Published Work

The Philly art museum has elevated its shops, linking them more than ever to the galleries, the community and the world

The new director of retail has opened two stores inside the museum, is now selling the work of 90 local artists and revamped the web site to sell around the world.

BY Kathleen Nicholson Webber

When celebrated architect Frank Gehry created the long-awaited CORE project addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he carved out two spaces for retail stores just outside the galleries he envisioned. His prominent design underscores the importance of retail to the museum. Each store was to be a thoughtful reflection of the galleries it flanks.

Filling those stores was the job of Christine Kostyrka, who had just been appointed director of retail in 2019, and her buying and merchandising team. They were tasked with designing and outfitting the two new stores and felt the weight of the responsibility of measuring up to the architect’s work. The Design store aimed to celebrate modern and contemporary design and feature global and local jewelry, home décor, and apparel, while the early-American gallery store had to embody a craft feel, featuring papercuts, pottery, rugs, glass and quilted textiles.

The result is two newly merchandised brick-and-mortar shops that opened in May 2021, featuring the work of more than 90 local artists, along with a revamped main store, and an overhauled website that has enjoyed a dramatic rise in sales and set a new paradigm for retail at the museum. The stores are bringing a new infusion of money at a time when the museum is grappling with the impact of the pandemic.

“A retail store at a museum should be better than a regular retail store; your expectations should be higher because you’re in a museum,” Kostyrka said. “It should be the idea of learning something new and finding something you’ve never seen before.”Advertisement

» READ MORE: Shop here at the Museum

Kostyrka became just the third retail director there in 30 years. She was granted carte blanche to create a more elevated shopping experience. She approached these new shops like a start-up, employing the innovative, forward-thinking skills she sharpened during her 30-year retail career at top lifestyle brands such as Urban Outfitters.

“For whatever reason, I’ve joined companies just as they were transforming into something else,” Kostyrka said. “I would much rather work on that idea of building something from the ground up than walking into an established business.”

Revenue at museums comes from donors and endowments, memberships, and admissions, and often overlooked is the contribution of retail operations. According to the Museum Store Association, museums make from about 5% to 25% of annual cash flow from their stores. Some museums hire buying offices or retail experts such as Kostyrka and her team to handle purchasing in a more systematic fashion. In 2019, retail operation sales at the Philadelphia museum tallied $3.06 million and accounted for about 4.75% of total operating revenue and support, according to an audit of the institution’s finances.Advertisement

“Every museum has to decide whether or not they want to invest in retail,” said Alia Gray, sales director at Aesthetic Movement, a New York-based global buying office that sells to museum stores including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New York and San Francisco Museums of Modern Art. “They have to understand it is an investment and it is something that draws eyes and ears and profit to museums in a way that can be done with integrity.”

Books are displayed in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum has three shops, the Main Store, the American Gallery Store and the Design Store.
Books are displayed in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum has three shops, the Main Store, the American Gallery Store and the Design Store.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Kostyrka is well-suited for her role; as much at home in her duties focused on commerce as those that demand a trained eye for art. The native New Yorker spent her youth roaming the Metropolitan Museum of Art, studied painting at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and even taught art briefly. Feeling the pinch of the scarcity of jobs in the arts, Kostyrka changed directions and opened a home goods store on Long Island with no previous retail experience while in her 20s. That led to her three-decade run at such brands as Martha Stewart and Urban Outfitters, where she was the head of the $90 million home category.

At the Philadelphia museum, she would have to draw on all her experience. Not only was Kostyrka undertaking a crucial portion of what amounted to Gehry’s reinvigoration of the main museum building, built in 1928. But she also would have to do all that in the middle of a global economic meltdown.Advertisement

Soon after her arrival, the pandemic struck, shuttering the museum and drying up the foot traffic that its stores depended on. The revamped original store was open just six months when COVID-19 shut the museum down while the new stores were still under construction. Retail sales operations tumbled 40% in 2020 from the previous year to $1.8 million, according to the museum audit.

The Philly Moon Tarot T-Shirt by James Boyle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Philly Moon Tarot T-Shirt by James Boyle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Other U.S. museums took a similar hit. A 2021 study on COVID’s impact by the American Alliance of Museums found that three-quarters of museums reported, on average, a 40% drop in operating income in 2020. Museums were closed to the public an average of 28 weeks out of the year due to the health crisis, according to the study. The pandemic shuttered the Philadelphia Museum of Art for eight months in 2020. While 2021 sales figures are still being tallied, foot traffic is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, according to a museum spokesperson.

“After the pandemic, the stores were the last thing on everyone’s budget list,” Gray said of museums broadly.Advertisement

The pre-pandemic museum store formula was to rely on visitors and blockbuster shows to sell exhibit books and products. It could be profitable if you had blockbuster exhibits and hordes of visitors.

