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Portland Garment Factory expands its creative consulting lab to move beyond mittens

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Ascendio! Britt Howard, 34, founder, owner and CEO of the contract sewing company Portland Garment Factory, stands in the front office of their Montavilla location. On the walls are soft sculptures commissioned by a client. Howard is focusing on getting more high profile conceptual work through her PGF Lab, for clients such as Nike and Adidas and to be used in events such as the Billboard Music Awards.  Howard wears her own creations and describes herself as a mood dresser.   The Portland Garment Factory has become a fixture of maker life since it opened in 2008.

Owner Britt Howard wanted to make more children's clothing and couldn't find a local contract sewer to do the work. So she became it.

Bootstrapped form her initial $2,000 investment — still no investors and no bank loans — the company is profitable. It is now expanding from the standard products — dog clothes, cute socks, wedding dresses — and entering the creative services field. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Staff are well-versed in traditional fabric crafts and can drape and make patterns by hand.

Nike town

Howard calls it "a manufacturing and fabrication design company," and she's now including the Portland Garment Factory (PGF) Lab. The Lab is really just a corner of the 5,000 square foot building at 79th and Southeast Stark in Montavilla. It's where the Marketing and Accounts Payable people sit, and where Howard would be if she ever had time to clear her messy desk. (On a recent morning she swore she had not sat at it for a month because they have been so busy.)

"Last week if you came here you could not even walk across the space," she told the Business Tribune. She had been working on a 30-foot by 10-foot wall covered in textural elements for the Nike Lab (another lab, this one with a slightly bigger budget.)

"The Nike Lab is their conceptual section, they use it to inspire their designers," she says. "It's a fake little store they use to set up, instead of sending all their designers to Milan or Tokyo. It's like a model." She showed pix on her phone. The brief was 'We want this to feel textural and feminine in the store. What would you do?' Part art installation, part mood board, the result was thousands of pieces of fabric, including a whole section of wide strips of white elastic — attached to the wall. The racks of clothes were placed in front of it.

Howard has no idea what will come of it. It was just a high concept piece that needed to be turned around quickly for a valuable corporate client.

"I think it will be used to inspire other teams in Milan and Tokyo. I hope they say they want us on these teams and to go there," she adds with a chuckle, as though anything so glamorous were unprecedented.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Detail oriented, Howard works with artists and machinists.

Giant lung

Recently, the PGF Lab designed and made a series of giant fabric calla lilies for a fundraising gala for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

"People come to us and say 'We want to do this weird concept, we don't know how to make it.' We make it happen."

They also made a giant fabric lung for the American Heart Association, and hand knitted a 40-foot replica of the Chicago city flag, which hangs in that city's Niketown from a metal armature.

She frequently works with Axiom Custom Products in the Columbia Corridor.

"They are amazing. They can make anything." Axiom has a huge variety of 3D printers, CAD equipment, laser cuttiers and multi-axis tools. It fabricates sculptures for fine artists, or commercial clients. Axiom made the giant sneakers on the Adidas campus on North Greely.

"When working with any agency or client we find partners to create the wood or metal parts. They do the hard part, I do the soft part," she says. The have made custom wool pillows for Adidas, or in other cases, someone built platers and PGF knitted covers fro them.

Howard says the lab has grown out of a love of creating with other businesses.

"Maybe it's because I have a lot of energy and need to be collaborating all the time. We've got the garment side and manufacturing production going. Now we want to do the creative projects too."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The Portland Garment Factory in Montavilla.

Breaks

Aside from a couple of visitors in the sourcing department trying to sell fasteners, there are no men around. Howard is proud that her staff is all-female. (Her long time business partner, Rosemary Robinson, left in 2016.)

It's a low bar to clear, but Britton is proud of treating her staff, many of whom are Asian, and half of whom are immigrants, with more dignity than is usual in the rag trade.

"I've only been to about 10 factories but there, at the lunch bell, if they even have a lunch bell, you see people squatting next to machines to eat, there's no lunch table or break room or yoga zone like ours..." She gestures to a loft area built from two by fours, which has cushions and yoga balls. It's where they have meetings and can sometimes relax, and where the children of staff can hang out if they visit.

"I know this is a boutique level of manufacturing, in the way my workers are treated. In this business the way workers are treated is terrible, about as bad as the back of house in restaurants."

Parents were workers

She should know. Through her time studying anthropology at Portland State University, this native Portlander waitressed at the breakfast café Juniors at Southeast 12th and Hawthorne, as well as Dots and The Alibi.

Her mother worked in human resources and her father, who built that loft before he died two years ago, built houses and worked in concrete.

"My mom is an HR person so I grew up hearing about mission and values and ethos, and core competency. In the 1990s this was a thing. So in making my core values for my company I didn't want to say it unless I really mean it, weaving it into everything we do. If you don't, it's fraudulent."

To that end, Howard has five flags that display the company's core values hanging from the rafters of the PGF (see sidebar).

No dumpster

The Portland Garment Factory is a zero waste business, meaning they recycle everything. This includes things Portland doesn't recycle, such as rigid plastic (food clam shells), plastic bags, and all fabric scraps. Long, skinny ones are saved for weavers. She shows off a deep pile of squares of cotton, which have been cut with a Brute brand cutting tool (a sort of electric carving knife). They will go to Coffee Creek women's prison where Howard has helped with their sewing program.

"It is work, but it doesn't feel like a lot of work. The alternative doesn't cross my mind. A dumpster: it's unnecessary, and we don't want one."

