Below are photos of my designs and the interview.
Model in blue dress – ShannonPiserchioPhotography.com
Model in black dress with obi – MichaelMcConnell.smugmug.com
Model in Venetian print dress with hat – MegReul.showitsite.com
Models in Westword Whiteout fashion Show – GlennRossPhoto.com
How the fashion industry in Colorado is taking shape
Fashion costs money – and lots of it. No, we’re not talking about the latest Prada Saffiano tote which will set you back a mere $2,650, but rather the up-front investment designers need to create their own clothing lines.
From raw materials and samples to full production runs, financial and manufacturing hurdles are particularly huge for designers living outside of a major fashion center like New York. In Denver’s burgeoning fashion scene, designers are struggling under the limitations but starting to see signs of change.
Let’s start with fabric – a designer’s basic tool.
With fewer yardage requirements than large international companies and no garment district to shop in, small labels in Denver depend on out-of-state wholesalers to get material.
“Many wholesalers will not sell to anyone buying less than 300 yards, so you have to rely on those with stock programs,” Stephanie Ohnmacht, a Denver-based contemporary women’s wear designer and recent contestant on the “Under The Gunn”fashion-centric reality television series, says. “Their selection is limited and you don’t get to pick your colors – only what’s available.”
Although designers can purchase remnants of high-end or custom fabric from major labels like Donna Karan through stores in New York, it’s unlikely that enough can be acquired to make additional pieces if a garment sells well.
Production and know-how are also big challenges for Colorado designers.
“Every detail must be communicated clearly to the folks who are cutting, sewing, pressing and shipping your wares,” Boulder’s Carol Ann Wachter, a designer who creates sophisticated, feminine designs, says. “Your reputation depends on it.”
In Colorado, the manufacture of apparel has traditionally focused on snow, active and casual wear. The small number of designers in this state who work in fashion – there are just under 100 estimated creators of in Colorado according to The Bureau of Labor statistics – require a different set of skills from their production teams than is typical of the outdoor wear industry.
“These are two separate industries,” Mona Lucero, a custom designer and Colorado native, says. “The skill set is different and the sewing equipment is different.”
For example, high fashion designers need an experienced pattern maker to create a production sample. Essentially a clothing engineer, the pattern maker assists in fine-tuning fit while also considering how to construct a garment in the most efficient way.
“You need someone who knows production sewing and can take a sketch and translate it into a pattern that can be sewn in a factory,” Ohnmacht says.
But because the majority of fashion work is in New York, good pattern makers aren’t easy to find outside of that city’s Garment District. Plus, they can be expensive: The time and technical skill it takes to create a production sample means the price for just one can be as high as $1,000. To put that number in perspective: A runway collection averages about 40 looks, which means producing at least 50 pieces. The cost of assembly would therefore run to a minimum of $50,000 for garments alone. When you consider that not all samples from a collection even make it into production – Ohnmacht points out that she ended up producing only six of the 18 samples from her Spring 2014 collection – it’s doubtful whether a designer actually recovers the cost of creating a set of samples.
Despite the challenges, Colorado-based designers are beginning to feel more optimistic. Although it will take a number of years, this city’s fashion entrepreneurs and leaders continue to build on the design skills and small manufacturing base that’s here.
The state’s only four-year program for fashion at Colorado State University (CSU) has been critical to boosting the area’s reputation for turning out top-notch designers – something the school has been quietly proving for thelast few years. CSU design graduates currently work in key positions at leading American fashion companies including Coach, Michael Kors, contemporary label 3.1 Phillip Lim and Hollywood A-lister favorite Marchesa – to name a few.
Although the Colorado-trained designers are not yet household names like the labels they work for, they possess the talent, temperament and skill set to design for internationally recognized companies, and as such are a precious commodity within the industry.
In terms of manufacturing resources, the Fashion Design Center Denver(currently open, but not fully operational until mid-April) will help to address the issues of small-scale production, samples and pattern making. Founded by couture bridal and lingerie designer Lisa Elstun in a renovated former egg storage facility in Denver’s RiNO district, the 4,634-square-foot Center will house about six designer studio spaces around the perimeter with machines and cutting tables in the middle. The Center will also provide designers with additional resources to grow their businesses and gain visibility, including wholesale sales, trade show representation and shipping and distribution assistance.
Finally, designers are also feeling renewed optimism because of the Denver boutique scene. Many new stores have opened over the past five to seven years, such as LoHi’s Goldyn, A.line Boutique at The Landmark in Greenwood Village and Fancy Tiger on South Broadway. These businesses are owned by merchants who support local talent. The retailers work with designers that fit their respective aesthetic and meet their quality standards by giving them space to sell their wares, test their products and hone in on their customers.
“I think it’s essential that we as a local boutique support our community here in Denver because it’s a necessary part of the cultural ecosystem,” Vanessa Barcus, the owner of Goldyn, says. “Local designers won’t be able to survive unless people are buying their products and we as a store can drive sales and help to push their careers further. Plus, putting their designs next to top-level collections like Helmut Lang and Rachel Comey not only helps to elevate them in the consumer’s eye, but also pushes them to want to achieve higher standards.”
