Designers talk with buyers at Portland Fashion Week’s first-ever Industry Showroom, where boutique owners were able to meet with designers, browse samples and place orders. The event was aimed at driving business for designers showing at PFW. (Top to bottom): Jonathan Joseph Peters with stylist and fashion writer Christina K. Pierce and Rosanna Ortiz-Sinel, founder of fashion week StyleWeek Providence; Peters’ designs and display table; a shopper looks through racks; Rana Ghezelayagh of anaR Couture with her collection; designer Alicia Wood talks with buyer Anne Bocci, owner of a boutique in Multnomah Village; Bocci shops for clothing while talking with Leslie Leroux of Ethos Paris; a detail of Alicia Wood’s event booth.
Celeste Sipes, a designer and owner of Radish Underground, a boutique that sells clothes from independent designers, said it can cost as much as $45 to get a skirt made locally. Adding to that the cost of material, and a $10 to $15 profit for the designer, can alone push the wholesale price up to $65 or $70.
Retailers then mark up the price as much as double what they pay wholesale.
Runway’s Ceccanti said after retail markups her T-shirts generally sell in stores for $95, while her jackets can run as high as $700. After subtracting material costs, the money she makes for the time spent designing and sewing can make it a below-minimum-wage job. Finding consumers willing to spend that much for a no-name local designer is difficult.
“The market really isn’t here,” she says. “My ideal customer here is poor, like me. Everyone kind of works trade and that’s really great because it means everyone is really supportive of each other, but you can’t trade for your groceries.”
Designers who are able to sell a full collection to boutiques buy materials in Los Angeles or other places and often manufacture their lines there as well. But even those designers have hit a ceiling on success in Portland.
Anna Cohen ran her own eponymous fashion line from here for three years. Her clothes were featured in spreads in Vogue and Elle magazines and were sold in boutiques across the country. But she was unable to find local investors to grow her business, forcing her to run it with interns and borrowed money.
“When Vogue is calling, what do you do? You just have to say yes, at least that’s what I thought,” she says. “I kept having to take out money and borrow money and live very frugally for a long time.”
Each new fashion magazine spread brought more orders, which required more money. The way fashion works, it can take 18 months to earn back money from sales. Cohen’s breaking point came in March 2008, after fabric came back from her L.A. manufacturer with seams unraveling, forcing her to cancel orders. She folded the same month her clothes were featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, a glaring example of the disconnect between image and business reality.