It's an Important Question for the Last Two Dudes on Earth!
Last night Pino designer Crispin Argento spoke on a panel in part one of The Why Behind the Weird lecture series, first mentioned on MOD here. The panelists, lead by PSU's Greg Schrock and Jason Jurjevich, discussed Portland's economic landscape, specifically in relation to the city's population of educated young people and the question the professors posed in a paper they wrote, "Is Portland truly the place where young people go to retire?" based on a line from some TV show or something. The conclusion they came to in their study was basically no, it's not, and one piece of evidence they pointed to was our thriving culture of self-employed DIYers such as those working in the local fashion industry. That is where Argento came in, and why we are talking about this on MOD. Argento was there to discuss the challenges facing the local design community, and the potential for future economic growth.
I wish Argento had been given more time to speak on the topic, as he didn't go very deep into discussing ideas and solutions to the challenges facing local designers, but what he did do was frame the issue for those who don't follow the local fashion scene closely: In Portland there is an estimated 400-500 designers, not counting those who work for the big guys like Nike and Pendleton. Designers come to Portland to pursue their craft in a non-corporate setting. While this means there is a great pool of talent and incredible potential here, there are currently very limited resources for designers trying to strike out on their own. While in recent years the we have gained Portland Garment Factory and Spooltown as local manufacturers, there is still very limited infrastructure here when compared to cities like New York and LA. In addition, most of our designers are working with very limited capital, making it hard for many of them to meet the minimum volume requirements that even these local manufacturers have to set in order to make a profit.
Still, Argento argued, Portland has the potential to become a major hub for sustainable fashion. The design ethos already exists here, and with the cost of living so much lower than in major fashion capitals, Portland is in a sense an optimal city for debt-strapped design school graduates to move to. For potential solutions to the obstacles facing local designers, Argento pointed to initiatives other cities have created, like New York's Fashion.NYC.2020, a strategic study that led to the creation of resources like an entrepreneur bootcamp for emerging designers; and Chicago Fashion Resource (which apparently doesn't have a functioning website), an incubator program that has helped more than 400 designers launch their own labels.
The idea of developing a fashion incubator program in Portland has been floating around for some time now, and I believe it would be an invaluable resource. I think, though, that any such initiative should focus less on replicating what other cities are doing than on meeting the unique needs and interests of the city's design community. One of the reasons Portland attracts so many independent-minded and environmentally conscious designers is that it is possible here to launch your own label without having to attain major corporate investors who would have a say in your creative and manufacturing decisions. A lot of designers here start out with just an industrial sewing machine and some fabric, and then go from there. While this is great for a designer's ability to stay true to their vision, it makes it really fucking hard to grow a business, not to mention create jobs in the local industry.
While I would never want to discourage Portland's DIY ethos, if our fashion scene is ever going to have major influence on the industry as a whole, it needs to become more lucrative and visible on an international level. Most fashion companies outside our Pacific NW bubble will churn out shitty T-shirts mass-produced in China, but use organic cotton and call it "green." In Portland we have a large pool of talented designers who are coming up with serious solutions to the environmental and ethical problems posed by the industry, and absorbing the costs to see them through. These are the people who deserve financial gain and global recognition, not the assholes behind The Gap and H&M.