Until recently, the two most notable destinations in the Montavilla neighborhood were Ya Hala and the Tub and Tan. These days it's catching a bit of that up-and-coming Portland glow, with the addition of chic eateries like the Country Cat and increasing numbers of hip first-time homeowners hungry to see their neighborhood thrive. The arrival of the Portland Garment Factory is perfectly timed, giving Montavillains a place to shop that exudes the homegrown values reflected in this idyllic pocket off SE 82nd and Stark.
This is take two for the Factory, which was originally founded by Britt Howard in a small, windowless room on SE Belmont in answer to the complaints of local designers who were past the point of sewing everything themselves but couldn't find reliable production help. It's a common problem, and one that frequently has been solved by contracting the work out on a freelance basis to people sewing out of their homes—an unreliable, disparate system, but one that many find themselves contending with in order to keep the production of their product local.
"It seems the main challenge is just finding a reliable and consistent production facility that is willing to do small runs, like six to 10 of just one piece—sometimes in a few different colors," explains Howard. "I also noticed a high amount of frustration surrounding the need for quality fabric at a good price. In LA or New York you can go to the garment districts and purchase fabric that is amazing for cheap—like two dollars a yard!
"These designers have such a high overhead as far as fabric cost and time invested in their line that having their clothing made in Portland makes the prices substantially higher than, say, Forever 21 or even vintage pieces," Howard continues. "Luckily the consumer in this town is more conscious about where the clothing is coming from. The people in Portland have an appreciation for fashion and art that is unique because it is not so much about the commodity as it about the actual craft."
The Portland Garment Factory is one of a small handful of similar operations that have opened in town, an industry that one hopes will continue to expand, if people's determination to buy local and support their community maintains its hold. The work of Emily Katz, Heather Treadway, Lindsey Reif, Emily Ryan, Holly Stalder, Kate Towers, and even Leanne Marshall have all passed through the Factory, which offers sample making, pattern drafting, grading, and small production runs. It's work that's utterly crucial to perpetuating the accessibility of high-quality local apparel.
Howard knows how necessary it is to maintain high standards in order to develop the trust of the community, one in which everyone knows everyone and word travels fast. "We want the designers we work with to count on us and feel really safe in their decision to hand over production. We understand that this is a risky and scary thing for them. There are many variables in sewing and handcrafting. This is why we invite designers to be involved in the process a little more than the next factory would. We want the designers to prosper!"
The move marks a brighter step on multiple levels. The space itself is at least five times as large as the previous location, and bathed in natural light. Howard has also partnered with Rosemary Robinson, and the two are elaborating on the business model to include a showroom/boutique space at the front of the store. Much like the slow-food appeal of being able to watch the kitchen at Biwa or Le Pigeon, shoppers will be able to pluck clothes off the rack as sewing machines hum in the background.
"I think we are putting a spin on the traditional showroom," says Howard. "It is open to the public and has some full lines available for show. We also sell samples and one-offs. We really like the word 'showroom' better than 'boutique,' actually. But in the more traditional sense, a designer would be able to make an appointment and bring a buyer here for a closed showing of their line. We would close for these types of appointments and charge a fee or percentage. And roll out a teacart, too!"
If all goes as planned, we can expect to see the Factory becoming a major destination in the Portland apparel scene, hosting launch parties and runway shows as well as "conceptual art parties." Things kick off with the grand opening party this weekend—here's hoping for a strong beginning. (The Portland Garment Factory, 7910 SE Stark, Sat Sept 5, 6-10 pm, free)