One staffer, Susan, makes all her kids' school clothes from offcuts every August. Another, Christina, had just made hand towels for Mother's Day.

Staff have the run of the place on the weekend to work on their own projects. Harris organizes bonding sessions, such as workshops on flower arranging or fruit carving, and a day out to a women-only spa in Tacoma.

A week ago she started a class at PSU for B Corporation status. "Getting certified as a B Corp is such a pain. They're helping me."

Being green is a common story in business, and Howard has seen her share of superficial claims at sustainability, in places where she has had lowly jobs, such as hospitals. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Five flags represent the five core values of the Portland Garment Factory, which employs all women, half of whom are immigrants. The values are:  Respect Time, Think Forward, Honor Process, Invite Challenge and Be Human.

Mittens

Their bread and butter work is making garments and soft goods on contract. One large contract is from SolMates Socks. Colored woolen tubes arrive from a sock-making mill North Carolina and Portland Garment Factory staff sew the thumbs on and turn them into fingerless mittens, full mittens and baby hats. (Howard had to advise SolMates that active phone users want full mittens any more.)

A lead developer Beth Mellone sits upfront doing digital drafting. She makes patterns, using the software Optitex, and exports them to an extra wide printer.

Another big event coming up (June 10 and 11, 2017) is in collaboration with designer Eileen Fisher. Their Fisher Found services takes in previously worn Eileen Fisher garments and offers credits within a used clothing store. They also send garments that cannot be resold in the Fisher Found stores to PGF to be cut up and sewn into custom collaboration designs and sold throughout the country. The company is sending 2,300 items from Seattle forPGF, with a percentage of the sales slated to go to Dress for Success Oregon.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Previous projects adorn the walls of the Portland Garment Factory, instead of swatches and the usual collateral.

Seals

Sometimes the Lab's values run counter to a client's. Howard wouldn't make an item that was part of a gift for the Navy SEALs who killed Osama Bin Laden.

"I said no. I didn't feel like glorifying them any more than they already were. The agency were very frustrated and upset with me."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - The loft/yoga zone, built by Howard's father before he died, is a place to retreat from the factory atmosphere, for workers and their kids.

Likewise, she no longer works for people who lack business sense. She recalls making a sample for a man who had developed a line of shirts for men with extra sweaty armpits. They didn't sell well.

"If you're a smart business you know it's not sustainable to have a new client every day. It takes time to set up a relationship with a new client. We want them to be a good business person selling through their items. We don't just take any person off the street and make stuff for them."

Howard will only say annual revenues are "Under a million (dollars), but I'd like to get over a million next year." She adds she doesn't have a formal business plan.

"I have a personal way I run the business. It might not translate to be a business plan vibe. It's more of like there's so much you can't plan for."

Like her partner leaving the business. Instead of replacing her they spread her tasks between them.

Bankers

She needs money for more machines, and to have a buffer against hard times. She'd prefer a bank loan to equity investors. "We're bankable and I need to figure our which bank I want to work with."

It's a tough business when she has to pay up front for materials, but people pay on a net 30 basis. That can leave the company out of pocket for six week plus thirty days.

Still, customers always pay. No one skips out.

"It's done with handshakes and contracts. This whole business is run off my gut. It's an organic thing, that's why I don't have a business plan."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Britt Howard, founder, owner and CEO of the contract sewing company Portland Garment Factory, wishes happy birthday to Lyla Rowen, an employee of one week. 
Crazy

They use Apparel Magic for project management, and other scheduling tools. "My husband is a scientist and a master at Excel," she says proudly. "He's an entomologist at Oregon State University specializing in moths. He's also an artist and a musician."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Patterns hang on the walls.

As well as sewing machines and software, she needs more people.

"When you have a cell phone company who tells their (creative) agency they want something for a the Billboard Music Awards and it's due in four days, a lot of that is on us. Having a good person who can speak to the client and also to the production manager is really valuable. Like, 'You want it in this color but the fabric won't look the way you want it to...' Currently we have one and half people who speaks all those languages. We need a little more management of the clients and their expectations so things don't get to crazy."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Garment Factory is a zero waste business, meaning everything that can be recycled is. The fabric squares will go to the sewing group at the Coffee Creek correctional facility.

CORE VALUES

Five colorful flags hang at Portland Garment Factory representing the five core values of Britt Howard and her company

RESPECT TIME. An hourglass shape, a reminder of the importance of time & pace.

THINK FORWARD. A road leading to many paths with infinite ideas ahead.

HONOR PROCESS. It bends and winds before it ends, each step with a clear purpose.

INVITE CHALLENGE. Stacking of forms, recall climbing a great peak.

BE HUMAN. Can you spy the makings of a face in fabric?

CHILDHOOD DREAMS DO COME TRUE

Portland Garment Factory's current 5,000 square feet space at 408 S.E. 79th Ave. has very tall ceilings. As space gets tighter, Howard has already had one loft built and is considering another. The space was originally an icehouse, but has been a car mechanics and a woodwork shop too in its time. Although there's a swing and plenty of artistic decorations, the atmosphere is hard working. Break times are observed.

"I always had a dream of having a swing in a warehouse when I was a kid. I went with my mom to this artist's studio where Finnegan's Toys used to be (opposite the Central Library). His bathroom was made of glass bricks and he had this huge space. Right then I wanted to be an artist and live in a warehouse, ride my bike indoors and have a bathroom of square glass tiles. I made up this whole thing when I was nine."

Fisher Found sale

When: June 10-11

Where: Portland Garment Factory, 408 S.E. 79th Ave., Portland.

Phone: 503-257-2905


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter

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