With the museum doors closed, Kostyrka and her team of three buyers, a merchandise manager, visual merchandiser, and operations manager pivoted to expanding the lackluster website, beefing up the selection from 300 products to 1,500 items and signing a contract for a new web platform.

The merchandising team had little experience with ecommerce but Kostyrka did. “We didn’t have a great product. There was no point of view and the photography wasn’t great,” Kostyrka said.

They worked with a graphic designer to create web pages that made it easier to shop and created product categories aimed at broadening the customer base. The site began drawing customers from all over the world. Web sales soared, increasing by 75% in 2020 from 2019, Kostyrka said, declining to share specific revenues.Advertisement

To create buzz about products, Kostyrka started Instagram and Facebook pages for the stores. “We have recently started experimenting with video via IG [Instagram] Reels and TikTok and the response has been great,” she said. “So much of what we sell has a story, and that story adds value so must be told visually and in an easily digestible, compelling way.”

Kostyrka said it was important that she be as careful in the curation of her offerings as the rest of the museum. Half of the shelves of the main store were previously stocked with books that sometimes sat for years, gathering dust. Now a carefully selected assortment of hard-to-find books from European and small, independent publishers makes up a quarter of inventory.

Buyer Choti Weiler discovered new publishers abroad, as well as local independent imprints such as Beehive Books in the city. Each store in the museum now has its own selection of culturally relevant books on such subjects as female designers and African American artists. Kostyrka worked with the museum’s education department to carry books from visiting authors. The result was that books have since become the retail operation’s top-selling category.

The art museum celebrates local artists

The pandemic stirred up more challenges than just diminished foot traffic. The museum wasn’t immune to the tangled supply chains that threatened other retail operations. Kostyrka increased her reliance on local artists and vendors, a move she had intended to make before the pandemic.

“Local has meant we have more opportunities for collaborations and custom designs,” she said. It also means a quick turnaround and fewer supply chain issues.

Local artists now account for 25% of the products in the total retail mix, Kostyrka estimated. She cites the example of Kristen Buck, an artist who makes pie plates, mugs and bowls with a mystical vibe.

Buck said Kostyrka discovered her work at a crafters market and invited her to the museum to talk about collaborating. “It is an amazing privilege to be in these stores, the ultimate compliment,” Buck said. The museum has sold dozens of her pieces and she said that allows her to support herself with her work.

“Many of the local Philly makers grew up going to this museum; it’s like their home,” Kostyrka said. “To be able to partner with them in that way and support them in that way has been a gift.”

The curators appreciated how the galleries and shops are tied together. “Christine and [merchandise manager] David Lincoln looked hard at the collection, talked to us about the installation plan, and made a big effort to find local artists making work that responded creatively to the objects in the galleries, from wood and glass and ceramics to textiles and painted objects,” said Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American Art. “It is also great to support our local artists, and brings a unique Philadelphia flavor to our visitors.”

Pencils on display in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Pencils on display in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Drawing with the Diana pencil

Kostyrka has products that cost less than $5 and some that are $5,000. A bestseller resulted through a partnership with Blackwing pencils, a highly collectible brand and popular with art students who sketch when visiting the galleries. Blackwing worked with Lincoln to create an all-gold Diana pencil, embossed with an arrow, in honor of the Diana sculpture in the Great Stair Hall at the museum. A box of 12 costs $35.

Since launching the product in late 2019, the museum has sold close to 3,000 units, mostly to collectors in Japan, Korea, Australia and the U.K.

Analytics have shown that half of online purchases are made using a phone, so Kostyrka plans to launch a test of text message marketing this spring. She and her staff began using Lucky Orange, a heat mapping tool in April 2020 that gives a glimpse of what customers are searching for on the website in real time and includes functions that allows museum staff to assist with purchases in real time.

Kostyrka spends a lot of time on that app, answering questions to better understand the online customer. “COVID has shown us the necessity, not only from a retail perspective, but just from a content perspective, of chatting and engaging with potential visitors when they can’t come through the doors,” she said. “[Digital] is not an area where I think a lot of museums have invested money, but I think a lot of that is changing.”

This spring, Kostyrka aims to stage a pop-up market, inviting local artisans to sell at the museum. Like any start-up, Kostyrka plans to be nimble and reexamine her needs and new opportunities. One idea is to look at licensing opportunities to use their imagery on such lifestyle products as fashion or home items. “It gives us better margin, and unique products you can’t find anywhere else, which helps us turn the page from the expected to surprise and delight.”

So far, the administration is encouraged. The retail operations team prioritized telling Philadelphia stories, appealing to diverse audiences, insisting on ethical and sustainable manufacturing and responsible packaging, said Leslie Anne Miller, chair of the museum’s board.

