Colorado's apparel industry has been mounting a comeback in recent years, as designers and manufacturers realize the benefits of keeping it local. But the cut-and-sew skill set and the industry capacity for high fashion and technical garments has yet to be ironed out.
By Eric Peterson
Ralph's Power Sewing Machine Co. has been selling industrial sewing machines in Denver since the 1920s. Originally owned by Singer, the company became Ralph's when the late Raul "Ralph" Badillo bought it in 1975.
Along the way, the company has patented several specialized sewing innovations and sold plenty of sewing machines to tailors, tent-makers, and even apparel factories.
"They used to have lots of factories in Denver, believe it or not," says Jack Makovsky, executive vice president, citing brands like Hang Ten, Aspen Skiwear, and OP Children's Wear.
"Back in the '70s it was ski and jeans," adds CEO Joe Badillo, Ralph's son. "All of that went overseas."
And when those big factories went overseas, the cut-and-sew labor force by and large did one of two things: change careers or open home-based shops. "It was like a bunch of seeds were thrown in the wind," says Badillo. "Some grew and some didn't."
Today those cut-and-sew shops are Ralph's bread and butter and they are swamped with business. When apparel companies find a good one, they keep it a secret -- they want the capacity all to themselves.
There's a good reason for that, says Makovsky. "You design it, send it overseas, get it back months later, and have problems and complain," he laughs. It's much better to stay involved in the apparel-making process from pattern-making to shipping, and that often means local manufacturing.
It's a good fit for Colorado's upstart apparel industry, where a do-it-yourself approach is often a necessity.
Take Denver designer Gregory Garman. When he launched his Cartel Noir menswear brand in 2009, he partnered with live/work cut-and-sew shops in Fort Collins and Denver out of necessity. "I was having two problems: having a one-off item produces and replicating it in a factory," he says. There are a few big brands in Colorado and plenty of small sewing rooms, but "nothing in between."
Garman pivoted in early 2014. "I actually became the person I was trying to find," he explains. "We've become primarily a development firm. We do full start to finish, everything from a sketch on a napkin to production of thousands of units."
"I don't know of any major apparel brand that has worked on a long-term manufacturing strategy for the U.S. There has to be investment. We haven't seen that from the private sector or public sector." -- Dan English, CEO, Voormi
Cartel Noir is now making everything from custom tuxedos to kitesurfing shorts for clients at three Colorado cut-and-sew shops, 10 contractors in all.
"Sewing a shirt is really a dying art, but it's teachable," Garman says. "We work really intensely to train people."
And that's a necessity, because Colorado's apparel industry is surging. But awareness of local manufacturing options is not where it needs to be, says Garman, for both apparel startups and potential workers. "It's about thinking about opportunities and how this industry can be a great career path."
Anne Fanganello launched her AnnaFesta women's fashion brand in 2010, three years after she left the New York fashion industry to come home to Denver. Today she continues to make her own designs, as well as provide contract manufacturing services via partners in Denver and Boulder making samples and runs of five to 300 units.
She says the workforce is "out there," but workers often need a refresher -- the skiwear skills that are prevalent in Colorado don't necessarily translate to high fashion. "I wanted to work with things like chiffon," says Fanganello. "They didn't know how to do it."
But today her cut-and-sew partners know chiffon very well. "With very good direction, they do an amazing job," she says. "But it took two years to get there."
Fanganello is bullish on Colorado's apparel industry, crediting relevant programs at Colorado State University, the Art Institute of Colorado, and Emily Griffith Technical College, as well as designers choosing Colorado over New York or Los Angeles -- like herself.
"I didn't know life outside of work," Fanganello says of the rationale for her move. "I really started wondering what I was missing."
She's not alone. "There's a new crop of designers who are very innovative and want to keep [manufacturing] in Colorado," she says. "Those designers are going to create the next workforce."
One such designer is Stephanie Ohnmacht, a.k.a. Stephanie O., her eponymous women's line, launched in 2012.
After initially working exclusively with Colorado-based home-based sewers, she moved her more technical patterns go to New York. "The skills are less sophisticated” in Colorado, says Ohnmacht. "It was very challenging."
She says that could soon change, pointing to the newly opened Fashion Design Center Denver and soon-to-open Running Stitch Industries.
