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Philly's Fashion Sense Returns, and It Looks and Feels Local

In a tall un-marked building opposite the Sofitel Hotel in Center City, sits the headquarters of a rare kind of U.S. based apparel businesses. SA VA, a clothing and accessories company, is a vertically integrated business in the true spirit of the term. SA VA operates both its design studio and manufacturing factory on the 1700 block of Sansom Street, adjacent to its storefront. "We control our own sourcing rather than contracting with a factory. We actually have the manufacturing operation here, onsite," Sarah Van Aken, owner of SA VA explained to me one windy afternoon in early January. Outside her office was a large workshop area, which, at the time of our conversation, contained tables and clothing racks. "The only other U.S. clothing company doing this," she said, "is American Apparel."

SA VA, established in Philadelphia in 2005, is a clothing company comprised of four signature brands: Van Aken custom shirts, Van Aken Signature custom hospitality uniforms (created for celebrity chefs worldwide), VA Private Label garment manufacturing services and SA VA women's ready-to-wear. The company's dedication to creating ethical clothing and accessories is evident in its sustainability practices, including socially responsible business like local living wage job creation. SA VA may be setting what some hope to be a trend in the Philadelphia apparel industry: locally designed and manufactured clothing by Philadelphia-based fashion designers.

"A combination of factors are aligning," explains Karen Randal, Director of the Business Attraction and Retention in the city's commerce department. "It makes sense to do local manufacturing, to focus on local and sustainable business." Randal considers Van Aken to be a leader in the city's fashion and apparel industry. "Local products," Randal said, "are about a sustainable mindset. People are a part of that – and we need to support local and regional production."

Philadelphia once stood at the center of the country's manufacturing industry. At the turn of the century, the city was home to a thriving textile industry. Across the city, in boroughs like Kensington, Germantown and Manayunk, companies were active in textile production. Most of the city's large manufacturing firms have since folded. As of the end of 2010, 178 textile companies continue to operate in Philadelphia – a mere fraction of the number of textile firms once thriving in the city. Other figures indicate that the city's textile industry is a much-weakened version of its former self. According to federal figures, the number of people working in textile and apparel manufacturing in Philadelphia more than halved between 2000 and 2010.

Striking a Successful Pose
Karen Randal wants to see a 21st century revitalization of the manufacturing sector in Philadelphia. "The mission of the commerce department is to create jobs," Randal said. In her office, on the 12th floor of a municipal building near City Hall, Randal keeps a poster marking all the manufacturing businesses that once lived and thrived in Philadelphia city. Most of those businesses, such as Albert Nipon and Townsend Tuxedos, no longer manufacture in Philadelphia or have vastly scaled down production. "I'd like to replace every [defunct] business on that map with a new one," she says cheerfully. And the apparel industry may be a good place to start. Already, she points out that nationally recognized brands like those in the Urban Outfitters group (Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People) and Destination Maternity are based in Philadelphia. Urban Outfitters, Randal adds, already manufactures some of their goods in the city.

Randal points out that there are several things working in the city's favor for it to see resurgence in local production. "Our location is great for distributors," Randal said. Philadelphia's position at the center of the Northeast Corridor makes other markets in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston easy to access. The infrastructure to support increased manufacturing in Philadelphia already exists. The Delaware River Port Complex is one of the largest ports in the world and the only port in the country served by three large freight railroads. With respect to fashion in particular, Philadelphia is a hub of higher learning. Of the ninety-two colleges and universities that exist in the Philadelphia region, several institutions offer training in design. Design and fiber arts programs exist, for example, at University of the Arts, Moore College of Arts and Design, and Philadelphia University (established as the Philadelphia Textile School).

Randal's office primarily assists designers and manufacturing businesses by providing financial assistance in the form of low-interest financing, tax credits, and workforce training. But Randal also sees a large part of her job as what she calls, ‘gluing.' That is, establishing networks between different players in the supply chain.

Randal may be the perfect person for the job. The day I met her, she wore a cream-colored pantsuit, diamond jewelry (Lagos – "a Christmas present") and whimsical teacup printed socks. A self-described former organic architect specializing in textiles for interior design, Randal sees herself as a bridge-maker. She is an enthusiastic supporter of independent designers and growing manufacturers. Just this month, Randal put together a proposal for City Council called ‘The Fusion of Artistry and Manufacturing,' that lays out a vision for joining designers and manufacturers.  
A number of collaborative projects are already in place. Randal's office and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation  (PIDC) are currently working closely with a range of stakeholders in an effort to build a "roadmap" for small businesses that want to use Philadelphia as a hub. Van Aken is a participant. She says that the state grant to develop the roadmap is an important step in the development of the city's "new apparel ecosystem…The grant provides funding for a collaborative type think tank to create the foundation for reinstating infrastructure to manufacture textiles and apparel using a business model that is collaboratively developed. The roadmap," she adds, "is for the apparel industry and for other businesses also." It is expected to be complete in 2012. Also, last December, the city announced the establishment of Philadelphia Fashion Incubator – a program that offers studio space, mentorship and guidance to young city-based fashion designers.

