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August 25, 2012 at 7:28 PM

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Piecing together a fashion industry in Seattle


BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Marta Kappl consults with young designer Andres 'Andy' Pinedo, 21, of Yakima at 'House of Fashion', her Belltown storefront. One of Pinedo's handcrafted gowns is modeled by Aika Yokoyama, one of Kappl's interns.

When I was approached by my editor, Danny Gawlowski, to see if I was interested in doing a story on fashion, I wondered if he was blind.

I'm a photographer - and I dress like one. Not the stylish type portrayed in movies, with skinny jeans and scarves. The kind you see on the sidelines of a game, dodging flying athletes while wearing kneepads and fleece.

Nevertheless, I accepted, and a few weeks later was with reporter Jennifer Sullivan in Marta Kappl's House of Fashion in Belltown where he got the original idea for the story.



BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Erin Hilleary paints on silk in the front window of Marta Kappl's storefront fashion incubator, 'House of Fashion', located on Virginia street in Belltown. Kappl's fashions are for sale alongside local independent designers who work with her for mentoring and sewing workspace, which is in the back of the store.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Erin Hilleary, a self-taught artist working with Marta Kappl to learn more about fashion, paints a scene inspired by neolithic matriarchal civilizations' cave paintings. "People are wearing them, moving around, and living in them," said Hilleary. "It's like building the most beautiful 3D canvases."


Kappl has started a 'fashion incubator' here in Seattle, a popular concept in other cities, where fledgling designers work under the wing of a more established one to gain insight and on-the-job training. The day that we visited, one of her students, Erin Hilleary, was handpainting a gorgeous scene on a piece of silk in the front window.

From there, what started as a story about beautiful things to wear, started to take a turn. We dug into other local designers' struggles and victories, and I was lucky to meet Andy Pinedo, 21, of Yakima, a very talented young designer who came to House of Fashion to get advice from Kappl on where to start his career in fashion.

His gowns ranged from structured to ethereal, and were even more impressive when considering his age.



BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Aika Yokoyama looks at her reflection in the mirror while wearing a feather and mesh gown by young designer Andres 'Andy' Pinedo, 21, of Yakima at 'House of Fashion' in Belltown. Pinedo came to speak with owner Marta Kappl for advice on a career in fashion - Yokoyama is an intern for Kappl.

We then attended a competition of sorts that resembled a reality TV show but was held at the offices of Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman. Each designer was given the chance to pitch their fashion line for 10 minutes, competing for the chance to participate in a show during Fashion Week at The Bellevue Collection and network with local buyers. The show-like atmosphere was strange, but we connected with some talented designers who all lamented the same thing. For high fashion, manufacturing is the biggest problem to solve here in Seattle.



BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Sara Seumae, owner and designer at the SPUN Sustainable Collective in Seattle, shows off her line of fashions to judges for an independent designer competition for this year's Fashion Week at the Bellevue Collection, held by developer Kemper Freeman. Seumae's designs are made in the U.S. out of certified organic cotton, and sold in her Capitol Hill storefront alongside other local designers.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Sarah Butler of The Bellevue Collection helps wheel in a large gown by designer Olga Szwed, who currently works for private clients at La Belle Reve in Bellevue. Szwed earned a spot in the six finalists of the independent designer competition to be held during Fashion Week at The Bellevue Collection in September.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Kate Mensah, right, wheels out a dress from her Kreat-ika label as Cynarah Ellawala looks on to the left. Ellawala was a judge for the independent designers competition for Fashion Week at The Bellevue Collection, for which Mensah was chosen as one of six local designers to compete.

One of the designers we met, Banchong Douangphrachanh, let me come along with her to see some of the local manufacturing solutions she has found. The first was Paul Ulici, a knitwear technician who bought large industrial machines to carry on his craft in his garage and basement after being laid off from a local manufacturer years ago. And the second, Professional Sewing LLC in West Seattle, can bang out thousands of Kavu hats and Prairie Underground hoodies in no time. However, it took them seven weeks to make 50 pairs of tailored pants for her. Both of these relationships she has been building over time, but both were not readily apparent at first glance. She found Ulici through word of mouth and had to convince the Sok family, who owns Professional Sewing, to give her a shot. I thought this was a great summation of the fashion industry in Seattle.



BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Paul Ulici shows off an old Dubied knitwear machine in a spare bedroom workshop at his home in Redmond to Banchong Douangphrachanh, a local high-end menswear designer. Ulici started making knits for the government in Romania before emigrating to the United States many years ago. After being laid off from a local knitwear company, Ulici bought a couple of their large machines and became an independent knitwear technician. "He's like the soul of the knitwear," said Douangphrachanh, who is struggling to locate local companies to manufacture her clothes, and found him through word of mouth.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Paul Ulici, a freelance knitwear technician, and Banchong Douangphrachanh, a local high-end menswear designer, explain how a knitwear diagram is read.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Song Sok, one of the owners of Professional Sewing LLC in West Seattle, sews white hoodies for local clothing company Prairie Underground. Sok's company specializes in these cut-and-sew tasks, and can sew up to 2,000 of these hoodies per month. When approached by menswear designer Banchong Douangphrachanh to manufacture her line of high-end pants, it took seven weeks to make just 50 pairs. The sewing was so specialized that Mrs. Sok was the only employee skilled enough to sew them.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Hong Sok, owner of Professional Sewing LLC in West Seattle, shows off a KAVU hat his company specializes in making. Sok started a relationship with the founders of KAVU almost 20 years ago, and now specializes in cut-and-sew manufacturing of durable clothing and accessories for companies like Prairie Underground, Tarptents, and Alchemy Goods.

From there, I wanted to include the Apparel Design Program at Seattle Central Community College, where many local designers start, literally, learning how to thread a bobbin.



BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Scott Moy teaches students how to load a bobbin with thread during a beginning Construction and Patternmaking course in the Apparel and Design department at Seattle Central Community College. The class is a pre-requisite to get into the fashion program, for which most students used to come prepared with a little bit of sewing knowledge. "Nowadays, they're coming in cold," said Moy. "They sit down for their first class at an industrial sewing machine."

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Kitsy Roberts, 33, of Seattle, listens to instructor Scott Moy during a beginning Construction and Patternmaking course in the Apparel and Design department at Seattle Central Community College. The class is a pre-requisite to get into the fashion program. Roberts recently left a job doing office work and grant writing for a non-profit to start the program. "I wanted something that combined work with creativity," said Roberts. "I asked around, and found that this is the program. It's going to be super intense."

And to tie it all together, two recent graduates of Seattle Central, Jenny Mae Miller and Kristine Carlton, started a manufacturing company called Atelier Verdigris, in Sodo, to try and piece together a solution for the problems they saw. Something to bridge the large, daunting gap between a design, to a prototype to a manufactured, finished piece.



BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

From left, Russell McKinley, Jenny Mae Miller and Kristine Carlton work on a client's project at Atelier Verdigris at their design workshop in Sodo, Seattle. Co-owners Miller and Carlton started Atelier Verdigris in 2009 to fill a need for professional manufacturing for entrepreneurs in the area. "It's the non-glamorous side of the business," said Miller. "You really have to get dirt underneath your fingernails to sort it out," added Carlton. All three are graduates of Seattle Central Community College's Apparel and Design program.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

ZoÃÆ'Æ'« Sherman works on a client's project at Atelier Verdigris, a design workshop in Sodo, Seattle. Co-owners Jenny Mae Miller and Kristine Carlton started Atelier Verdigris in 2009 to fill a need for professional manufacturing on a smaller scale from sample to finish for entrepreneurs and businesses in the area.

What started as a piece about a beautiful, tailored look - ended up being about the struggle behind it. I guess I was dressed for it, after all.

To read the full story, check out Sunday's edition of Pacific Northwest magazine or follow this link.

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