Fashion on 4th Street: The Factory, one of the newest players in San Francisco’s revived manufacturing game, wears its slogan, Do you know where your clothes were made?, on its wall as pattern maker Gio Adamme pins a dress on a fit model.
From Sketch in Dogpatch to Finished Garment in South San Francisco: Rising star designers Lauren and Josh Podoll—shown in their light-filled studio
in Dogpatch’s American industrial center—contract with Jeanette inc., a fabric-stuffed South San Francisco sew shop run by Jeanette Guo that turns out pieces like a green printed dress from their fall 2011 line. Their sketchbook includes designs for the collins silk dress from their fall ’11 collections.
Another Lab in Dogpatch’s Creative Zone: With wall art for inspiration, owner-designer Ian Hannula cuts patterns inside Nice Collective’s headquarters. The almost all-local company either does its work in-house (it stitches its industrial jackets using old keyhole buttonhole machines formerly owned by Levi’s) or contracts it out (its stingybrim fedoras were assembled by a local contractor).
In a one-room studio on the sprawling third floor of the American Industrial Center in Dogpatch, designers Josh and Lauren Podoll recently packaged their largest order yet—thousands of tops that are now hanging in Anthropologie stores from Market Street to London’s Regent Street. The couple, who worked out of Lauren’s mother’s garage in Burlingame before they signed their showroom lease last year, have come a long way since launching a line of T-shirts in 2003. Now Hayes Valley luxury retailer Modern Appealing Clothing (MAC) and Barneys on Madison Avenue stock their pieces alongside Dries van Noten and Maison Martin Margiela. And all of their garments—including every piece of Anthropologie’s massive order—are sewn in San Francisco.
And so are flannel shirts by Pladra, Tellason selvage jeans, and all those Taylor Stitch striped button-downs sported by Four Barrel loyalists. Local manufacturing is
back in vogue in a way that it hasn’t been for more than 20 years. Until the mid-1990s, SoMa was packed with sewing shops; after Los Angeles and New York, San Francisco had the third-largest garment industry in the U.S. But since then the city’s manufacturing has struggled as many operations closed and landlords sold their buildings to Internet startups. By 2002, when Levi Strauss & Co. shut its iconic Valencia Street factory, American clothing manufacturing was declared dead.
But now, there’s a new wave of designers trying their hand at local production, joining those who, like the Podolls, Erica Tanov, and Nice Collective’s Ian Hannula and Joe Haller, have persisted in making their clothes here during the exodus. Retail windows across town are emblazoned with SFMade stickers, promoting the nonprofit created last year by Mark Dwight, founder of Rickshaw Bags (makers of the ubiquitous locally sewn messenger bags), that pairs more than 190 companies with Bay Area manufacturers.
San Francisco isn’t—and never will be—a fashion epicenter like New York or Los Angeles, but designers here are scoring with preppy basics (oxford shirts, ties, and, of course, hoodies) that are as steeped in locavorism as the Ferry Building produce they eat for lunch. That aesthetic resonates with customers who live in San Francisco and expect their clothing labels to read like restaurant menus—and with shoppers worldwide who want to look as if they do, too.
Predictably, the city’s garment boom is due in part to an Internet surge: E-tail’s direct-to-market model not only saves on overhead and lets most anyone into the game, but also allows for small-batch production that has to be done locally. (Offshore contractors require minimums of up to 1,000 pieces.) That means a canny entrepreneur’s idea can grow from office chatter into wearable, high-cachet “Made in S.F.” garments in an incredible two and a half weeks. Welcome to the new fast fashion.
Cordarounds.com, the 2005 brainchild of Chris Lindland, first took advantage of this model by selling ridiculous horizontal-stripe corduroys; five years later, it has morphed into a 13-person show renamed Betabrand. “I’m kind of the grandfather of Internet-oriented local men’s clothing companies,” says the 39-year-old Lindland, and he has a point: A handful of other men’s lines followed suit with polo shirts, ties, and button-downs. Betabrand cleared $1 million in sales last year, and Marine Layer, Department Seventeen, and Taylor Stitch (whose orders have tripled in the past three years) all sell online and have gone on to open their own brick-and-mortar spaces.
But part of the renaissance is more random. The new mid-Market payroll tax exemption zone, which was created to entice Twitter to stay in San Francisco, just happens to also help that neighborhood’s many sew shops, which must be viable for clothing manufacturing to succeed here. Some envision the zone as a creative clusterwith fashion at its center. During the first annual SFMade Week, last May, textile artists, tailors, and aspiring designers went on factory tours, and several supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee declared their support.
SFMade itself moved its offices into an old Chronicle building in the zone last year, and has been a facilitator. And after President Obama met with local tech giants to discuss job-creation strategies last February, former Dwell editor-in-chief Allison Arieff publicly questioned why he hadn’t included SFMade’s lauded executive director Kate Sofis. Soon enough, Sofis was onstage in Chicago alongside Bill Clinton at the high-profile Clinton Global Initiative on local manufacturing. Here in town, SFMade staffers steer wannabe designers toward some of the 10 larger sew shops, which are notoriously hard to find, navigate, and communicate in because of language barriers. “The idea is to build the capacity of the sewing shops so that the whole industry can grow here,” says program director Janet Lees.
