Meanwhile, the city and local designers have started their own efforts to make business sustainable for designers.
Seth Aaron Henderson walks the runway after his show headlining Portland Fashion Week in October. “The Northwest has been very supportive of me,” Henderson says. // Photo by Shaun Strickland
Earlier this year, the Portland Development Commission considered creating a fashion incubator to support designers with low-cost retail space downtown but ultimately abandoned efforts because of the “limiting conditions with the real estate we were considering and the substantial financial investment it would have required,” says spokeswoman Katherine Krajnak. Last year, local designers started Portland Fashion Synergy, a nonprofit geared at building the local industry, which plans to roll out education initiatives for designers next year.
New businesses catering to designers have also sprung up. The Portland Garment Factory started as a side project for Portland designer Britt Howard after she couldn’t find a manufacturer for her children’s line. Howard and partner Rosemary Robinson now employ five sewers and are moving into a 5,000-square-foot space in Southeast Portland to accommodate the growing number of mostly local designer clients.
Designer Alice Dobson is expanding her manufacturing business Alice Inc., which manufactures her Sofada line and clothes for Jet, Lisa Reitz, Ipseity and other local designers.
Dobson also consults with local designers. She herself has been one of the city’s most successful, becoming the first to go to New York Fashion Week in 2006 and supporting herself through sales of her clothes through her own boutique on East Burnside and to other stores along the West Coast. She credits her success partly to Portland.
“Being in Portland was the best thing for my business,” she says, noting that she spent two years as a designer in Los Angeles. “I think it’s way harder than somewhere else. Maybe people don’t realize it.”
She and others point out that fashion itself is a tough business. Dobson, in fact, is closing her boutique after eight years because it’s no longer viable. But she plans to build on Alice Inc. and wholesale sales of her Sofada line. She’s also considering auditioning for Project Runway after producers contacted her, encouraging her to try out.
Project Runway may not automatically translate into success, but it does offer the possibility.
“I think what Seth Aaron really did is make high fashion seem possible for Portlanders,” says Karen Vitt, editor of the Neat Sheet, a growing Portland fashion site. “He has made the whole local fashion scene seem more glamorous and exciting and rich with possibility. The reality may not be quite so glamorous, but then again, when was fashion about reality?”