“One of our stores celebrates our new galleries for early American art, and each time I go through, I smile knowing that everything it offers opens a little window on history and the collection,” Miller said. “That the store achieves this with style, humor, sophistication, and a love of the museum speaks to all we’ve been trying to achieve in the retail experience.”Published Jan. 23, 2022

Boathouse Sports — a true life apparel maker in Philly — has ambitious plans to grow

Former Olympic rower John Strotbeck dreams of employing thousands of people at his sports apparel factory in North Philadelphia. His firm is also opening five physical stores.

by Kathleen Nicholson Webber for the Inquirer
Dec 27, 2021

Workers sew garments at the Boathouse Sports plant floor on Hunting Park Avenue in Philadelphia. Boathouse is trying to reinvent itself with new products.
Workers sew garments at the Boathouse Sports plant floor on Hunting Park Avenue in Philadelphia. Boathouse is trying to reinvent itself with new products.JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

John Strotbeck estimates he’s outfitted millions of athletes through Philadelphia-based Boathouse Sports, selling a million units of outerwear and athletic gear to professional, college, and high school athletes annually for the last 20 years.

Now he is betting that some of those athletes, now in their 30s to 50s, will buy Boathouse apparel for nostalgia reasons, reminding them of the “best years of their lives.”

The pandemic torpedoed Boathouse’s business in 2020, as it did to many others. Between the state restrictions placed on nonessential businesses and the halt to team sports for longer than expected, Boathouse could no longer rely on its typical customers.

“COVID cost us 50% of our business over the course of about 18 months,” said Strotbeck, whose company adapted in part by making tens of thousands of masks for doctors, nurses, and Wawa workers.

And while business has now almost entirely recovered, Strotbeck saw big changes in consumer behavior and preferences and felt the firm had to diversify its sales and marketing channels.

The plan: continue outfitting teams but pivot to more consumer channels. Strotbeck recognized he needed help building a consumer brand from the company he launched in 1985, between his appearances for the U.S. Olympic rowing team at the 1984 and 1988 Games.

“I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” Strotbeck said. So, 13 months ago, he hired a CEO, Cindy DiPietrantonio, former chief operating officer of Sidney Kimmel’s Jones Apparel Group who managed seven acquisitions for the $4.5 billion company and a multitude of labels like Stuart Weitzman, Nine West, and Jones New York. She also led jewelry brand Alex and Ani.

The ambitious 90-day plan that DiPietrantonio started with had to be tossed out when COVID-19 lingered. The firm’s labor force fell off drastically, Strotbeck was sidelined with the virus, and a malware attack had the new CEO scribbling financials on the back of a napkin.

Big changes are coming

It took some time to steady the ship, but now its e-commerce consumer business is ramping up, currently 10% of sales — representing a 34% rise over last year. The company has set a goal of 30% for online’s share of total sales for next year.

Cindy DiPietrantonio, CEO at Boathouse Sports, poses for a portrait at its headquarters in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, 2020.
Cindy DiPietrantonio, CEO at Boathouse Sports, poses for a portrait at its headquarters in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, 2020.DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

And it is investing in brick-and-mortar stores — this fall in Nantucket, Mass., and in the spring, five additional stores in other tony waterfront towns like Annapolis, Md.

“Our goal is to make it more accessible by selling in key retailers, Boathouse branded pop-ups as well as and through collaborations,” DiPietrantonio said.

Nantucket was a natural because the firm has a strong customer base in Boston, a big rowing town. Boathouse sold to Nantucket’s TownPool, whose owner wore the product as a prep school and college athlete. And when inventory thinned there, it got a lift in sales on the website in the Boston area.

The CEO also beefed up her team and hired a director of e-commerce and marketing, directors of operations and finance, and merchandising and design associates. The firm uses an agency to help with search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click advertising while in-house employees handle other digital marketing and social media.

DiPietrantonio also spent lots of time listening to consumers and learning the brand’s DNA.

“Our consumers have an emotional attachment to what they wore in high school or prep school, so we’ve made a few tweaks to styles and we have branded it with Boathouse,” she said.

Top sellers

There’s a new version of Strotbeck’s first rowing jacket, the Gore-tex Stevenson jacket ($108-$264), a refashioned long swim parka that just hit the site ($198), and in 2022, the restyled retro Coaches Only jacket ($168).

Top sellers include the “trou” compression (rowing shorts, $38 to $88) that customers wear to run, bike, or row in, the journey short ($52), and pants ($68), its version of a jogger.

Last spring the firm launched the Tailwind hoodie ($78-$88) and sold more than 1,000 units by repeatedly tweaking the product with new colors and patterns.

