Putting fashion first, right here in Seattle
How locals are piecing together businesses to take them to the next level.
www.martakappl.comHouse of Fashion
seattleldi.blogspot.comMasha Osoianu Design
www.lizzieparkerstore.comLisa Vian Hunter
vianhunter.comThe Bellevue Collection
To find the designersSee the list online at www.seattletimes.com/pacificnw
INSIDE A DRAB downtown Bellevue conference room on a rainy day in late June, bridal designer Olga Szwed enters — a glamorous swish of silk, beading and feathers.
Five Seattle fashion insiders seated around a conference table stop chatting, put down their smartphones and turn to what's being put in front of them: hefty gowns dripping with crystals, one ivory, another black ... and a stunning pale-pink strapless creation with a wide skirt of feathers and a dramatically asymmetrical hemline.
As someone attaches a microphone to her suit jacket, Szwed listens closely to tips on how to handle the camera recording her. She looks nervous, but manages a smile before launching into what could be the most important 10 minutes of her career.
She begins with her upbringing in Belarus, then quickly moves on to talk about her inspirations, her Bellevue bridal shop and, of course, about the garments, including her own pink-feathered wedding dress.
The panelists fire off questions:
Where are the materials from?
What are her challenges as a designer?
As Szwed speaks, the judges paw through the rack holding her gowns, examining them closely. A pair of tiny formal black shorts and a sheer black top are passed around.
And just like that, her 10 minutes are up. Szwed and her gowns are swished out, and it's time for the next contestant. In all, 16 independent designers will show their stuff this day; the judges will choose eight of them to advance to a final competition during two big fashion events at The Bellevue Collection in the fall.
Each of the chosen will have just weeks to create a "look" in six to eight new designs, one of which will appear during the annual Fashion's Night Out Sept. 6 in Bellevue. But the real prize is exposure — the chance to be in the spotlight presenting their new creations at Fashion Week's runway show Sept. 26 alongside Lisa Vian Hunter and Lizzie Parker, two local designers who recently appeared on the NBC-TV reality show "Fashion Star." The winner will take home $5,000, and their designs will be displayed throughout Bellevue Square for a month.
Soon, the verdicts are in. Szwed and her gowns will be going on to the big show. So will Masha Osoianu with the unique handmade knitting and crocheting techniques she applies to tops and dresses, and Banchong Douangphrachanh, with slim-cut menswear in shades of black, charcoal and Husky purple. Carole McClellan, who got her start in the 1970s designing for the Seattle band Heart, will put on her A game with designs featuring leather and fur.
They and the other four selected are already known around the local fashion scene. Their clothes are in boutiques, some even have their lines in other boutiques across North America. But a competition like this is the chance they've been waiting for — a wide audience of everyone from customers to major retail outlets.
These are the connections that mean business. And for independent designers struggling to make it around here, it's a tough business indeed.
WHILE JOKES about the Northwest's style-senseless, fleece-forward ways abound, the fashion-design industry here is actually huge. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Seattle has the fourth-highest concentration of fashion designers in the country, behind New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The reason has much to do with heavy hitters like Nordstrom, Eddie Bauer, REI and Tommy Bahama. All have in-house design teams creating their international lines right here in the region. Thirty years ago, there were even more, including sportswear brands like Generra and Brittania.
Camila Sigelmann, a professor of apparel and fashion design at Seattle Central Community College, says that within three months of graduation the bulk of her students are picked up by the big-name companies, as well as sportswear maker Outdoor Research and successful independent designer Prairie Underground.
With a hiring rate of 75 percent in slow economic times such as these, she says it's crucial to know what these companies want — "someone who can hit the floor running, someone who understands this is a bottom-line business."
But with so many designers wanting work here, the corporate world hasn't proved the right fit for everybody. Some designers take off on their own, setting up boutiques, selling to other shops and stores, even making names for themselves on "Fashion Star" and "Project Runway." Still others are being hand-picked to present their lines in fashion shows everywhere from Phoenix to Paris.