Randal believes that ‘gluing' or networking manufacturers with designers is one way to preserve the city's industrial legacy. Last October, her department organized an event alongside the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia at Global Dye Works, a former textile factory. The purpose of the event was to introduce young designers to existing manufacturers with hope of future collaboration. While Randal does not yet know of any collaboration born from the event, she is pleased by the turnout. Eighty-five people attended, according to her count.  "Identifying companies in Philadelphia that can grow their business through local supply chains while supporting local designers to grow their businesses is a win-win-win situation," Randal said.

Local Manufacturing and the Artisan Model
When SA VA was established in 2004, the business was devoted to custom shirts and restaurant uniforms. Van Aken designed the uniforms but they were manufactured abroad, in Bangladesh. Dissatisfied with her inability to oversee the operation of her factory on a daily basis, Van Aken approached Randal in search of funding to launch SA VA in Philadelphia. Randal encouraged Van Aken to consider opening the garment factory at the same time as the retail space and business office. With the help from PIDC and private equity from Green, Van Aken was able to open the garment factory in retail space in Center City in 2009.

One of the most significant changes Van Aken senses in the fashion and apparel industry today, in comparison to the moment when her business first opened in Philadelphia, is broader public recognition of the importance of sustainability. "Shifts in the global labor force," Van Aken says, "have created new interest in an ethical, environmentally sustainable, manufacturing industry in the U.S."

Randal believes that supporting the apparel industry in Philadelphia will increase revenue for the city and make more jobs available. Locally made goods can have significant effect on the local economy. "A third of the money spent for an item of clothing stays in the local economy," Van Aken explained. "So for example, spending $100 on a paper of jeans at Walmart results in about $30 that stays…whereas spending the same amount on locally made goods results in $75-$90 staying in the local economy." When Van Aken opened her factory in Philadelphia in 2009, she also received a grant from Philadelphia Workforce Development to run an eight-week training course for workers she would eventually employ. Today, the company employs 15 individuals and is looking to expand.

Van Aken is not arguing for what she calls "de-globalization." There are certain things, such as silk manufacturing or hand beading, she says that are better done in places other than Philadelphia. What she would like to see, though, is a global network of local, sustainable apparel businesses.

Slow Growth and Do It Yourself
Melissa D'Agostino may be a leading, local example of the kind of business owner Van Aken imagines. D'Agostino is creator and founder of D'Agostino Fashion Textile Design. A graduate from the Moore College of Art and Design, D'Agostino was trained in sculpture and textile design. Her apparel and accessories are created in her studio space and showroom, located in the third floor of her home in the Germantown neighborhood. D'Agostino says that since 2006, she has focused on perfecting her dyeing techniques, using traditional dyeing methods, such as the shibori method, in creating her pieces. She has even gone so far as to create a series of the instruments needed for her dyeing methods.

"The nice thing about Philadelphia," she says, "is that if you have a strong work ethic you can grow slowly by participating in everything that is available to you and also by working alone." Only recently, she says, has she begun to look beyond her studio walls to the city's growing fashion and small business community for inspiration and guidance.

In 2009, D'Agostino registered her textile and fashion business as a small business in Philadelphia. "One year in," she says, "I was renovating my space, I was taking orders, I was designing fabrics and clothes, I was reaching out to the community. I was gaining acknowledgement for cultivating my voice over the years as an artist hand dyeing fabrics in the local hand made scene."

D'Agostino is now a member of the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, the National Association of Sustainable Fashion Designers (a Philadelphia-based organization) and the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers. She's participated in various panels and conferences across the city, including alongside Randal and Van Aken. Last year, she was awarded a small grant from the Women's Opportunity Resource Center – enough money to purchase her first computer and cell phone.

The artisan and fine arts community in Philadelphia continues to be a major source of inspiration for D'Agostino. (Her husband is an art history professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). D'Agostino works in small batches and her primary focus in creating pieces is to permit the wearer to wear the piece in a number of ways. "Each of my pieces," she says, "is absolutely artwork." Just as her apparel and accessory items are created piece by piece, D'Agostino is dedicated to carefully and consciously growing her business. One day, she says, she would like to own her own boutique and produce items in an adjoining studio space. In the meantime, she focuses on perfecting her dyeing and construction methods – in short, producing the best piece of apparel for her clients that she can. "I'm happy the city has the infrastructure to support [this] process," she says.

"The city is invested in supporting vertical growth and in linking designers with local manufacturers willing to take on small-sample runs," Randal says. She believes that supporting manufacturers will impact the local economy and put Philadelphia on the "fashion map." She smiles broadly. "I think we're at a tipping point."

JV CHIU is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.


Melissa D'Agostino is creator and founder of D'Agostino Fashion Textile Design.

D'Agostino in her studio

Tools of the trade

Sarah Van Aken, owner of SA VA

The SA VA studio

All photographs by JEFF FUSCO
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