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Made in Baltimore: Young designers fuel fledgling revival of city’s garment industry

Philip Spector, creator and CEO of Fashions Unlimited, has stuck with sewing even though the hard years: "I never ran for the buck."

A floral silk shirt with gold leaf buttons hangs on a rack at the DifferentRegard boutique, along with a “Trilogy” dress that can be worn three ways. Two Baltimore natives designed all the unique fashions sold in the salon-like showroom in the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood.

But something else distinguishes the upscale line from most clothes U.S. consumers buy. The collection is not made halfway around the globe but three blocks away, by the brand’s own team of sewers and pattern makers in a production space on North Howard Street.

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“We wanted a made in Baltimore brand,” said Steven White, one of the apparel maker’s co-founders. “We knew we wanted to have that creative control."

Decades after jobs in the city’s once-thriving garment industry began moving offshore and then all but disappeared, White and co-founder Dominick Davis are part of a fledgling movement bringing it back. Fashion entrepreneurs, apparel designers and manufacturers say locally produced, small-batch manufacturing will figure in the future of fashion — and say it can shape Baltimore for the better.

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The city is primed for growth in the industry, advocates say. It has a heritage of garment production, a lower cost of living than big metropolitan fashion hubs and talent coming from area fashion and textile programs. Some surviving industry veterans are still passing on knowledge and skills. And consumers increasingly want locally made goods.

DifferentRegard grew out of Davis’ idea for a T-shirt fashion firm. He and White started with custom and ready-to-wear menswear, expanded into women’s apparel and now develop samples for other designers and handle small-scale manufacturing for other brands. Some clients found them after first trying to make garments overseas but experiencing difficulty communicating or feeling disconnected from production.

Manufacturing garments overseas is typically much cheaper than in the United States, but not always for small firms or startups. And it’s sometimes not practical or even an option for small businesses that can’t meet the minimum run requirements of large factories.

Renewed interest in garment making means designers won’t have to rely on the New York scene, said Victoria Pass, a fashion historian and assistant professor at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

“If you can find people to fabricate work in Baltimore, you can make a go of it here,” Pass said.

When Susan Clayton wanted to turn her vision for mittens for runners into a commercial product, the downtown resident considered a factory in New York but ultimately found one much closer to home. On the fifth floor of a Pigtown industrial building, Clayton met with the owner of Fashions Unlimited, a 44-year-old garment factory that’s one of the last of its kind in Baltimore.

The Wicomico Street factory has become busier in the past five years and is expanding, thanks to its niche in product development and ability to take on small batch jobs. With nearly 40 sewers and examiners bent over machines in the high-ceilinged space, the factory churns out about 5,000 pieces of clothing a week.

“Anybody that’s local, we always sit down and speak with them," said Philip Spector, president and CEO of Fashions Unlimited, which has made clothes for Diane von Furstenberg, Coach, Adidas, Pierre Cardin, Norma Kamali and others. “I’m proud that I stayed here and I persevered."

A toy sewing machine given by his wife frames Philip Spector, creator and CEO of Fashions Unlimited at 1100 Wicomico Street Wed., February 5, 2020.
A toy sewing machine given by his wife frames Philip Spector, creator and CEO of Fashions Unlimited at 1100 Wicomico Street Wed., February 5, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Spector and his product developers came up with a pattern for Clayton’s WhitePaws RunMitts, which can be flipped down for cooling during a run. They made a prototype and helped source fabrics. They advised on how much fabric to order and how many mittens to make.

“Then a couple weeks later, I’d get a box full of mittens,” Clayton said.

Working from home and close to a factory, she said, has meant “no back and forth shipping every time I need a change or just picking up the mittens.”

The mitten line is in its third production season with Fashions Unlimited. The factory also makes “feminine friendly" women’s cycling jerseys for Mount Washington-based SassyCyclist and nursing bras for Baltimore-based Behr Bras. Fashions Unlmited even launched its own line of clothing, Wet Stone, which it’s selling online and showing at area events.

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“We tell people it’s made in Baltimore, and it’s made right here in a small factory,” Spector said. “They love that.”

Local makers have become more appealing to consumers looking for sustainable alternatives to “fast fashion,” which is seen as cheaper but disposable, some experts say.

“If you try to shop from a standpoint of sustainability and knowing who makes your clothes, it can be hard to do with mass supply chains," MICA’s Pass said. “But if you buy from somebody local, you might be able to meet them... and hear the story of how the product was made.”

Nicole Samodurov hopes to tap into that trend with a business she’s launched in a 19th Century rowhouse on North Calvert Street. The owner of Belvidere Terrace Atelier takes entrepreneurs’ ideas for clothing or other sewn goods from initial concept to production sample. Clients can then take those samples to a factory to have the garment made.

Nicole Samoduror runs an apparel design and development business in Mount Vernon, Belvidere Terrace Atelier, and hopes to grow garment making in Baltimore.

“There’s such a demand," said Samodurov, who has a background in fashion product development. “For people outside the L.A. or New York markets, there’s just not really anything available. Most people end up thinking they need to go up to New York."

Samodurov hopes her business and others like it can take root in Baltimore, offer options for local designers and help bring back well-paid skilled trade jobs for sewers, pattern makers and sample cutters. She now employs part-time seamstress Elena Santos, a Dundalk resident who learned to sew in her native Mexico.

With fashion programs at area schools and colleges, Samodurov said, “there’s definitely a next generation coming up, and they’re going to be looking for jobs.”