Founder John Strotbeck helped package an order of face masks for shipping at the Boathouse Sports factory in North Philadelphia on April 14, 2020. The company, which normally manufactures custom sports apparel, switched to making personal protective equipment during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic.
Founder John Strotbeck helped package an order of face masks for shipping at the Boathouse Sports factory in North Philadelphia on April 14, 2020. The company, which normally manufactures custom sports apparel, switched to making personal protective equipment during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

DiPietrantonio has worked with the design team to introduce new prints using a technology that Strotbeck invested in almost 15 years ago to compete with shoe brands called sublimation. It’s the process by which a digital image is fused to the performance fabric using a heat transfer process and expensive equipment.

The company added sublimation in 2007 to fend off the shoe brands like Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas that ate away at its college team business. It was a relatively unknown process but now accounts for 70% of uniforms. Strotbeck estimates he has invested $1 million in equipment alone to be able to customize apparel.

» READ MORE: This Norristown sports gear maker took a ‘Just Do It!’ attitude and whipped Nike in court

While the athletic apparel sector is wildly competitive, DiPietrantonio said there is room for more players. “Our competition is not the shoe brands and it’s not Lululemon, Athleta, or Outdoor Voices. I think there’s white space between those two categories for a quality, authentic outerwear and accessories brand. And that’s really where we fit.”

There are two groups the brand resonates with: the former athletes who wore Boathouse, and the 15- to 25-year-olds seeking an alternative to the large brands.

“They’re looking for companies that represent more than just making a buck,” said Strotbeck. “We make everything in the USA. That’s important to people. It should be. It’s more important now post-COVID than it was pre-, being a socially responsible company.”

DiPietrantonio said the firm pays at least $12 an hour for sewers — a rise from $10 pre-pandemic — along with health insurance and a 401(k). “We gave out [pay] increases in 2021 and will in 2022,” she said. “My goal is not to be competitive but to have some of the best wages in the industry.”

While many companies are dealing with far-off supply problems, Boathouse’s pain points have been closer to home: finding enough local factory workers and navigating the domestic trucker shortage.

Still, the firm has been lucky. “Where most companies are dealing with 14 to 19 weeks from order to customer delivery, we are dealing with five to seven,” DiPietrantonio said.

Pre-COVD Boathouse had 225 employees, 170 at the factory alone. After the pandemic drained the workforce, the firm now totals 170 and 80 at the factory.

“We are finding it very difficult to get people to come back or just hire new people,” Strotbeck said, despite the safety precautions in place.

The company is offering finder’s fees for new hires and training for new factory employees. Boathouse has had to find local factories to outsource work to fill orders or turn them down.

“This is a national issue; it might be an international issue,” he said.

Its current 100,000-square-foot facility was intentionally chosen where he could find apparel craftspeople. Boathouse was courted by officials in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Kentucky to move there in the late 1990s when the firm had outgrown its 20,000-square-foot Wissahickon Industrial Center facility.

“We made an educated guess that, while pay was lower in the South, it would be hard to find workers in a few years as the auto industry and data processing were investing heavily in the regions. We decided to stay in Philly.”

He took out a map and put pins on where all his employees lived. The company opened its Hunting Park Avenue facility in 2000, hoping eventually to quadruple the production capacity.

That hasn’t yet happened. But “I have this dream. I’d love to employ thousands of people in Philadelphia, and I think that is achievable.”

“I know product and she knows brands, consumers, and how to grow a business, particularly in the retail side,” said the founder, deferring to his new CEO. “ She’s definitely going to take us to very big places.”

A Brooklyn nonprofit comes to Philly to recycle clothing waste across the Mid-Atlantic

Fabscrap hopes to sign up 20 to 25 brands to recycle textile waste in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and southern New Jersey areas over the next year.

Camille Tagle, co-founder and creative director, and Jessica Schreiber, founder and CEO, posed for a portrait at the new Fabscrap location in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia, on November 15, 2021. Fabscrap is a textile reuse and recycling company.. … Read more

MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Fabscrap hopes to sign up 20 to 25 brands to recycle textile waste in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and southern New Jersey areas over the next year.

by Kathleen Nicholson Webber, For The InquirerPublished Nov. 15, 2021

In fashion, the design room is the laboratory where each new season begins — and where the waste stream starts, too.

Designers, seamstresses, pattern-makers and cutters hover around the dress form, cutting, pinning and draping a style that can eventually end up on a clothing line.

But once that sampling process is done, all around that mannequin are piles of cutting waste, leftover sample yardage, swatches of various colors, and mutilated samples that are of no use to the design house. This waste is generated every season and the responsible disposal of it is an enormous problem for the industry, one that has a multitude of environmental repercussions.

