A cadre of ambitious, talented entrepreneurs is manufacturing a fashion revival with designer labels made in Colorado
Colorado’s state of fashion in not defined exclusively by running shorts, ski jackets, snowboard boots and cycling attire. A group of motivated, talented designers is leading an upswing here, staring down the challenges of a developing a fashion reputation for the region and manufacturing in the U.S.
CompanyWeek recently invited five local designers, offering everything from t-shirts to haute couture, to collaboratively dish on the fashion gem Colorado could become, and the challenges ahead.
The ‘Fashion 5’:
Cartel Noir - Creative director Greg Garman describes his designs as conceptual tailoring, old world construction and new world luxury.
AnnaFesta - Owner and designer Anna Fanganello developed the AnnaFesta line from a study of the female body and a desire to create beautifully fitting clothes for women with a few more curves.
Seamly - Kristin Glenn’s Seamly places strong emphasis on the sustainable element of fashion design, and uses deadstock fabrics to produce clothing.
Stephanie O - Stephanie O designs for the career woman who seeks a true blend of sophistication and glamour in their day-to-evening wear.
Rick Lynn Designs - The architect turned fashion designer believes in the necessity of simplistic glamour that offers high-quality fabrication and comfort.
On becoming a designer:
“It was a complete accident,” says Carte Noir’s Garman. “I started off with silk screen t-shirts in college and it kind of graduated into wanting to have a full brand. I took some time off to figure how we fit into the world and our niche. I had really good people around me who taught me conceptually how to brand, design and market.”
“As a young girl, I wanted to be a fashion designer,” says Anne Fanganello.. “I started off very early doing costume design and theater and moved into the New York marketplace at 19. I always wanted to do it and I think I was born this way.”
Seamly founder Kristin Glenn took the opposite tack. “I was never really very interested in fashion, but after traveling abroad, a friend and I decided we wanted to try and create a versatile, travel apparel line, and when we started researching how clothes were made we were horrified by the process,” says Glenn. “Then I got interested in sustainable fashion. I got my start on Kickstarter and raised $60,000. Without that I would not be here doing this.”
“I was just in a showroom in Dallas and there were 17 other lines there, and I was the only one made in the USA. There was a beautiful $36 dress made in china and we cannot compete with that.” Anna Fanganello
“I have always loved to create things and I have been sewing since I was little, since I was 7,” says owner Stephanie Ohnmacht. “Sewing things, creating things and building things really are my hobbies and my passions. I wanted to run a business, went to business school and then started doing consulting and sewing on the side and built my own business.”
“I went the architecture route, did that for 29 years, then decided that I love fashion and sewing so much,” says owner Rick Carraway. “I am very good with space, volume, colors and textures.”
Most people don’t think of Denver or Colorado as a fashion mecca so why here?
“It wasn’t something I was always set on,” says Garman. “I spent a considerable amount of time in New York. I really believe in living in the place you want to live and try to work from there. Now everything is going global. There is pretty much nothing that I can’t accomplish here.”
Fanganello agrees. “I am a Colorado native and as a younger person I thought if you are going to be in fashion you cannot do it in Colorado. I spent 20 years in New York and Italy. I am in Colorado because I came home. It’s a healthy lifestyle. With the age of technology, we can do anything we want here.”
“I would love to keep my business here and that would be the icing on the cake,” says Ohnmacht. “You do need to have face time, though. The money I am saving by not living in New York and spending it on airplanes back and forth all works out. I like the people; I like the lifestyle. I am a native and I want to be able to do what I love in the city that I love.”
On the labor challenge apparel makers here and in the U.S. face:
“I think it is more of a systemic problem and not just in Colorado,” says Garman. “We are not training staff and seamstresses. The majority of the seamstresses we work with are 50 plus years old. We need to really work on training manufacturers.”
Ohnmacht chimed in, “It is skilled labor, and not just sewing, its pattern makers. The magic is in finding the talent pool from patterning and sourcing and production to sewing.”