Those, however, are the lucky few. Most face the regular grind of creating designs and perfecting their skills, then pounding the pavement, begging for attention from the buyers and boutiques who will pick up their work. Lacking the financial resources and global reach of the corporate design shops, they also struggle to find the materials, manufacturing capability and distribution systems they need to get a line of clothing into the market.
Lizzie Parker — whose signature style is drapey knits, jackets and tops over leggings, and dresses paired with tights and bootees — says Seattle has people who can sew, but that isn't enough. When you're trying to ship thousands of garments, "there is no infrastructure here."
So Parker's Lizzie Parker Blue Label line is being mass-produced in Los Angeles for almost 100 Nordstrom Rack stores.
Sigelmann at Seattle Central says that back when she worked at Generra, the company would manufacture in China, Israel or India. But because of the cost, manufacturing overseas is almost impossible for someone wanting to keep production fairly small.
Banchong, who often goes just by her first name, says she's found many manufacturing options in Seattle for people making sportswear, cottons and more simply constructed garments. But for designers like her, whose focus is on high-end materials and tailored clothing for men, the options are few.
It took one manufacturer two months to fill her order for 50 pairs of pants. Even then, the buttonholes weren't done because the factory lacked the equipment. She had to finish them by hand.
A Seattle native and University of Washington graduate, Banchong says she's not giving up on Seattle, but "right now I'm all about finding what can be done (elsewhere) in the U.S."
People want quality, she explains. "I'm in a city where people care about what they eat, they're using Flex cars . . . They're asking where the fabric is from, where my yarn is made."
That's why Davora Lindner and Camilla Eckersley are designing hip, sexy hoodies, dresses and jackets out of organic cottons and hemp, and having them made within miles of their office in the South Park neighborhood. Lindner, whose company, Prairie Underground, ships to 300 boutiques across the U.S. and Canada, says that when they started they pushed on manufacturers who had essentially begun closing up shop.
All that has changed.
"Our manufacturers now expect a certain level of business from us," she says. Yes, she admits, making tailored, "constructed" garments might be tougher. But their casual wear, things made to be machine-washed, can be done here at shops like Professional Sewing, LLC, in West Seattle.
Friends Kristine Carlton and Jenny Mae Miller say local designers can find what they want here if they look hard enough.
Graduates of Seattle Central's fashion program, they opened Atelier Verdigris in the SoDo neighborhood in 2009 — offering everything from design to patternmaking inside their 1,400-square-foot workshop.
Designers "don't want to go to the factory, they want to sit at the art board, they want to dream up the designs," Miller explains. "We do the dirty work."
Carlton says it's possible for a designer to have anywhere from a few hundred to more than 2,000 pieces made in Seattle.
"We want to support our local economy," she says. "We want to be part of a manufacturing renaissance in Seattle."
A 2010 STUDY sponsored by Washington State University and others suggests that local fashion designers need support services. Owning equipment, sharing retail space and working together would reduce costs: Seattle is ripe for a fashion incubator, the study said.
Fashion incubators are becoming standard across the globe. Arguably the oldest and best-regarded incubator, in Toronto, has churned out designers for 25 years. There, the incubator has financial support from city government, the fashion industry and private corporations. Designers are mentored by everyone from fashion journalists to marketing experts, lawyers and talent scouts.
In Manhattan, an incubator survives with support from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
And fashion incubators in Chicago and San Francisco are not only sponsored by Macy's but have their designers inside the stores.
Seattle designers have no such support. One small incubator is up and running, another is struggling to get off the ground.
Steven Paul Matsumoto, a former Marine who's also a fashion aficionado, has spent two years knocking on doors at city hall, Nordstrom and several fashion schools in search of collaborators. But his concept for a Seattle fashion incubator is still without building, mentors, funding or a full-time group of designers.