One local designer Goldyn is helping to push is Kristin Littlejohn, the force behind the refined, yet fashion-forward label Imminent Rise.
Littlejohn is slowly building her line of luxe essentials starting just with the tank top. As such, she is following in the footsteps of her role model Diane von Furstenberg, who also began her career with one signature product, the wrap dress.
The excitement of hanging on a rack next to fashion industry superstars pushes Littlejohn to want more recognition: “In today’s global economy, why can’t a talented designer emerge from a location outside of a major fashion hub?”
Georgia Alexia Benjou is an international fashion stylist and editor. Her work is regularly featured in 5280 Magazine, where she serves as fashion editor, and has also appeared in Vanity Fair, among other publications
Below are more answers from the pre-interview that I thought that I’d share.
ON SOURCING & FINANCIAL CHALLENGES OF DENVER DESIGNERS:
I believe all of those things are more difficult living in Denver. Finding materials wholesale locally is now pretty much impossible. When I first started producing my line in the mid-90’s, there were fabric and trim sales reps that were local and even a few distributors, but for the most part, they are no longer here. Even then, they represented mostly active wear sources such as polar fleece and webbing, etc.
As for samples and production, there are only a few small cut & sew manufacturers and they mostly focus on certain types of production such as active wear, bags or other products. So, if you want to produce suits or high fashion dresses made with fine fabrics, you have to find other options.
There are a couple of small cut-and-sew operations who are open to working with independent designers who can do small lots and soon the Fashion Design Center of Denver will be starting up, which will address this very issue. It will be catering to small, independent design companies, which is very exciting.
ON SOURCING FABRICS IN SMALLER VOLUME:
Well, sadly, it’s an issue because you can’t just jump in your car and drive down to the local garment district. I envy places like New York or LA for that, but I find my fabric from jobbers (a jobber is a company that buys surplus fabric from other companies and designers) who specialize in quality designer fabrics. They come into town from time to time to show local designers and stores their products, but I have also traveled to both coasts to buy in garment districts; bought fabrics locally; and even found unused vintage fabrics that were still on the bolts.
Since closing my store in January 2013, my fabric needs have changed and now I’m creating custom design almost exclusively. This means I’m not as concerned about keeping the final product at a moderate price point and I don’t need bolts and bolts of fabric. I still use those same fabric sources but also buy from local fabric stores. I love the creative challenge of finding beautiful fabric from a variety of places. Being more creative with your fabric and treatments helps brand your look.
ON PRODUCING LOCALLY, FINDING CRAFTSMEN WITH SPECIAL SKILL SETS:
Yes, it can be difficult to find specialty services in general, particularly with hand stitching. I’ve asked colleagues from previous industry jobs to give me recommendations and I’ve found the sources I need. I’ve also made decisions to not create certain designs because I couldn’t find a way to make it for a reasonable price. Sometimes it’s a challenge to come up with another solution but it can be overcome and often, that solution makes for a more interesting design.
ON THE GROWTH OF DENVER’S FASHION INDUSTRY:
One of the advantages of having a business in Denver is that the cost of living has been relatively low in comparison to the big fashion centers. That makes for a welcome atmosphere for creatives. The fashion industry is already growing in terms of sheer numbers of designers but the factories and sourcing are almost non-existent right now. Some of the professional sewers I’ve worked with who are older have told me stories of the factories that used to be here back in the 60’s and 70’s.
So in reality, it would mean a reemergence of what was here before. So much production has been oversees for so long and people understandably, want to pay less for everything. Often, designers starting out dream of getting things made inexpensively in other countries. It’s not so easy. The minimums are high, all the technical details have to be in place to ensure your product looks like your expectations and the turnaround time is longer.
With so many young designers trying their hand here, it’s inevitable that domestic manufacturers will also appear. I believe there is a trend toward manufacturing coming back to the States and I really believe that people want to support locally made.
One of the issues is that traditionally, manufacturing done in Colorado has been for skiwear, active wear or very casual clothing, and surprisingly, a lot of Denver designers are into high fashion. Those are two very different types of needs. The skill set is different; the sewing equipment is different.
ON THE CONTENTION THAT REALITY FASHION TV DOESN’T SUPPORT CONTESTANTS LONG TERM & FASHION CAPITALS SUPPORTING DESIGNERS WORKING OUTSIDE OF PARIS, LONDON, NYC:
One of the great things about Project Runway is that it allows viewers to actually see the process of what a designer goes through to create a design. It’s inspiring to be able to watch someone create and with not enough time(!). But draping an initial design on a dress form is just the tip of the iceberg of the fashion industry. Once that dress is made, you either sell a “one-off” or you have to make it into a true pattern, grade it into a size range, get orders, produce it in volume, ship it, brand it, market it and then the next season, start all over again. And that’s just one design in your collection. This is more than enough work for a design and production team, let alone one designer. Project Runway, respectfully, doesn’t reflect that and it’s not really their job. They’re a reality show and the fashion industry is true reality.