Fabscrap, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, is addressing it by opening a Mid-Atlantic hub in Philadelphia in the artist-and-designer-filled Bok building on Nov. 15, World Recycling Day.ADVERTISEMENT

Fabscrap hopes to sign up 20 to 25 brands for service in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and South Jersey areas in the next year. Companies send the group more each year “because they are happy to find a responsible good outlet for all their design materials,” said Jessica Schreiber, Fabscrap’s CEO. “They start with fabric, but then we’ll receive buttons, leathers, yarn, ribbon, etc.”

Volunteers sort through textiles at the new Fabscrap location in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia on November 15, 2021. Fabscrap is a textile reuse and recycling company.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Fabscrap’s fashion roots

In 2016, Fabscrap, opened in Brooklyn to work with fashion, interior design, and entertainment companies, collecting their unwanted fabrics to recycle and save from landfills. It has worked with 550 brands and, for a small fee, picks up an average of 6,000 pounds of textiles a week from customers. It sorts and decides what can be reused, recycled or sold. The group will soon reach its one millionth pound spared from a landfill.

This facility will work with local recycling company Retrievr, a residential textile collection company, to collect waste here. The former Bok school’s 6,800-square-foot cafeteria now will house 16 fabric-sorting stations, a fabric resale shop and an area to showcase the work of one designer a month who uses recycled materials in clothes.ADVERTISEMENT

This month’s designer is the sustainable clothing store Grant Blvd.

Volunteers, totaling 7,000 so far in New York, are compensated with five pounds of free fabric per three-hour session and will sort the fabric by fiber for resale. Some smaller scraps are sold to companies that shred it for use as insulation or fabric stuffing.

» READ MORE: Text ‘Pick-Up’: Towns are partnering with an app to recycle residents’ electronics and clothes

Urban Outfitters eager to recycle

Fabscrap received a working capital grant from Philly-based fashion company Urban Outfitters Inc. to secure the new facility and provide general operating funds for the first two years here.

Fabscrap first began working with Urban in 2019 as Allie Noll, the firm’s manager of global sustainability and sourcing operations, searched for a company to recycle its waste from the sampling process. In 2019, she was connected with Fabscrap and shipped 246 pounds of cutting waste to the New York facility. In 2020, Fabscrap recycled more than 1,100 pounds for the Philly-based company. That’s when the partnership talks began.ADVERTISEMENT

“It happened pretty mutually,“ said Fabscrap’s Schreiber. “We were looking to grow and needed support,” while Urban wanted to explore a deeper commitment to sustainability.

The Anthropologie store at 18th and Walnut in Center City is photographed on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Urban is helping the Brooklyn-based Fabscrap grow in Philadelphia.HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

“Urban suggested Philadelphia and we already had great connections with organizations, institutions, and programs in Philadelphia so it seemed like the right next step,” she said. To date, the company has signed on Urban and its brands; Wolhide, Lillies and Loaves, and Cupid Intimates and just finished service agreements with eight other companies in the area.

“We’re expecting about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds per month, and then growing after that as we meet more of the industry here, as well as companies in Baltimore, DC, and southern New Jersey,” she said.ADVERTISEMENT

Globally, 53 million tons of textiles are used to create clothing each year and about 12% of that is wasted during design and production, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to create a circular economy that eliminates waste and pollution.

The scale of the problem in Philadelphia is harder to quantify. While the Office of Sustainability has figures for residential textile waste (linens, clothing and towels tossed by households), it has none for commercial waste because businesses contract with their own private haulers, which aren’t required to report those figures to the city.

Nordstrom helps assemble the data

“The main thing that we are hearing is that it’s precisely because commercial textile waste is not measured or tracked that Fabscrap services are so needed,” Schreiber said. At its offices, each bag collected is weighed, sorted by company and fiber, and kept in a database. Each company can see how much it has recycled in a year, a useful metric for sustainability reports.

Nordstrom has also partnered with Fabscrap with a grant to fund the Fabscrap Partner Portal, which allows every customer access to its diversion and environmental impact data, increasing supply chain visibility, and improving decisions throughout the supply chain.ADVERTISEMENT

Residential textile waste is 6% to 6.5% of the total waste stream here. To calculate those figures, the city does a waste characterization study by picking through samplings of trash over several months and weighing it by category.

Bins of fabric scraps for sale at the new Fabscrap location in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia on November 15, 2021. Fabscrap is a textile reuse and recycling company.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Helena Rudoff, waste reduction lead in the city’s Office of Sustainability, estimates that residential and commercial textiles together could be 10% to 15% of the total waste stream.

“Right now, if you are a design house or another business and only being serviced by the Streets Department, your textiles aren’t being recycled.”