Marta Kappl, a designer who maintains a store in St. Helena, Calif., is further along. She moved north last year to establish an incubator in downtown Seattle. Kappl has anywhere from four to five designers participating, each paying a monthly fee for access to advice, a seamstress and a place to work and sell their fashions.
Inside the storefront at House of Fashion, steps from the Pike Place Market, customers can watch designers at work and buy their pieces for prices ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars.
Since December, designer Erin Hilleary has been paying Kappl for a place to make and sell her hand-painted silk scarves while mining Kappl for advice.
Kappl, who won't say how much she charges designers, will say that what she offers isn't for everyone. Designers most successful in an incubator already know how to sew and design, and have some common sense when it comes to business, Kappl says.
"To come through here you are not going to be the next Versace, Michael Kors or Armani," she adds. "You have to work hard."
Hilleary, a yoga instructor who has a degree from The Evergreen State College in health and human development, didn't want to go back to school and rack up even more student-loan debt to learn how to design.
"I'm a totally self-taught artist," she says. "Marta saw this skill that I have and all of the different ways I could offer it. In school we learn this prescribed thing for everyone, and it's expensive."
Hilleary's brightly colored scarves, some as large as shawls, are mostly inspired by mythology and symbolism from ancient India and Eastern Europe.
"The more I learn from Marta the more I will be doing what I want to do," she says.
That's why Andy Pinedo showed up at Kappl's studio one day this summer. The 21-year-old had heard about House of Fashion, so he and his mother drove from their home in Yakima to get some advice about whether school or an incubator would be the next best step. Pinedo, who dreams of working in haute couture some day, says Kappl was amazed he was self-taught, but told him to keep studying and take some business classes.
That helped a lot, he says. Now he's applying to Central Washington University.
IN THE RUNUP to their presentations for the first big night next week, the eight contestants will gather twice more with their mentor/judges.
Runway music and lighting, models' hair and makeup and, of course, their designs are all part of the discussions.
Banchong is looking for as much feedback as possible, believing it will help her make her line "more sellable."
"You don't really learn about talking to buyers, it's a different mentality," she says matter-of-factly.
Szwed says the $5,000 prize would be great, but she's "more excited about showing my work to my community because I live on the Eastside."
For Osoianu, the money would help her tremendously. Spending her days in search of a part-time job to keep afloat, she works in solitude through the night inside her tiny Belltown apartment. It takes her upward of 12 hours to make a single sweater of a shimmery viscose that her mother — a well-known designer in Eastern Europe — ships to her.
"My style is elegant. It's not loud, but sexy and comfortable." For the competition, Osoianu is creating 12 new looks out of viscose and silk — leggings, dresses and tops in grays, ivories and other neutral tones.
With the prize money, she says, "I could look up one or two people on Craigslist and hire them." Everything is online now, she adds, so you have to have a strong presence there. Her dresses and tops are now sold through her online shop and at a downtown boutique.
Cynarah Ellawala, a Seattle fashion marketing consultant who's been helping plan the independent designers competition, says the show "is going to set a new standard for how designers get things done."
Sarah Butler says the Bellevue developer, Kemper Freeman, financed the show as a way of "curating something uniquely Northwest" — a platform for local work "that is different from L.A. or New York."
In Szwed's dreams, the events will lead to her signature wedding gowns being picked up by local bridal boutiques.
Leather and fur designer Carole McClellan has her hopes pinned on finding the right department store or luxury retailer to buy her garments. Now she has a space in downtown Seattle near Pioneer Square. Beyond that, she hopes to build a strong online business.
Maintaining a successful independent label in Seattle for almost 40 years has been tough, McClellan admits. She's seen the highs — selling to Neiman Marcus and Butch Blum, touring with Heart — and the lows, "dreaming of someday having a fax machine." But she's still here.
"If you know how to work the system," she says, "you can totally stay in Seattle."
Jennifer Sullivan is a Seattle Times reporter. Bettina Hansen is a Times staff photographer.