I've had an interesting career, and I often get asked how I ended up co-owning an apparel factory. It really wasn't intentional originally, I thought I'd spend my entire career on the brand side, where I started. Here's my story.....
I always wanted to be a designer, achieved my B.S. in fashion design and got my first job in the industry as a Patternmaker. Worked my way up to Assistant Designer, then Designer, then Head Designer. That's where I met by business partner, Tulio. This was in the late 90's and I worked for Russell Newman - we manufactured all over the world. We made all our woven flannels in Guatemala and Tulio oversaw our production.
I took a hiatus from work and my husband and I started a family. Life happens and we ended up in beautiful Colorado (not a fashion Mecca at that time, but boy has that changed!). I got back into design working for a few different companies and even built my own brand. It was during this time I started pursuing sustainability. It began very simply, just from the question that "if we can make better choices, shouldn't we?"
After about 7 years, I decided to shut down my brand. I really had no idea what I wanted to do next but then the phone started ringing - "can you help me with development on this" - "I'm having a production crisis, can you help?" All of a sudden I was a full time consultant and an accidental broker for production. Being around as long as I have, I see production in a slightly different way than folks newer to the industry. When I first started in the business, we still made most apparel in the US, so I had spent a lot of time in factories. Even when everything shifted off-shore in the late 90’s, we were still in the factories all the time - this was before tech packs and technical designers even existed and we would fax information back and forth to the factories – but the heavy duty work was done in person.
I was working with a few brands, assisting them with design and development and sustainability initiatives. We had placed their production in Guatemala so Tulio could oversee it. One day he calls me and says, "Holli, you need to get down here." As so often happens in this business, we had placed orders with a certified factory, and they had sub-contracted the work out to someone else. That someone else was an illegal factory. A three story building behind locked doors and only one way in or out and cramped, dirty conditions. An illegal factory is not paying payroll taxes and you can bet they were paying less than minimum wage. Notwithstanding the human/ethical issues there's the poor quality sewing and the fear that if they get caught, the government will confiscate all the apparel being sewn in that building.
Tulio and I spent a long time wrestling with this situation. To look at sustainability holistically, you have to consider the human element. It's like the three legs of a stool - one being sustainable fabrics, the second being high quality garments, and the third being ethical labor. If the people sewing your clothing can’t afford to feed their families then nothing else you do makes your apparel sustainable.
Tulio and I finally came to the conclusion that the only way to solve for the subcontracting habit was to build our own factory and hire our own employees. That was the only way to have control over the situation. Once that decision was made, we decided to look at everything. We didn’t want to do things the way everyone else does just because that’s the way they are usually done. We wanted to be disruptive. We wanted to be intentional and look at everything with a critical eye. We wanted to pursue our passions and build our company on a triple bottom line of people and planet in addition to profit. Once we made that decision, the rest of the decisions (if not the implementation) became easy.
We do not subcontract out sewing work – we can control the conditions, working hours and pay of our employees, but not of other factories. We created a healthy and safe place to work – lots of light, fresh air, a safe town where we didn’t need razor wire and armed guards and close to where our employees live so they didn’t have to spend hours and hours commuting in Guatemala traffic (also better for planet as less travel time = less pollution). We did away with the seasonal work that is so common in the apparel industry – everyone would be full time permanent employees and they would not be laid off at the end of the season. We developed internal systems to reduce waste, improve quality and extensively cross-train our employees so that they could work in cross-functional teams to produce many different kinds of apparel. We developed new just-in-time systems that are less wasteful, more responsive to our customers needs and even out production flow so we do not need to subcontract and we could eliminate the drivers of the hire and fire mentality so prevalent in our industry. We work only 5 days a week, 40 hours, and do not work overtime so that people have time to pursue personal interests or more time with their families. We pay well, so that there is not a need to work 60+ hours a week just to make ends meet.
Once we had our plan in place, we went to three customers we had been working with and told them of our plan. We essentially asked them to be our guinea pigs – they said yes! We went out and rented a small space – Tulio selected San Pedro because there is a lot of sewing talent there, but not much legal work. It’s a beautiful community on the side of a mountain with amazing views, clean air and cobblestone streets. We rented a small space and started hiring and training. We right sized the workforce to just these three customers, and spent the first several years doing nothing else while we refined our internal systems. It was a team effort, not just between Tulio and Ana and I, but also with our customers and our employees. We believe, and we know, that it is possible to craft mutually beneficial relationships where everyone wins.
In the spring of 2018, we really felt like everything was firing on all cylinders. Our customers were happy, our employees were happy and the nay-sayers who had told us our ideas were crazy, had asked to come see what we were doing and how. One of them even had started to emulate some of what we created in his own factory.
There’s more to the story since then of course, but this is the story of how I became an originally un-intentional co-founder of an apparel factory!