On a Saturday morning, Samodurov worked to perfect a sample of the “Daisy” dress, a French lace pencil dress in a collection by designer Stacy Stube. Samodurov fitted it on a dress form, adjusted it, then used a computer assisted design program to tweak the pattern. She laid lace fabric on a cutting table, placed a marker sheet on top and began cutting the scalloped hemline.

Stube, an Indonesian-born designer who grew up in Pigtown, came to the atelier to re-shore her line of modern vintage-look gowns from Indonesia to Baltimore. She started the brand Elsa Fitzgerald in Bali, where she lived for three years to be close to factories. But she returned to Baltimore to be closer to her family. She worked at Fashions Unlimited to learn the ropes in a factory and now works in her own studio.

As Samodurov pinned and cut, Stube consulted with her on revisions — an advantage, she said, of making garments close to home rather than overseas. She plans to create samples, launch a marketing campaign, pre-sell her collection and produce it based on those sales.

“Offshore, more than likely you’re going to be making at least a thousand units, and then the quality may not be of the standard that you need, whereas I would probably do 100,” said Stube, whose dresses start at $800 and have found a niche internationally among professional Asian women.

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She and Samodurov believe consumers are willing to pay higher prices that local designers must charge.

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“People want fewer garments in their closets, and they want them to be high quality, last longer and last through trends as well as time," Samodurov said.

DifferentRegard, which moved its showroom from Howard Street to Charles Street just over a year ago, mostly sells to professionals who want a unique look in everything from T-shirts and shorts to tuxedos and gowns. About a dozen clients have paid fees ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 for a new custom-designed wardrobe service.

Running their own production gives White and Davis creative control as well as a way to collaborate with local talent, Davis said. They’ve hired a pattern maker who is a MICA graduate, a lead seamstress with decades of experience and a production manager trained in fashion at Baltimore City Community College and fashion merchandising at Morgan State University. They bring in interns from Morgan State and Stevenson University and mentor high school students exploring careers in fashion.

“Baltimore is a great hub for creative energy," Davis said.

Jeremiah Jones hopes to nurture some of that creativity by using his soft goods manufacturing business, SewLab USA, based in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Johnston Square, as a catalyst to create jobs. He and his wife began making cycling pedal straps in Hampden a decade ago but ran into trouble when they tried to expand.

Lindsey Zuskin, 25, of Charles Village, has worked at SewLab USA on East Preston Street since October. She is sewing a backpack and said her job changes every day. A Baltimore native, she studied textiles at Rhode Island School of Design but moved to Tennessee when she couldn't find a job in Baltimore. She heard about openings at SewLab after following the soft-goods manufacturer on Instagram.
Lindsey Zuskin, 25, of Charles Village, has worked at SewLab USA on East Preston Street since October. She is sewing a backpack and said her job changes every day. A Baltimore native, she studied textiles at Rhode Island School of Design but moved to Tennessee when she couldn't find a job in Baltimore. She heard about openings at SewLab after following the soft-goods manufacturer on Instagram. (Lorraine Mirabella/Baltimore Sun)

“We quickly realized that no one knows how to sew anymore,” Jones said. “Every response that I got from a skilled individual, they were of retirement age already and looking for some part-time work and it wasn’t really sustainable for what we were trying to do.”

Their answer, in 2014, was SewLab, which makes tote bags, backpacks and other products for retail and wholesale, and still mass produces the cycling straps. In a brick warehouse on East Preston Street, they train workers, creating a labor supply for their own business and others in the city. Ultimately, Jones hopes to create a co-working incubator space for sewn goods makers, sewing machine mechanics, leather craft producers and others who could support each other’s work and boost the industry. SewLab now employs eight to 24 people, depending on workload.

Lindsey Zuskin, a 25-year-old Charles Village resident who grew up in Baltimore and learned to sew from her father, has worked at SewLab since October. She studied textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design but couldn’t find a job close to home and moved to Tennessee. Then she heard about the openings at SewLab.

“I followed them on Instagram for a long time, and they posted they were looking for people,” said Zuskin, taking a break from sewing a backpack.

It’s unlikely the city will ever regain its past concentration of garment jobs. Before World War I, Baltimore was a center for men’s clothing makers, fashioned by immigrant tailors in factories on the West Side, said Joseph Abel, research historian at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

When Fashions Unlimited’s Spector came to Baltimore in 1964, he found a job at a blouse maker in a downtown district where 25,000 sewers made raincoats, men’s suits and other garments. By contrast, in 2018 fewer than 600 sewing machine operators worked in the metro area that includes Baltimore, Columbia and Towson, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Spector never left the industry. He worked his way up from a loading job to plant manager, moving on to a coat making factory before opening Fashions Unlimited on Eutaw Street in 1974. The firm’s had big contracts with Danskin, Capezio and Hanes, and also has done work for Baltimore-based Under Armour, which has its own small-scale, custom manufacturing center called Lighthouse in Port Covington’s City Garage.

Though bigger brands tended to move on to bigger factories, many overseas, Spector said, new clients always stepped in to replace them.

On a recent morning, Spector walked the factory floor as rows of sewers put together tops for a transgender clothing line at specialized sewing machines, each with their own function, some dating back decades.

He met briefly with Ernie Talbert, a Baltimore resident thinking of starting a men’s line. Talbert came in to look over initial designs with product development director Jill Silverman, a recent University of Delaware fashion merchandising graduate.

“I’m really excited by the work they do, the quality we get," Talbert said. "We go through revisions and have conversations around the fit and the fabric. Did we hit the stitching right, and is this fabric falling on the body right? They can make those changes within the week. You can’t do that offshore.”

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