“As we sent our manufacturing overseas, we lost something -- talented individuals who could cut, sew, and pattern,” says Glenn. “We also lost our fabric factories. Today, only a handful of mills are left on US soil.”
“Part of the reason I came to Colorado from New York was because of the complete exodus to overseas for manufacturing,” says Fanganello. “I train people to get things done the way I want them done. The cutting rooms I am working with are cutting yoga clothes and not used to cutting silk chiffon and they have no idea how to do it at first.”
Carraway feels the frustration of overseas production as well. “I was just in a showroom in Dallas and there were 17 other lines there, and I was the only one made in the USA. There was a beautiful 36 dollar dress made in china and we cannot compete with that.”
“The reason we cannot compete with China is because they are manufacturing the fabric and they are making the goods,” says Fanganello. They own the whole process.”
Adaption, innovation, risk-taking: despite the labor obstacle, growth is occurring with smaller runs and less volume being produced locally.
“We are in a pretty solid upswing right now,” says Garman. “I’ve seen more stores open and I’ve seen bigger orders.”
Some of that growth can be attributed to digital progress, says Fanganello, “In this whole technological digital age, the brick and mortar stores are finding new ways to go out there and it’s not just online sales. It’s the friending you, liking you and focusing on social networking.”
“I dream of a world where sewing and manufacturing are cool again, where young people understand where clothes come from, and...shoppers weigh the environmental and economic benefits of buying USA-made before they purchase.” Kristin Glenn
Branding, education and innovation are common marketing themes for the designers.
“My primary market in general is more educated about manufacturing process due to marketing I have done,” says Glenn. “They have more appreciation for how and where my things are made.”
Garman’s target demographic is in the 35 – 50 year-old range. “They are relatively contemporary fashion-forward women who probably still go for looks above manufacturing,” says Garman.
Ohnmacht says, “My target is the professional working woman who needs a wardrobe from day to night and is 35-50. It is a sweet spot for our price point.”
“I do the curvy girl collection so I do from size 2 to 24 with a focus on the size 10-20,” says Fanganello. “My girl is coming from only having throw-away fashion available. There is very little curvy girl fashion out there that is made in the US.”
Price point drives Carraway’s market as well. “My target is 35 and older because of the price points,” says Carraway. “The fabrics I use run the prices up. My clients are professional and established.”
The tenacity and passion is palpable in the room of Colorado designers. They seem here for the long haul. “I have heard it takes five years to get your brand off the ground,” says Ohnmacht. “Any industry has this initiation effect.”
Given the Mt. Elbert-sized obstacles these Fashion 5 face, Ohmacht’s determination is inspiring.
Challenges: The designers all said “sales” in unison when asked about challenges. “All I am getting is, this is beautiful and fantastic,” says Carraway. “But nobody knows who you are yet and people want the brand to fly off the shelf.”
Opportunities: “I dream of a world where sewing and manufacturing are cool again, where young people understand where clothes come from, and are encouraged to get curious about how things are made,” says Glenn. “Shoppers weigh the environmental and economic benefits of buying USA-made before they purchase.”
Needs: Teaching consumers not to buy inexpensive clothes for just a quick weekend wear is essential to most designers. “It is this whole throw-away fashion buy,” says Ohnmacht. “You have a lot of people buying that way and it is hard because our garments are higher quality and made in the US. I think we have a long way to go to get people to slow down on the number of things they buy but spend more on quality pieces.”
Creative Director: Greg Garman
Price point: $250 - $500 (and up to $1,500) per unit, retail
Owner and Designer: Anna Fanganello
Price point: $64 - $500, dress $150 - $200 per unit, retail
Founder: Kristin Glenn
Price point: $50-$70 per unit, retail
Founder: Stephanie Ohnmacht
Price point: $65 - $400 (average $200) per unit, retail
Rick Lynn Designs
Owner: Rick Lynn Carraway
Price point: $280 - $400 per unit, retail