Sharon Blair Daniel RicH

During Design Week Portland, a little green book began circulating. This book, Boutique Guide Portland, is a field guide to all the city’s boutiques that produce apparel lines and carry locally designed clothing. Writer/creator Sharon Blair also happens to be the owner/director of Portland Fashion Institute (PFI), one of the most revered and accomplished trade schools for sewing in our city. 

To those in the know, Blair is a keystone of our burgeoning industry, so I chatted with her about Boutique Guide Portland and the direction she’s taking with PFI. While the book is an accomplishment in and of itself, it’s the school that’s become an incubator for some of the brightest independent companies in our city.

For many who aspire to create clothing, love of fashion is spawned from an intrinsic connection to styling, design, and silhouette. Those just getting started are often inhibited by an unclear approach and the search for a fast track to acquiring the necessary foundations: designing, sewing, sourcing, and manufacturing. Portland Fashion Institute seeks to provide this track, and has an incredible range of success stories to show for it.

“Portland is home to a lot of creatives who just want to know the right way to sew,” Blair says of PFI’s programs. “Since I worked in apparel and knew these things, I was asked to offer classes. That was the start of Portland Sewing in 2002. After those first classes, people kept asking me, ‘What’s next?’”

Over the years, PFI added classes in patternmaking, draping, illustration, and more advanced sewing. By 2010, Portland Sewing had its own building and added classes on the business of apparel.

“In 2016, Oregon gave us a license to operate as a career school,” Blair continued. “So we created Portland Fashion Institute and offered three certificates designed to give people the skills to start businesses and get jobs at apparel companies.”

Since 2010, more than 6,000 students have come through PFI’s doors.

“Most are here just for fun and to pick up that class they’ve always wanted to take in patternmaking or illustration, or how to sew on industrial machines,” she said. “That’s the Portland Sewing half. For those who’ve pursued certificates through PFI, I’m happy to say they’ve started clothing lines and taken jobs at such places as Adidas and Columbia Sportswear.”

PFI students demonstrate industry savvy and bring those skills to the companies they work for, wisely sourcing their textiles wholesale, employing staff and contractors through legal and ethical guidelines, and creating proper line sheets for wholesale. The comprehensive approach to design and the business of fashion is what this education is all about, and it’s one of the things local designers admire about Blair’s work—especially those who trained at the school of hard knocks.

Since running a school for sewing must take up a lot of her time, I asked Blair why she decided to take on a second full-time job publishing a guide to Portland boutiques.

“Every week someone calls our school asking where they can buy work from local designers,” Blair said. “After talking to several friends who own area boutiques, it seemed like it was about time to put together a guide. And by supporting locally owned boutiques, we give our designers more places to sell their items and help grow the industry.” 

Anyone interested in fashion—whether you want to support local designers or join the next wave of emerging talent—should definitely check out these two invaluable resources: Boutique Guide Portland and Portland Fashion Institute. You will find a wealth of information as well as a solid start.