In the nearly four decades that Fashions Unlimited Inc. has made swimwear, lingerie, athletic wear and other apparel for brands such as Hanes, Adidas, Liz Claiborne and Diane von Furstenburg, most domestic sewing work moved offshore and Baltimore's garment district all but disappeared.
But Fashions Unlimited, started in 1976 on Eutaw Street, persevered. At times, it has more work than it can handle.
On the fifth floor of a Pigtown industrial building, sewers piece together garments at multi-needle machines and cut fabric spread over large tables. Patterns and garment samples hang on racks in an adjoining room, where company president and founder Philip Spector displays some of Fashion's creations: a designer swimsuit, a sports bra, a jacket with specialty insulation created for a Mount Everest climb.
Known for work with stretchy and woven fabrics, the company brings its clients' visions to life. In the Wicomico Street headquarters, where new apparel lines are developed, the staff creates patterns and prototypes, selects fabrics and sews garments, leaving larger scale production to its bigger factory in Hellam, Pa., near York.
Spector, who moved to Baltimore in the mid-1960s, said the company has shifted with the times, working to maintain client ties and taking on almost any kind of project.
Besides trendy swimsuits featured in the pages of Elle, O and Seventeen magazines, Fashions makes specialty undergarments for breast cancer patients, transgender tops, even costumes. In one of its most recent projects, Spector and a staff of managers, pattern makers and materials-sourcing experts worked with Adidas to create wearable technology shirts for professional soccer players and, soon, for consumers.
"In our industry, we're known for development — people can come to us with new ideas," Spector said. "I do some different things, and we do high-quality work and are honest with our customers. I've been doing it for a long time."
Kim Scheffler, director of garment development for Adidas' digital sports business, says she has worked with Spector for more than a decade, approaching him with ideas and telling him, "I want to try this — I know it's nothing that's ever been done. Could you help me think it through?"
"They have the open-mindedness for it and the breadth of experience [to handle] lacy lingerie or chemical hazmat suits," she said. "You have to have the mindset to do that, to change and think about something very delicate, then something incredibly robust, whatever the product. They're open to trying anything."
The ideas keep coming, from new and established companies alike, Spector said. But finding enough skilled labor to do all the work is a challenge. Spector is forced to turn down up to 80 percent of new requests but believes he could double his capacity with more skilled sewers. He declined to disclose sales figures.
He has been working with city and state officials to find funding and a site in Baltimore for a sewing trade school that would teach sewing, design and pattern making. A more steady pipeline of labor would help his company and other domestic apparel makers, he said.
Fashions Unlimited is "one of the best-kept secrets in Baltimore," said Mike Kelleher, chief financial officer and chief operating officer of the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which works to boost the state's manufacturing base. Fashions is a member of the partnership's Make It In Maryland program, which works to boost the state's manufacturing base.
"More and more companies — including big, growing companies — are looking onshore" to have their products made, Kelleher said. "It keeps design, production and quality close to home."
Creators of the Bellisse undergarment for breast cancer patients discovered Spector 15 years ago after its first manufacturer found the product too difficult to mass-produce.
"We got Phil's name, and Phil was able to not only create it for us but to mass-produce it," said physical therapist Lesli Bell, Bellisse's founder along with Lisa Lindahl, an inventor of the first sports bra. "We thought of going offshore but decided not to because it was such a specialty product, and it had so many different stretch fabrics. We were afraid they wouldn't do it right."
Fashions "could be very precise about what we needed, and [Spector] was nimble," Bell said. "If we had to change to a different type of fabric or stopped making something, he would help us with sourcing that. When we needed to order more sizes, he had someone who could expand on that pattern. He provided a full service."
The compression garment, which treats swelling, scarring and pain, is still produced in Baltimore.
"We would never dream of going overseas to have it made," said DeeDee Peterson, the commercial operations manager of distributor JoViPak Corp. "It's easier for us to go to Baltimore versus going overseas."
