Portland Garment Factory: Britt Howard and Rosemary Robinson

March 03, 2013 12:39 AM
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photo: Ashley Anderson

In 2008, designer Britt Howard found a hole in Portland’s fashion infrastructure. No one was providing services, like grading patterns into different sizes, common in cities like New York and Los Angeles. “I just thought, how can you run a business if you have to do all the manual labor yourself?” she says. “You’re going to be working as one single person in your studio forever. I wanted it to be bigger than that.”

Howard opened Portland Garment Factory to fill that need, doing patterning, fabric cutting, and sewing for local designers. Rosemary Robinson came to Howard as a customer, then joined the staff as a cutter and soon became Howard’s business partner. The pair focused on finding the right employees. “Now,” Howard says, “I have the best dream team ever.”

By early 2010, Portland Garment Factory moved to its current Montavilla space, and added larger clients, like Nike, Adidas, and Levi’s, to its list of independents. The big companies often come seeking prototypes or conceptual pieces to inspire their own designers.

Howard’s insight as a factory owner sometimes helps streamline clients’ designs. “These sewers that work there,” she told one client whose design would be assembled in a large North Carolina factory, “are trained with a two-seam pant. And you’re putting in all these diagonal seams. They’re going to be looking at the piece going, what is this? And they’re going to sew it in upside down. It’s going to slow down their production and raise the manufacturing costs.”

Consulting on a run of 7,000 t-shirts a Portland company had made in LA, Howard was able to troubleshoot when the shirts didn’t fit properly. “This is a cutting problem,” she told the client, likening fabric’s tendency to curl up when cut to the shrinkage of a cookie taken out of a sheet of dough, “I know what this problem is, because we’ve been through it.” For a set of garments for a tennis star recently signed to a large athletic apparel company, PGF’s ability to turn around nine garments in a week won them the contract. “I don’t know if that’s possible,” Howard says, “but it is, because we do it all the time.”

Portland Garment Factory also makes restaurant gear for neighbors the Country Cat, among other eateries. Ultimately, Robinson says, PGF’s business model is different from competitors in New York or LA because they can work on every aspect of a product’s development. “We can do a fit session here,” she says, “we can do pattern changes in a matter of hours, we make markers and cut and do samples and production control and packing and fabric sourcing, all under one roof.”

One downside to their success is that Howard’s had to turn down clients she’d like to work with, but who lack the budget or business savvy required. “The last four years,” she says, “I’ve just been honing my meanness.” She has to, she says. “A lot of people are like, I’m adamant that it has to be made in the United States,” she says. “And I’m like, awesome. What is your retail price point? And it’s like, price point? What’s that? Well, I think $89.99 is a good price. And I’m like, for pants? Hell no, those pants are going to cost $400 if they’re made in the United States. It’s like they’re not thinking. And I just go ahhhhhhh…go to school.”

2 responses to “Portland Garment Factory: Britt Howard and Rosemary Robinson”

  1. Adam Levinson says:

    Congratulations Rosemary! Mrs. P. would be so proud!

  2. Betsy Cross says:

    Ahhh! I love everything about this! It’s so cool what you all are doing here. I’m super inspired by PGF and the way you’re conducting business. Go Portland!

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