» READ MORE: Fast-fashion heiress asks shoppers to buy less in green push

Philadelphia trash goes to landfills, such as the 250-acre Waste Management facility in Fairless Hills, Bucks County or to be burned at the Covanta facility in Chester. The Waste Management site, opened in 2016, is already close to 50% full and it is hard to know how long it will take to become filled.

“Their work not only conserves landfill space but also gives new value to the energy and raw materials that went into producing these textiles,” said Waste Management’s John Hambrose, referring to Fabscrap’s work.

The number of stakeholders interested in re-thinking waste here is growing each month. “The issue with waste is, we eventually run out of places to put it, ” said the city’s Rudoff. “Textiles are high-value waste, meaning the value of the material if you recycle it is higher than if it goes to a landfill.”

She works with such groups as Circular Philadelphia, which opened in June, and hopes eventually to work on the policy side of the problem. In New York, by law, if a fashion house generates more than 10% of its waste in textiles, it has to be recycled.

Samantha Wittchen, director of programs and operations at Circular Philadelphia, is working on a Textile Recycling Task force, along with Rachel Mednick of All Together Now PA.

Wittchen would like to attract a large-scale textile recycling facility to open in the Philadelphia region. Right now, the closest ones are in North Carolina. Better data can help them effect policy changes locally similar to what New York City has in place and would be even more powerful if statewide data could be captured.

“Are there opportunities at the state level to ban putting textiles in a landfill?” said Wittchen.

Kabira Stokes, CEO of Retrievr, said her broader vision for her group and for the city, is also to set up a full circular textile recycling plant somewhere in Pennsylvania. “It’s the only way we will be able to certify that the responsible outcomes are happening with what people are giving us.”

Volunteer Marsha Sickles, from West Philly, sorts through fabric scraps at the new Fabscrap location in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia, on November 15, 2021. Fabscrap is a textile reuse and recycling company. Sickles has volunteered at the Brooklyn location and is a designer who makes hats, bags and other accessories.. … Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

For Schreiber and her co-founder and creative director, Camille Tagle, the mission for Fabscrap has always included education, especially at the university level.

For five years, Tagle has worked with Drexel University senior fashion design majors in a capstone project that has her selecting and donating fabric for them to create a design using zero waste design practices. “Those students have gone on and worked in the industry and they get their companies to work with Fabscrap or to focus on more sustainable practices,” Tagle said.

Ed Gribbin is helping to create Made in America PPE for hospital systems in the US.

High Demand for Medical Gowns Could Boost the Made in Americas movement; A Philly-area supply chain expert explains.

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Open back, tie at the neck, tie at the waist, perforated (for easy tear off), slit cuff, thumb loop cuff, elastic cuff, disposable, reusable: Ed Gribbin can tell you that there is nothing simple about a medical gown.

His Merion Station office has three dozen medical gowns of every style, each serving a different purpose and each requiring a different performance textile, thread, expertise and equipment to make. Gribbin runs his own supply chain strategy consultancy in a field that skyrocketed to prominence with the coronavirus pandemic as hospitals and governments have competed for gowns, masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) vital to safe testing and treatment.

And as the pandemic wears on, his industry is seeing demand not only for more products, but also for goods made in North, Central and South America.

Coronavirus Coverage

“Talking to hospitals, chief medical officers and purchasing chiefs at government agencies, there is a huge distrust of importing product from China,” Gribbin said.“Add that to the current trade tensions we have with China and the fact that at any given moment the administration could pull the plug and say the border is shut and we aren’t bringing anything in, everyone is a little skittish. We don’t want to be as reliant on China for production as we have in the past. The fact of the matter is we want to build a permanent supply chain here.”

In January, when few Americans had even heard of the coronavirus, Gribbin became president of the Americas Apparel Producers Network, with members across the globe encompassing the 30 links of the apparel supply chain “from the dirt to the shirt,” as he puts it.

Science-based coverage sent each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night to your inbox.

At the start of the pandemic, the group set up a site where suppliers could post their capacity to make critical PPE. Within 15 minutes of going live, it was flooded with posts from 1,000 companies offering capabilities, advice and tools, said Mike Todaro, managing director of AAPN.

“The postings were surprising. Fifty percent who had cut-and-sew capabilities were not in apparel. One was a parachute maker, and awning, tent and umbrella makers. They were people with ingenuity, reinventing their businesses to keep their lights on and help make PPE,” Gribbin said.

Ed Gribbin, who runs an apparel consultancy firm and is president of the Americas Apparel Producers Network, wears a washable face mask at his home in Merion Station. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gribbin is now focused on coordinating the manufacturing of isolation gowns and face masks.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer Ed Gribbin, who runs an apparel consultancy firm and is president of the Americas Apparel Producers Network, wears a washable face mask at his home in Merion Station. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gribbin is now focused on coordinating the manufacturing of isolation gowns and face masks.

