NO ONE IS SURE what to do with Portland's independent fashion scene. There's a lot of talent, a lot of energy, and it has a delightful tendency to march to its own eclectic beat. On the other hand, it's extremely difficult to figure out what your options are for a career in fashion here that don't involve some combination of sportswear and Project Runway.
PINO menswear accessory designer Crispin Argento and Mag-Big boutique owner and apparel designer Cassie Ridgway are two of the people putting the most thought into finding a path for Portland fashion's future. To coincide with Design Week, they're hosting a panel, "Fashion Speaks: The Portland Edge, What Makes Us Different," to tease out the whys and hows of Portland's design and manufacturing present and, most importantly, future. Joining them will be representatives from Spooltown (see pg. 9 for more on this local factory) and local clothing line Make It Good.
MERCURY: What do you mean when you refer to Portland's "edge"?
CRISPIN ARGENTO: [It] has yet to be determined. We are a community of makers [and] doers, but the question we pose for this discussion is, "What are we all doing, why Portland?" New York is high fashion, Paris is couture, Milan ready-to-wear, Los Angeles is denim and T-shirts... what differentiates Portland? Indie? Sustainability? Performance? Something else? How can we define ourselves and set ourselves apart in the global fashion community? Alternatively, should we give up and concede, and say we have no place in the global fashion community? These are all ideas that need to be addressed.
CASSIE RIDGWAY: Portland is [gaining a reputation] as a place where independent manufacturers of all sorts are successfully creating start-ups. Micro-distilleries, craft beer producers, wine makers, coffee roasters, bicycle manufacturers, farm-to-table restaurants, independent filmmakers, poets and writers, apparel manufacturers, and beyond are all steadfastly becoming prominent contenders in the larger picture. Above all, our customers and our climate are focused on living intentionally and valuing the contributions of independent innovators. How Portland has an "edge" over many other places is the collaborative spirit that underlies small business, and the fact that all of these moving parts are happening here and now, together.
Why do you think Portland is an attractive place for apparel designers?
ARGENTO: Everyone thinks you have to go to New York or Los Angeles to play the game, yet in those places the cost of living is too high, the quality of life is compromised, [and] the barrier to entry inaccessible. Most designers who move there—the ones you do not hear about—think that if they show up it will just happen. Most get buried. That said, what makes Portland special as a designer [is that] you are by default different coming from Portland. The book Blue Ocean Strategy tells companies to create new demand in an uncontested market space—that's what doing it in Portland is all about. If you are in New York or Los Angeles, you are competing head-to-head and fighting for space and opportunity—your chances of failure are great! Tanner Goods, Bridge & Burn, Poler, Wildfang, Make It Good, Betsy & Iya are operating in a "blue sea" because they're based in Portland. Sure, their brands are unique and could be globally placed, but what makes them different is that they are here.
RIDGWAY: While designing and manufacturing in Portland presents a certain set of challenges, such as textile sourcing or large-scale production sites, we're at a critical crossroads, in which many designers from our city have made an impact in the national marketplace. Small clothing companies from Portland are going to market with viable products, and doing so with the cachet of the "Portland brand." We, as designers, are still figuring out what this "Portland brand" quite means. This event seeks to create a discourse around it.
What are your ideas about what would be helpful to this industry?
RIDGWAY: Our state of mind at Mag-Big is focused on the viability of independent manufacturers. We believe that volume over price point is essential to growth—finding sustainable, responsible ways to produce more and charge less so that an everyday, realistic consumer can access your product. We believe manufacturing is a form of activism, and it's our job to create solutions to manufacturing challenges.
ARGENTO: Portland has the fourth-largest apparel and lifestyle industry in the country, called Athletic and Outdoor. Yet, A&O operates in a bubble. Designers from the indie community need resources, services, and valued industry relationships in order to build lasting fashion businesses. [This includes] business and financial planning, product development and prototyping resources, marketing resources and services, sales resources and go-to-market channels, networking opportunities locally and nationally, and ultimately capital that can be placed in growth-focused lifestyle businesses. We have all these resources already, [but] there isn't anyone or any institution bringing these resources together and making them accessible to start-up businesses.
Manufacturing is often the thing people talk about when thinking about what we need. For those who are making things here, great—it's really fucking hard, not to mention expensive, even for bowties! However, manufacturing and production is the end of the supply chain in brand development. In order to manufacture, you have to have demand. You have to have sales. I would love to see more USA-made manufacturing locally by folks like Spooltown, PGF [Portland Garment Factory], and NW Alpine, but we are a long way from having a robust manufacturing base. If we build the industry, if we create demand, the factories will come.
"Fashion Speaks: The Portland Edge, What Makes Us Different" at Spooltown, 2029 SE 9th, Thurs Oct 10, 7 pm, free.