Story by Rachel Schwartzmann – Discover Portland Garment Factory – Photos by Nicholas Peter Wilson
“In my experience the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of a factory is working conditions,”
Britt Howard, co-founder of Portland Garment Factory shared in our interview below. “My partner Rosemary and I have established feminist business practices that align with our personal values to create a framework, not only for making daily business decisions but, to inspire our employees and clients.” As the buzz around “fashion month” continues it’s (necessary) reign, we wanted to take a step back and focus our attention on another (and perhaps, overlooked) aspect of this dynamic industry, read: manufacturing – a key component that plays a vital part for both emerging and established brands alike. Though Britt and her business partner Rosemary’s efforts span far beyond redefining one’s perception of how a factory should look and operate. As she shared in our interview, “You can have the most modern machines but without true, sincere, practiced values, you are not modern.” With this in mind, they’ve made it their mission to have Portland Garment Factory serve as a vehicle for something much bigger by empowering women within their own community and with the intention to do so on a global scale.
Closer to home and in our stories so far, we’ve become fascinated with Portland’s dedication to fostering it’s small shop community and the equal enthusiasm from each of the owners at the helm of their respective business. As Britt put it, “The people of Portland are not naysayers (which I have experienced in other places). They are open and forgiving when it comes to “weird” notions and innovative ideas. We are dealing with some deeply creative people in this town who don’t have much ego on their sleeve….” This growing collective shift and consciousness has resulted in a movement to re-humanize parts of the fashion (and maker) industries – in fact, we’ve found that this has become a big motivation for many of the owners we’ve spoken with. So, you can imagine how thrilled we were to have the opportunity to speak with Britt about these ideas as it pertains to her line of work, as well as pay a visit to the institution that’s setting a new and necessary standard for both creativity and business. Discover our full conversation below, where Britt shares more on her professional background, thoughts on creativity and life in Portland featuring snapshots of Britt, Rosemary and Portland Garment Factory by Nicholas Peter Wilson for The Style Line.
I am Britt Howard and when I am not the co-owner of PGF and designer of HOWARD I enjoy my family.
My son is in high school and my little mini-me is 8. I pack lunches, volunteer to make the costumes and basically have an excuse to act silly and have a dance party whenever I want. I am married to a biologist who studies insects and evolution, his work is very inspiring. I am a recovering vintage hoarder and have a mad collection of white ceramics and OPP (Other People’s Pottery-think wacky homemade vessels signed “Susie, ‘85”). I value steam rooms, house plants, I can’t do anything without music on and I am passionate about global women’s issues. I try to find time to make sculptures, dream about the performance art I want to make with my husband (stay tuned) and drink wine. I am just a babe trying to squeeze the sponge of life.
We noticed you preface your story with everyone having a pre-concieved notion of what a factory is and it’s role in an industry like fashion. With this in mind, how is PGF breaking the mold and redefining the standards for a modern factory in a modern age?
In my experience the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of a factory is working conditions. My partner Rosemary and I have established feminist business practices that align with our personal values to create a framework, not only for making daily business decisions but, to inspire our employees and clients. It is basic: family, trust, hard work and fun. I feel that by defining these values and empowering the 17 women who work here, we are breaking the mold of the polarized, dark factory conditions (which I have seen in this country). Defining values in a factory is the most simple and modern way in which we redefine the standard factory setting but feminist business practices can be applied to any business! This is a topic very dear to me, that I could go on and on. You can have the most modern machines but without true, sincere, practiced values, you are not modern.
Based on your experience what would you say is creative about life/work in a place like PGF?
PGF is the most creative thing I have ever been a part of. Over the years we have been given some very interesting opportunities to shine creatively and work collectively on. For instance, my partner and I designed and made the flight attendant uniforms for Michael Jordan’s private jet crew. We even met MJ and the crew! We have also helped create retro costumes for a commercial on a 48 hour turnaround, knitted a 40-foot long replica of the Chicago city flag and sewn a huge inflatable lung! We are not only a cut and sew shop but a full scale prototyping and creative partner.