He had the Herculean task of categorizing those posts and building spreadsheets playing matchmaker to connect fabric mills with cut-and-sew operations to coordinate the production of critical medical supplies for hospital systems and FEMA. When Emory University asked Todaro for 90,000 gowns by June, he and Gribbin coordinated the effort. More than two dozen network members pitched in, among them Philadelphia’s Boathouse Sports.

Before March, more than 90 percent of gowns were made in and around China, which went into lockdown because of the virus. Supply chains were shut down, and hospitals had nowhere near the inventory that they needed.


“The demand for gowns in medical and nonmedical applications on a month-to-month basis is running 10 times what it was a year ago in July because so many people are using them that never used them before,” Gribbin said.

» READ MORE: Medical PPE is still so scarce after months of COVID-19, volunteers keep hunting for lifesaving supplies

Doctor’s offices, dental and ophthalmologist practices, police departments and rescue workers all need gowns, often for the first time. And hospitals need many more gowns than ever.

“We just learned that FEMA wants 263 million gowns in the next six months when their original estimate had been 110 million,” Gribbin said.


Gribbin thinks he can work with three facilities in California, Cambodia and Colombia to start on that order with 20 million gowns.

But even as supply chains from China reopen, he said, it’s clear that demand for products made in North and South America is high.

Made in the Americas is preferred. “There is a huge distrust of importing product from China,” Gribbin said. “Add that to the current trade tensions we have with China and the fact that at any given moment the administration could pull the plug and say the border is shut.”

“Everyone is a little skittish. We don’t want to be as reliant on China for production as we have in the past,” he said. “We want to build a permanent supply chain here.”


» READ MORE: A PPE fee at the dentist? New requirements could raise prices for patients.

Last month, the Trump administration made a change that could boost that effort. It moved gown purchasing from FEMA to the Defense Logistics Agency, which is part of the Department of Defense and gives preference to certain domestic products under what is known as the Berry Amendment.

“There is a lot of talk in Congress now, with bipartisan support, for extending the Berry Amendment to include critical medical supplies so they would have to be sourced in the U.S.,” Gribbin said. “It will not affect hospital systems, but it would affect the federal government and the way they buy and possibly state governments in buying PPE.”

As it is, the Department of Defense realized the United States does not have the capacity to produce 263 million gowns domestically, Gribbin said. Because of that, it broke the procurement into three tranches: anyone who could submit an American solution will get considered first, anyone from a country where the U.S. has a trade agreement is next, and then comes anywhere else such as China.

But there’s much more to Gribbin’s task even than sourcing an enormous number of gowns. He must also get the right kind of gowns, ranging from those that are simply resistant to liquid, all the way to gowns with a laminate polyethylene coating impervious to even viral matter. The highest-grade gowns have to be FDA approved.

Then there are disposable vs. reusable gowns. When Gribbin worked in the uniform industry in the 1980s and ’90s, the majority of gowns were reusable, and hospitals had laundry services. Then disposable gowns became popular for their convenience and cost — about $1 to make. But they get used once and go to a landfill along with medical waste. “Hospitals are now starting to ask for washable gowns, which will last longer and are better for the environment,” he said.

» READ MORE: The factory that makes the Phillies’ uniforms reopened to make free masks and gowns to fight coronavirus

Demand for gowns shows no sign of slacking off, given enhanced safety protocols and uncertainty over the virus.

“We think there will be long-term work with state agencies, health-care systems who will all want domestic product. I believe 20% to 30% of medical product will be made in the USA or in this hemisphere. Just last week, the Air Force was on one group call requesting white papers from any interested party on what a government investment might look like in expanding domestic capacity to make more critical health-care supplies with the government as a financial partner with industry to make that happen.”

Some AAPN members are getting back to what they made before they switched to PPE and others are surfing the discussion board, still looking for opportunities in this tumultuous time. Gribbin takes pride in the network’s response. “The level of generosity, the sharing of information and resources, even with competitors, just made me feel really good about being in the industry.”

Zero Waste Fashion

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on May 10, 2017.

Tonle has become a hit with ethical consumers worldwide.

