Weekly B-MOW: Fashion & Apparel Industry Cluster Tour

When we started doing the Prosperity Partnership “industry cluster tours” three years ago – every three months, getting 30-40 business, government and community leaders on a bus for a day-long exploration of a different industry in our region – I had a key organizing principle for how I selected our tour stops: the “I’ve Always Wanted to Go There” rule. It was under the assumption that everyone knew about our various assets in clusters like aerospace, IT and life sciences, but had never had the opportunity and/or the access to go see them. And so, we got behind the scenes tours of Boeing factories or Seattle BioMed’s “insectarium” or REI’s logistics center in Sumner.

But now that we’ve done tours of the major industries in our region, we’ve moved into a new rule of thumb: the “I Had No Idea This Was Here” principle. That was the case back in December when we did a day-long bus tour of the specialty foods industry (stopping at places like Green Mountain Coffee’s robotic coffee packaging facility). And it was absolutely the case last week when we did our latest industry cluster tour…on the stunningly significant fashion & apparel cluster in our region.

Did you know, for example, that our region has the fourth highest concentration of fashion designers in the country, behind New York, LA and San Francisco? Or that fashion & apparel accounts for $4.6 billion in imports through the Port of Seattle? I imagine you didn’t. And while you probably know that we have a significant presence of large businesses in the industry – Nordstrom, REI, Eddie Bauer – you may not think about the tons of small and midsized companies right under our noses: places we visited on the tour like Zumiez in Everett (405 stores across the United States) or Filson in Seattle (which does all of its clothing and luggage production on site a few blocks away from Safeco Field, and has production partnerships with Levi’s jeans and Vans shoes). Or my personal highlight for the trip, Beyond Clothing, who – in a room about the size of a standard conference room – produces customized apparel using software that allows you to input your sizes online, which then translates into a digital “form” that is then communicated to a cutting table that robotically cuts the fabric into exactly the size you requested; by the way, they also make high performance clothing for the Navy Seals and almost all the other elite units in the U.S. military and homeland security agencies, which can keep you warm in –50 degree weather.

Lots of takeaways from the tour, in terms of major opportunities and challenges for this industry (and there are a lot of both), but one of the real sticking points for me was the huge impact that imports and exports have on this cluster, both positive and negative. I can’t tell you how many times we heard from industry people about the importance of logistics for just in time delivery, because the need to be current in fashion means that a delay of a week is the difference between being a trendsetter or an also ran. Certainly, there’s the downside that China and other developing countries have taken production and manufacturing jobs out of the country, and put a lot of cost pressure on companies that still want to try to keep those activities local. But there’s also the incredible benefit that the Internet has had on making location significantly less of a factor for company location. If you can virtually contract with a global supply chain, reach customers through web and social media, and take direct flights to NY and LA for key business meetings, then Seattle can overcome a lot of its asset and geographic disadvantages. Plus, we actually do have some geographic advantages, in terms of our proximity to Asia.

A few other points, quickly: the need for students in fashion programs to get business skills, especially as more and more of them want to be independent rather than work for a large company; the need to fix internship laws which have kept companies from wanting to engage in this mutually beneficial exchange; the need to increase workforce training for sewing, to meet the large unmet need for production in the region; and the need to better link the industry together to encourage sharing, collaboration and leverage opportunities for things like bulk purchasing.

But I can’t express all these points half as well as our morning panelists: Kelly Kraus from REI, Dean Holly from Thomas Dean & Co., Niveen Heaton of Adicora Swimwear and Shalonne Foster of Fashion Network Seattle. And, lucky for you, I just so happened to video their remarks. Here’s part one and here’s part two. It’s definitely worth a viewing…particularly for the Port folks and other international trade organizations in the region that can be instrumental in helping these companies succeed.

And, by the way, in case you were wondering: I wore a chocolate brown suit, with a cream-colored shirt and brown Kenneth Cole shoes.

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