Besides, she added, "They have it down to a science," with each seamstress responsible for one piece of construction. "And they do it just over and over, so it's perfection, and they're quick at it. … It's very cost-effective for us. It's important for us to keep the costs as low as possible" so patients can afford it.
Fashions Unlimited has worked with Adidas since 2008, continuing a previous relationship with Textronics, a "smart" apparel startup acquired by the German sports brand. Adidas shifted the company's focus to developing sports-related wearable technology, specifically for soccer and its professional athletes, said Scheffler, who had worked for Textronics.
After three years, she said, "we came up with a system that could track and help coaches with the biometrics of professional soccer players on the field" and incorporated the system into a garment. The miCoach Elite smart shirt, launched in 2013 is worn in practice by all 20 MLS soccer teams and Adidas sponsored teams such as Chelsea, AC Milan and the German national team. It allows trainers and coaches to track speed, acceleration, position, heartbeat and intensity of play.
Fashions Unlimited was instrumental in coming up with a design that weaves a series of heart-rate sensing electrodes and sensors into the fabric to send signals to a small data cell placed in a protective back pocket between the shoulder blades, Scheffler said. The cell wirelessly transmits more than 200 data records per second from each player to a computer, data that can be transmitted instantly for display on iPad or reviewed later.
"The shirt had to carry the pod around carefully," Scheffler said. "There was a lot of engineering on how we built it, what fabric we selected, so it would move with the body. We didn't just want to make one or a hundred. We needed thousands in a manner that a big-scale factory in Asia could make."
Fashions produced a test batch of the shirts at its Pennsylvania plant, and Adidas went on to mass-produce it. Fashions also worked on a consumer version of the men's shirt, which is in production at Adidas, and will launch along with a version of a women's sports bra, Scheffler said.
"Wearable technology is growing," Scheffler said. "The verdict is still out on how integrated it will be, versus something that lives in the phone or sits on a wrist, but it's an area of unbelievable possibilities."
Products such as wrist fitness trackers, less sophisticated than wearable garments and not specifically aimed at elite athletes, have sold well, said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst for The NPD Group, who is expecting continued growth in the category.
"In the garment technology, no one has really broken out of the pack yet, partly because these garments are so expensive," Powell said. "The key is what do they measure and do they really help an athlete perform better in whatever their sport is. If devices can be more sophisticated and measure more than heart rate or distance, there's an opportunity. But the prices have got to come down for them to be a major factor."
Such technology-infused apparel was decades away when Spector arrived in Baltimore in 1964 to work in a thriving garment district with more than 25,000 sewers. At a blouse-maker on Eutaw and Redwood streets, he learned the trade as a fabric examiner and rose to plant manager. He moved on to American Golfer, which made sportswear, becoming head of manufacturing.
When that company closed, he struck out on his own. In August 1976, with two sewing machines and five employees, he started Fashions Unlimited on the third floor of 16 S. Eutaw St.
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The big break came when the company won its first big contract in 1978, making apparel for tights maker Danskin. That contract lasted about a dozen years and allowed the company to expand.
It now employs 29, including 15 in Baltimore, 12 in Pennsylvania and two at American Seamless Knitting, a North Carolina division.
After Danskin, contracts followed with Norma Kamali, Capezio and Liz Claiborne. Other clients have included Jessica Simpson, Fila, Guess, Coach, Calvin Klein, Pierre Cardin, Nautica, Under Armour and Commando swimwear. Fashions Unlimited moved to its current location in 1994, the former site of a Nehru jacket manufacturer.
Spector has found that contracts that once were sealed with a handshake and lasted for years now tend to be shorter term, sometimes just one fashion season. Regardless, he still prefers to conduct business as he always has, in person.
When a new client comes on board, "we make everyone come here, every client visits," Spector said. "We want to see them, and they have to meet everybody. I have to look somebody in the eye."