Carol Engel-Enright, internship coordinator at CSU's Merchandising and Design Department estimates Colorado's cut-and-sew labor force at about 2,000 workers, down from the 1980s but on the rebound.
"It's definitely gone up in the last decade," says Engel-Enright. CSU is aligning with the local industry's "push for designer entrepreneurship. We call it small manufacturing."
The department has 400 students studying apparel design or merchandising, and is launching a new Product Development concentration in the fall.
Engel-Enright recalls a recent conversation. "Somebody just told me, 'You can go fast, quality, or cheap. Pick two.' And overseas it's never going to be fast."
She says the trade shows that were ghost towns in 2008 have become repopulated with small businesses and entrepreneurs. She points to Denver-based Topo Designs as a prime example.
Voormi, a Pagosa Springs-based maker of premium technical outerwear, manufactures in North Carolina, Maine, California, and Idaho.
"We'd love to do it in Colorado, we really would," says CEO Dan English. The hang-up "is a huge competency gap within Colorado, and within the U.S."
"We need a high level of craftsmanship," he explains. "In order to do that, we need to promote it and build a farm club."
English says the solutions are education and rebranding. "We believe there's an opportunity to re-skill and make sewing cool again," he says. "When the cut-and-sew industry left the U.S. [in the 1990s and 2000s], so did the desire to pick it as a career."
As Ralph's VP Makovsky puts it, "You have two generations that don't know how to do this."
The industry needs to spearhead its own comeback, English argues. "It's really us to Voormi and other manufacturers to facilitate knowledge transfer and skill advancement."
But there is only so much small brands can do. English believes a big tentpole manufacturer is a necessary ingredient for Colorado -- big brands need to reshore for the state to achieve critical mass.
"I don't know of any major apparel brand that has worked on a long-term manufacturing strategy for the U.S.," says English, pointing to Apple's multi-billion dollar sapphire plant in Arizona as a model. "That's a long-term commitment. We don't see that in apparel yet. We should challenge every major brand: What percentage if products are made in the U.S.?"
"There has to be investment," English says. "We haven't seen that from the private sector or public sector."
But it is starting to emerge with smaller brands. In Colorado Springs, fleecewear maker Janska invested in a cut-and-sew operation in 2011, and now offers manufactures for dancewear manufacturer Liberts.
With a notably seasonal business, Janska is running at full capacity in summer and fall and looking for clients the rest of the year.
Janska President Jan Erickson says Colorado cut-and-sew manufacturers are often "hidden” in plain sight. "I've never seen a list anywhere. It's all word of mouth."
And most of them are operating at capacity. Erickson's partner and husband, Jon Thomas, thinks the industry can foster growth through innovation.
He credits implementation of Lean processes, financed by state grants, for increasing Janska's productivity and lowering "transportation waste" during production. For one garment, production time dropped from 14 minutes to four. Lean "is huge for us and should be available to anyone that can use it," Thomas says.
"There's a real need for innovation and support for less high-tech manufacturing," he adds. "It's a public-policy mistake to put all our eggs in one basket."
Erickson says immigration reform would help bring in skilled workers, and she supports a national minimum wage of about $12.
Ralph's Power Sewing is investing in the local industry by supporting the Denver Design Incubator with workspace and machines. Local makers can come in for $60 a month or buy a per-use punchcard.
Lisa Elstun, founder of the Denver Fashion Design Center Denver, is likewise making an investment in Colorado's cut-and-sew future. She launched her LRE Couture brand in 2005 and made custom wedding gowns and jeans, and then came up with a business plan and launched the studio/showroom/factory in February 2014. Now the facility offers design, marketing, and production of up to 500 pieces, with six employees.
The Colorado fashion industry is experiencing a "sonic boom," Elstun contends, but a missing element is arts education. Of Science Technology, Engineering and Science (STEM), she says, "I want to add an 'A' for arts so it's STEAM. [Students] need to see this as a viable option for putting their creativity to work and having an income with it."
The consumer also needs a reality check. "If we're reshoring manufacturing to the U.S., it's not Walmart quality and Walmart prices -- these are high quality garments," Elstun adds. "But I think Colorado is ready for it. It's a conscientious decision to buy local."