Just because a designer is local—whether in Austin, TX or Florence, Italy—doesn’t necessarily mean the garments were made there—or even in the same country. Thanks to fast fashion, there’s now a better-than-likely chance that even such smaller-batch production was outsourced to Asia. “Of course it’s deceptive, to say that clothes were made in the United States when they were really made in China,” said Britt Howard, founder and co-owner of the Portland Garment Factory. “Like clothes that say they’re made in Italy, when they’re only hand-finished there. Or they’ll sew the buttons on.”
Howard, a mother of two and sometime model, discovered this gap in the American indie production process in 2008 after trying and failing to find a local manufacturer for her line of baby clothing. She opened a tiny storefront to sew for Portland’s growing legion of independent designers (that includes three competitors and two winners of the reality show Project Runway) and two years, more than a few eighty-hour work weeks, and a business partner (Rosemary Robinson) later, PGF is now a booming enterprise. Today, the upstart completes orders for clients as far-flung as New York and Los Angeles in an airy new warehouse space in Portland’s bustling Montavilla neighborhood.
“It’s been like, zero to sixty for us,” Robinson described. “We’re thinking about opening another location, maybe in San Francisco or Austin. But we’d want to keep it personal, to be able to keep that close relationship with the people we work with.”
And being a local manufacturer does enable PGF to have a more involved relationship with their clients. As their motto says, “We got your back.” Unlike overseas manufacturers, they’ll produce lots of as small as twenty units as well as in the thousands. Along with an army of eager interns, the plant also provides design consulting services, and Howard often finds herself serving as a de facto business counselor. “Sometimes I feel like I’m giving a seminar everyday,” Howard said with a laugh. “This is your retail price, and this is your wholesale price.”
For small designers, PGF’s prices are comparable to—and the timeframe infinitely friendlier than—sending garments halfway around the world. That’s in addition to higher-quality craftsmanship, as well as the assurance that it’s sewn with pride by workers who are treated well. Leanne Marshall’s graceful, ballet-inspired collections and Paloma Soledad’s sultry gowns are only two of the many lines that are turning to the Factory—proof that just maybe that “Made in the U.S.A.” label will stand for something once again.