," noted Engel-Enright. "One lesson learned: We can't compete. We have to collaborate. We have to be invested in each other's success."
She added, "Now it's about possibilities. It's possible."
Connecting the dots
The first AOI panel covered cross-pollination between manufacturing sectors. Jeff Vierling of Durango-based Tailwind Nutrition said he learned a lot about scaling manufacturing from Ska Fabricating. "They helped us a ton," he said. "We still work with them on a monthly basis. We also got great advice from Zuke's, which is a dog treat company."
Zuke's helped prepare Tailwind to export pallets and containers of products. "It sounds silly, but these are the things we're going to have to learn if you're going to go overseas," said Vierling.
He's not alone. "Partnership and collaboration is what we're all about," noted panelist April Archer of SaraBella Fishing in Erie.
SaraBella works with a variety of businesses and nonprofits. It turned to a local nonprofit contract shop to make sleeves. "We teamed up with Mile High WorkShop," said Archer. "It's a beautiful partnership."
David Dragoo of Mayfly Outdoors in Montrose, manufacturer of Ross Reels and Abel Reels, said the company's catalog was 60 percent imports in 2012, but it now makes 100 percent of its products in Colorado. "Everything we make is now made in our state," he noted. A big part of that shift was tied to leveraging contract manufacturers in Colorado.
New hubs of apparel manufacturing
Next up, Deborah Vandermar, the Seattle-based executive director of The Makers Coalition, discussed new apparel manufacturing initiatives around the country. She said it's all about building a foundation of apprenticeship programs that will allow for the industry's success. "How do you build it? How do you expand it? How do you build infrastructure?" And it goes nowhere without private businesses. "There had to be a job at the end of the training."
Reshoring isn't simply challenged by labor availability. "We all think labor lext our country because of cost," said Vandermar, "but in my opinion, labor did not leave our market because of cost."
It was about innovation: In the 1970s and '80s, Brittania and Liz Claiborne realized that the cut-and-sew operations in Hong Kong could make apparel domestic manufacturers could not. "Brittania revolutionized jeans," said Vandermar. "What was the trigger? It was not cost. "It was innovation."
The big lesson? It takes an industry cluster to establish standards, said Vandermar. And innovation, she added, starts with standards.
Mike Miller, CEO of The Airtex Group in Minneapolis, discussed the mission of The Makers Coalition: to revive industrial sewing in the U.S. It's something he's worked on for the better part of the past decade at Airtex and as a boardmember of the nonprofit coalition.
"We feel it's essential to have education, workforce development, and industry," said Miller. "You have to have all three of these to make something work. You can't train people if you don't have any place to put them to work."
But there's another critical ingredient, he added. "We needed those pillars, but we also needed government support." The big picture also encompasses affordable housing, banking, grocery stores, transit, as well as jobs and educational opportunities. "It's an ecosystem," said Miller.
After the idea took shape in 2010, Miller said the first goal was to build it in the Twin Cities. "We thought we could make it happen in Minnesota," he explained.
The effort didn't succeed on the first approach. But when Jennifer Guarino, his colleague on the board of The Makers Coalition, went to work as VP of manufacturing for Shinola in Detroit, he saw a very similar vision coalescing in the Motor City: ISAIC.
Short for Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center, ISAIC aims to integrate education and industry at a one-of-a-kind manufacturing hub in a worker-owned factory. The first iteration of ISAIC could launch as soon as early 2018 above the Carhartt flagship store in Detroit, but the bigger picture is revitalizing a shuttered pickle factory on about eight acres that could include all of the elements of the ecosystem at one place.
An anchor brand like Carhartt is a key piece of the puzzle, added Miller. "[Clients] need to know there's going to be a business there in the future," he said. "There's a known quantity, there's a known quality, and a level of service no one has today. That's really the goal. It starts with us in Detroit, but our hope is it comes to Brooklyn, it comes to Denver, and it comes to communities that are interested in us."
Engel-Enright said ISAIC provides a model for a similar operation in Colorado. "We are going to do this, and it's going to change us moving forward," she said. "Because everybody has the same problems: 'I can't find the right sewers. I can't find the right skills.' . . . You can do anything if you have the right skills."
A new paradigm in the Rockies
The evening's final panel looked at outdoor-oriented manufacturing places coming soon to Colorado.
Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, highlighted Riverfront at Las Colonias Park, a public-private project spearheaded by the partnership and Bonsai Design, a local manufacturer of ziplines and adventure courses.
"Historically, Mesa County has been reliant on one industry, and that's the energy industry," said Brown. After decades of booms and busts, "2008 was particularly bad," she added.
So the communities of Grand Junction, Fruita, and Palisade took a good hard look at their economic assets. "The leadership of all three communities got together and discusses how to diversify the economy," said Brown. "The most obvious industry was outdoor recreation."
But the Las Colonias development could take it to the next level. The project pairs a 140-acre park and a 15-acre business hub. The concept has already lured RockyMounts from Boulder, and Brown said that she expects the trend to continue. "We've created this talent pipeline in hard goods," she explained. "I don't think that's very hard to take that to soft goods."
To the south in Montrose, Mayfly Outdoors is building Colorado Outdoors to house its manufacturing on 1.5 miles of the Uncompahgre River. "We couldn't find any space that worked for us," said Dragoo of the project's impetus. Mayfly's facility on the 164-acre site is slated to open in January 2019, and will ultimately include other businesses and housing. The city and Great Outdoors Colorado are funding trails and river restoration projects.
Dragoo again hit on cross-pollination in manufacturing through proximity. "It really brings the synergies of being together," he said. "They support each other. I think it's potent."
In Golden, Yeti Cycles is in the pre-construction phase of a 26,000-square-foot facility it's developing with Neenan Archistruction on a site that will ultimately include a brewery and other manufacturers if a re-zoning effort bears fruit. Dubbed Mountain Lab, the 40-acre parcel is adjacent to the mountain bike trails at White Ranch Park.
Yeti Director of Operations Bill Mueller said the goal is to spur efficiency and growth as well as "offer something that's truly unique to workers. It's not always monetary for them."
Neenan's Shawn Sullivan said the project stands out in his 22 years in real estate. "In that time, this is the coolest project I've worked on," he said. "There's been an amazing amount of interest. It's going to be what I hope is a national draw."
Jeff McCubbin, dean of CSU's College of Health and Human Services, showcased the 45,000-square-foot Richardson Design Center, slated to open on campus in January 2019. It will include an 8,000-square-foot makerspace and facilities for students and faculty from several different departments. "We're very excited about this," said McCubbin. "It's all about multidisciplinary collaboration and and facilitating opportunities for our students."
These places are ultimately about people. CompanyWeek's Taylor called the projects "talent magnets" for their communities and Colorado as a whole. "This is what we have to do to sell the next generation on manufacturing," he added. "I believe your projects will be absolute catalysts."
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek. Email him at email@example.com.