It’s complicated to make clothes entirely locally, because even simple designs typically require from five to eight contractors: a pattern maker to create a pattern and sample, a grader to interpret the sample into multiple sizes, a marker to transfer paper patterns onto fabric, a cutter to slice the patterned pieces, and a sewer to stitch them together. This February, trying to simplify things for new designers, Jennifer Evans opened the Factory, a SoMa retail space housing a mini-outpost of her Los Angeles–based Evans Group, the Daily Candy–approved, high-end facility that has sewn for Berkeley graduate turned New York fashion darling Patrik Ervell. Evans, who had dreamed of opening a space here since graduating from San Francisco State in 2000, trains employees to sew complex designs in challenging fabrics like silk. Her San Francisco shop has already produced samples for more than 35 designers. “Creatives in the Bay Area like seeing the whole process, and people come in with the craziest ideas,” says Evans, who recently helped one guy make Hawaiian shirts from scratch.
Despite spit-and-polish startups like the Factory, this is one tough industry for contractors and has been since the Levi’s heyday. The city has an infamous history of sweatshops (protests against Jessica McClintock and Nova Knits come to mind), and despite progress, transgressions still occur. As the recession drove prices even lower, contractors became increasingly likely to cut corners and wages, making it even harder for honest businesses to stay alive. The competition could not be fiercer: Designers pay $12 to $26 to have a button-down shirt sewn in San Francisco, at least twice as much as contractors in China charge. Once a local fashion line has big enough orders, it can become a no-brainer for them to give up on manufacturing in San Francisco.
“To survive in the Bay Area is very, very difficult,” says Johnny Fan, whose sew shop National Apparel, on Market Street, is one of the largest remaining in the city. San Francisco rivals New York as the most expensive American city in which to make garments; the minimum wage here is nearly $2 higher than that of Los Angeles, where many designers whose labels read “Made in the U.S.” have their garments sewn. Yet Fan insists he can’t move to the East Bay or to another San Francisco industrial zone (like Dogpatch) with cheaper rent, because his business must be accessible for his employees, mostly Chinatown residents who ride Muni to work each morning.
For their part, designers can’t always find contractors who employ sewers with specialized talent. “See how this seam lies flat?” says Taylor Stitch’s Michael Maher as he flips up the hem of his button-down. “It was tough finding a contractor who could handle the single-needle French seam.” Corinna Van Der Ghinst, of activewear company Anonya, interviewed 12 sewers before settling on one. Fledgling high-end designers struggle hardest, because their pieces require more skill, and established designers don’t like to reveal their contractors. They want exclusive access to the talent, not newbies’ orders taking precedence over their own. “We needed someone reliable, who doesn’t overpromise, and does things at a reasonable price and at a high quality,” says Josh Podoll. “That took years to find.”
Even locating specialized equipment can be a problem, as Piedmont native Erica Tanov discovered when she moved her famed line of intimates from New York to Berkeley, in 1994. “In New York City, the fabric showrooms and everything you need are just a subway ride away,” she says. Here, contractors can’t necessarily do the job. She points out the pearled edge of the silk blouse she’s wearing. That stitch is a favorite detail, but since a prized sew shop closed several years ago, she hasn’t found a local contractor with the machinery to match it. Tanov has settled for other types of edging that can be done here. “It’s frustrating,” she says. (Of course, offshore manufacturing has its own hazards. Margaret O’Leary, another local fashion veteran, used to oversee every step of manufacturing in San Francisco; now, she ships five-page “tech packs” of instructions to Hong Kong and has to fly there to check on production.)
“Our resources are limited in the Bay Area,” admits Simon Ungless, Academy of Art University’s fashion director. David Lazar, CEO of Julie Chaiken’s eponymous line, which is assembled in New York, says, “It’s a lot easier to drive down the street than to fly pattern makers in from New York. We’d love to manufacture here, but San Francisco is not prepared to ramp up just yet.”
And yet small-scale designers who work closely with local contractors clearly are carving sustainable niches. The blue jean line Tellason, which launched in 2009 with five West Coast accounts, is now stocked in boutiques as far away as Amsterdam and Tokyo. “It’s our goal to be in the best denim boutique in every city in the world,” says cofounder Pete Searson, who hopes that as Tellason grows, SkyBlue, the 25-year-old denim cut-and-sew shop his company uses , will be able to hire new employees to fill its empty stations.
It’s not entirely clear how long the city can keep such growing garment companies happy, profitable, and manufacturing here. But their success so far is evidence that what the city manufactures today above all else is resourcefulness.
When Levi’s left town, Nice Collective acquired some of its leftover equipment, and now the designers use the old denim-sewing machines to stitch wool into industrial jackets. The Taylor Stitch team wanted to make belts but couldn’t find anyone in San Francisco who sews leather commercially. No problem: They consulted an artisan who had crafted belts for San Francisco’s fi refighters, but ultimately commissioned a friend, leather worker Matt Brown.
Pretty soon we should be seeing precisely what Bono predicted six years ago during his appearance at Saks Fifth Avenue in Union Square: clothing labels, hang tags, and websites that tell us exactly where our clothes come from. It’s already happening: “All of our shirts are made in San Francisco using the best raw materials we can get our hands on” and “All of our buttons are made from tagua nuts grown in the Amazon rain forest,” reads Taylorstitch.com.
Who knows how many other would-be designers are currently sitting at Four Barrel, talking about what their label should look like and who in SoMa can sew a limited-edition run of lumberjack suspenders.
Nikki Ioakimedes is San Francisco’s Style Assistant.