The in-house designed Howard collection is one of the most creative ongoing projects we work on as well because it taps into every department at PGF from sourcing materials, pattern drafting and fitting to full on production and quality control. We all love doing Howard and it’s a champagne day when we ship the last box each season!
How would you characterize the PGF community?
Diverse, familial, feminine, gritty and innovative.
Why does PGF make sense in a city like Portland and do you see your way of working translating into another city/industry/environment?
Portland is “easy” when compared to SF or NY when we talk about commutes or competitiveness. On the other hand Portland has some gritty folks here and that is what it takes to keep a factory going. The DIY spirit has roots in the NW and it has carried itself into many of our industries (obviously music and art but food and fashion are right there too). The people of Portland are not naysayers (which I have experienced in other places). They are open and forgiving when it comes to “weird” notions and innovative ideas. We are dealing with some deeply creative people in this town who don’t have much ego on their sleeve.
I do however, think our model could branch into multiple locations in different cities. The history of the city could speak to the niche of a particular factory. In other words, if the history is weaving or denim productions, (etc.), that would be the niche. It’s definitely something we have thought about!
How do you celebrate personal style?
I celebrate personal style by visiting my closet like it’s a pharmacist. It’s a druggy concoction sometimes! For instance, symptoms: giddy mood, busy work day, must work in wearing the new shoes. Or maybe it’s rushed meets feeling inspired meets dinner date. Most days my style is mom life, gym stop, factory floor. My accessories may include: huge brass cuff, essential oils, a green smoothie, chipped nails, softest black cloak thing and headphones.
What is one question you wish people asked you more often?
I like this Q: What was the last thing you read, saw and heard that inspired you? Answers: The Folded Clock, Carol (named a dress after it this season) and we saw the french band Magma live. Just google them. Incredible!
What role do you think creativity plays in some of the world’s bigger conversations and how do you think PGF is contributing to this shift in thinking?
Creativity leads to innovation which leads to a shift in thinking. I love this question!
One of the biggest global conversations that I am interested in is the motion for change surrounding the opportunity for women, on a global scale, to be granted access to birth control, education and political leadership roles. In this regard, PGF is contributing to this by proposing and carrying out a set of values that empower women within our building and far into the community. Empowerment on a micro level will spread globally and even this interview can help right?! One new endeavor for me and Rosemary is setting up a partnership with the women’s prison here in Oregon. It’s in planning stages but may end up as a factory sewing certification program for women who are being released from prison. This is a vulnerable population who I believe have tons of life experience that could be channeled into greater things. We are creatively approaching all issues dear to us. Within the factory we have implemented a ZERO-WASTE on the fabric and material. This has been a labor of love. We are happy to report that by getting creative we were able to find many outlets for different types of scraps. After putting a plan together that involves bins and sorting, we do not throw away ANY fabric at this facility.
The Style Line was built on the premise of discovery, exploration and transit. With this in mind, what is your “the style line” in your wardrobe?
My wardrobe is inspired by getting the most out of the day with the goal of laughing, being healthy and looking chic as hell. So I suppose my gym shoes and Howard jumper layered with our Duster is my go-to because I can look polished, never revealing that I feel like I am in lux pjs. I need to be able to take the widest step and get a ton of stuff done without fussiness. I’ll put on heels when it counts though!
How would you like to see PGF contribute to the city as a whole?
Moving into our 8th year in business, we wish first and foremost to continue creating meaningful partnerships with like minded companies and individuals in a joyful setting where we make impossible deadlines and the feat of grandeur a reality! PGF has a positive impact on our economy. As an authority in our realm of manufacturing, we hope to contribute to Portland by adding to the conversation about sustainable business practices and learn from all the other amazing companies in this town. Rosemary and I have learned so much and look forward to continuing to share that with our city by speaking at events, school, leading workshops and shining a light on all the good happening in Portland whenever possible. Ultimately we view PGF as an institution.