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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Notes on City Club's "Moving Fashion Forward in Portland"

Posted by Marjorie Skinner on Tue, May 6, 2014 at 11:59 AM

I assumed that on Friday, when the City Club of Portland took as its topic "Moving Fashion Forward in Portland," there would be a fair amount of broad strokes with a side of platitudes. Fashion, after all, isn't the usual topic of discussion at these gatherings, and City Club regulars would need some background.

The panelists—former Project Runway contestants Seth Aaron (who won, as well as winning the show's all-stars spinoff) and Becky Ross, Portland Sewing's Sharon Blair, Seth Friedermann of Manufacture New York, Pendleton president Mort Bishop, and David Howitt of the Meriwether Group—obliged where applicable. There were statements about designing "from the heart" emphasis on the "passion" required for an apparel design career, and a reiteration of what has been pointed to as fundamental challenges for pursuing said career in this city: production and funding.

Eventually things started to get down to brass tacks, though it was a far cry from finding any solutions. To me perhaps the most interesting thing about it is to have these issues—which have been bandied about in panel discussions of various types for years—be a subject in this context, getting people who aren't already involved in the industry to even contemplate apparel design as part of the city's cultural capital, as well as a potentially significant economic sector. It's unfortunate, then, that after the talk concluded, most of the chatter centered around a comment by Friedermann that I think would have been better saved for another discussion (wherein it would have been on-topic for him to explain what he meant by dismissing the term "minority" as something he didn't like, and further stating that "every white man in this room is a minority." Which just freaked everyone out and distracted from the actual topic.)*

It was Blair who finally cut the chit chat and demanded to know why she sees money get tossed by various entities to seed the tech industry and why not apparel? (Which brings up something I've often wondered: Why don't the big sportswear brands seed independent design incubators or a design version of the W+K 12 program, or something? They seem like the elephant in the room, and yet they almost never engage in discussions of this sort, seeming to prefer to keep themselves an island, even though they seem happen enough to hire from the city's pool of design students and whenever one of their own branches out to start their own sideline, it's almost uniformly amazing.) It's a question that didn't really get a direct answer, though. Friedermann offered that the (successful) discussion in New York has centered around job creation, which made me think of the work being done by Portland Made to create those very kinds of metrics.

Howitt pointed out that Portland has a lack of angel investor money, though I was disappointed he didn't have an explanation, or even a theory as to why (surely there is a template for drumming this sort of thing up?). His primary piece of advice for designers, echoed elsewhere in the panel, was also that designers should educate themselves in business. He also made a good point, alongside Friedermann, that the design community needs to keep in mind, when looking for money, that the onus is on them to make a compelling case for why they not only need, but deserve that financial support; why they are worth that investment. They should try to appear less risky.

If you want to see the whole thing for yourself, voila. I just hope that whatever momentum is created by these discussions and all the attention independent fashion in Portland is enjoying, this month especially, carries forth into something. There's already been a lotta talk for a long time. Portland needs more doing.

* In case you are anti-comment reading (I can't blame ya), I'll draw your attention to Friedermann's response regarding what he meant there: "Minority is a statistical term, white women are the only statistical population majority in the United States. More to the point the reason I objected to the term's use in the context of the question was that it wasn't relevant to crafting a solution to the problem that the gentleman posed. An effective solution to building a culture that allows designers and artists to thrive in Portland would by it's nature be color and gender blind."

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