As for the fashion capitals, they will mentor and support the people in their own particular place and that’s understandable. They are training and supporting so that it sustains their industry. I believe that the experienced industry people in Denver who really know their stuff have an obligation to bring others up, too. The clothing industry is actually about lineage. It’s an old saying of the industry, “You pay your dues.” It used to be that when you entered the industry hoping to be a designer, you learn from someone who’s been around a while, as they learned from someone before them. There’s an old garment industry story, perhaps it’s a myth, that many of the “greats” starting by picking up pins and sweeping. That probably doesn’t apply as it used to, but it’s good to learn from and to teach each other. That way, the whole industry gets better.
ON HIGH PRICES OF DESIGNER GOODS & FAST FASHION:
Fast fashion comes from places where labor is inexpensive. The people who work in those factories work hard and they are skilled. If you look at the actual stitching, in many cases, it’s good. But the fabrics aren’t good quality, generally, and after a few wearings or washings, they tend to fall apart – they aren’t intended for longtime use.
I explain to my customers that if you buy quality, although initially the cost is higher, items can last for years or even decades. I believe that quality clothing takes on “character” as it’s worn, so I think people who just buy something inexpensive thinking they’ll throw it out after a season are missing out on an important aspect of style, but then that’s another discussion. I loathe mentioning that there is still the issue of sweatshops and impact to the environment, too, but it is important for all of us to pay attention to where our clothing is coming from and if it’s produced ethically.
Although I’ve worked for companies that had sewing done in India, China, Mexico, Dominican Republic and even Canada, and I believed that the manufacturers we worked with treated their workers well, I have always wanted to have my own designs sewn domestically. I want to support the local economy as much as possible. That decision also means that my costs will be much higher. When I first started selling my line wholesale, I realized that once it was marked up for retail in a typical boutique, the customer’s price was really high. So I began to think that it might be smarter to open a boutique. Instead, I could make more money per piece by selling retail. This gave me more flexibility to keep the price lower for the customer.
ON DEFENDING PRICE POINTS TO CLIENTS:
Let’s be honest. Denver doesn’t have a reputation for being a fashionable city so coaxing someone off the street to buy a designer garment for more money is not always easy. They are used to paying less. But there are people who love fashion here and they’re savvy about prices for designer garments. Often they think my prices would or should be much higher, particularly customers from cities such as New York. They are usually pleasantly surprised.
My designs are made in small lots or in the case of my custom pieces, one-of-a-kind. Labor costs are high, fabric costs are high, the time working with customers just for a fitting, can be many hours. It’s difficult to convey sometimes what it really takes and how that price has to be passed to the customer.
ON SHOWROOM REPRESENTATION FOR SMALLER, INDEPENDENT LINES:
It’s certainly feasible; designers just have to build paying a sales rep into their costs. Sales reps generally take a percentage of the sale and they want to know that you can produce what they sell and that you can do it season after season. If they’re good, they can sell a lot. That means you have to be prepared to buy the raw goods, have your manufacturing and shipping in place, have the initial money to get started and have a good cash flow season after season.
It has to be a line that they believe they can sell. That doesn’t necessarily mean the most creative designs, it means commercially viable. It’s a lot to put in place, so it helps if you can say it’s at least doing well in a few stores. This is where many designers have to start – hauling around their own designs and showing it to stores until they can prove their lines are marketable.
ON GETTING THE MEDIA’S ATTENTION:
When I first started my store, social media was in its infancy. Funny to think that was only about 12 years ago. I was intimidated about getting my story out to editors but now I create posts on a regular basis in the main social media channels. With the popularity of fashion blogs, fashion editors are obligated to pay attention to what fashion people post. If you stay on top of posting about what’s happening in your business, make it fun and interesting, they will contact you. The fashion game is changing – not only with how people learn about what’s happening in fashion, but even how it’s sold. Online has become important.
Still, when it’s something big, I make sure to send out press releases the old school way. In Denver, it’s relatively easy to just contact the press about what you’re doing and they’ll listen. If you’re trying to reach Vogue, that’s another story. But I’ve found that if what you’re doing is different and progressive, the press wants to write about it.
ON THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTIONS OF A DESIGNER’S JOB:
Many times people tell me that they tried to sew something once and they had to rip out some stitching and that they never wanted to do it again. They don’t realize that as a designer, I have had to restart a design many times. I still do, every day.
Great design is trial and error. For me, it’s like being a sculptor or a painter. You start with just a piece of fabric, you put it on the dress form, you walk away from it, you look at it, you change something else, you think again until you believe it’s right. Being a fashion designer means you’ll never know everything about what you do and you’re probably going to work a lot of hours. Sometimes it’s “glamorous” but most of the time it’s hard work. The challenge never ends – but you stick with it because you are compelled to – you love the process and the result.