In fashion, even the slightest imperfection on a roll of fabric can mean it is rejected, discarded and sent to an overflowing landfill. Ends of rolls are also tossed if they hold limited yardage. One fashion designer had an idea of using fabric that didn’t make the cut and creating a zero-waste line out of it.
Rachel Faller’s Tonle ( line is an ethical and sustainable collection made in Cambodia, a country she visited in college and where her business idea came to fruition.
Faller always wanted to work in fashion but realized she didn’t want to contribute to “an unsustainable and exploitative industry.” A trip to Cambodia with a friend during her studies got her thinking about both. This was a decade before the term fair trade was used that much. She wanted to merge her passion for design with something that was positive for the planet.
Winning a Fulbright grant allowed her to research sustainability through fair trade handicraft production there. For a year, she worked with craft groups and and NGOs. “The groups had best intentions, but many products they made were simply souvenirs. People would buy those products because of the story behind the piece but maybe not because they loved the product on its own. She knew she wanted to develop a fashion line she would want to wear.
Not long after, she started her first fashion line that was later rebranded as tonlé, a sustainable line ethically made. As the company evolved, she made it her mission to make it an entirely zero-waste company, using all factory leftover fabrics and not wasting a single scrap in the process. She started small, with five women working out of their homes. “My initial goal was to provide employment to support the community, but I also wanted it to be eco-friendly.” The biggest challenge was finding sustainable materials. “Few raw materials made in Cambodia were eco- friendly,” Faller explains.
The mainstream garment industry in Cambodia mostly produces t-shirts, so she started working with remnant dealers who look for and sell cut waste and overstock (extra fabric that a brand has because they have simply ordered too much) or defective fabric. Defects could be small. “Here, they cut by machine and if there is a tiny hole in their yardage, they may throw a whole roll away.” They bought all of these unwanted fabrics, mostly jersey, and aimed to make a design that was nice enough to sell at a higher price point.
At tonlé, big pieces of fabrics are fashioned into sportswear–easy t-shirt dresses, bateau tops — many color blocked or with simple graphic designs- and easy pants and rompers. Smaller fabric pieces are used to make woven vests, cardigans, and scarves or knit into new fabrics. Some seasons they don’t know what their remnant finds will be and styles are dependent on the catch.
“I created tonlé to be for every-woman: our clothes can be practical, functional, and comfortable, but at the same time playful and chic,” says the designer. “You can ball them up and throw them in your suitcase and then wear them to a night out. Our materials are soft and natural, our shapes are loose and fit a range of body types, and most of our pieces can be washed in the machine.
“Our handwoven vests, cardigans, and kaftans carry the most intrigue,” says Faller. “They are made from tiny scraps of remnants so they are incredibly time consuming to make and very eco-friendly. The textures are really special. Our buyers consistently comment that they have never seen anything like these before.”
Almost half of her business comes from 60 wholesale accounts in the U.S., Australia, Europe and Asia, from their ecommerce site and stores in Cambodia, and from producing for other designers.
“Most of the buyers are attracted to the product first,” says Faller, but increasingly, more of the buyers want a product with a story.” Faller says more companies are under pressure to buy products that are ethically and sustainably made, and their customers are asking for it.
In the future, she hopes to partner with larger brands and factories to recycle their waste and do collections with them. They would also like to produce in other countries.
Faller has a team of 50 in Cambodia and more in marketing and sales in San Francisco, her home base.
Through her time creating tonlé she has been increasingly vigilant about staying true to her mission. “I think social justice and eco justice go hand in hand. The earth will continue on long after we are here.”
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How Fast Fashion Is Killing Rivers Worldwide

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted on EcoWatch on March 22, 2017.

In the opening scene of the new documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying “there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.”

In China, the factory of the world, it is estimated that 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry. This sobering film is being screened worldwide this year, which premiered March 21 to a sold out crowd at the U.S. at the 25th Annual Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC. The film will be featured at the Cleveland International Film Fest April 3-5 and at many other festivals throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The film examines the destruction of rivers in Asia caused by the largely unregulated textile industry. It also connects today’s consumer appetite for fast fashion as a cause of this environmental degradation and explores how manufacturing innovation could help solve this global problem.

Co-directed by award-winning documentarians David McIlvride and Roger Williams and produced by Lisa Mazzotta, RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet was almost three years in the making and follows internationally celebrated river conservationist, Mark Angelo, as he paddles the rivers devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim and leather industries. Angelo explained that these waterways in China, India and Bangladesh are devoid of life even as local communities rely on these rivers for drinking and bathing. The water in these rivers has become a public health crisis with a high incidence of cancer and gastric and skin issues afflicting those who work in the industry or live nearby.

In Kanpur, India alone there are more than 400 tanneries dumping toxic chromium into the water supply which subsequently turns up in cow’s milk and agriculture products.

“We are committing hydrocide,” said Sunita Narain, director general of Center for Science and the Environment in India. “We are deliberately murdering our rivers.”

The question the film poses to viewers: Are brand-name clothing corporations disregarding the environment in their zeal to make their clothes cheaper and cheaper and what role does the consumer play?

Low cost clothing has a high cost attached to it, one to the environment and public health,” explained Angelo.

The impetus for the film came from a photo McIlvride found online. He and Williams, producer and director of photography, wanted to do a film on rivers. McIlvride found, on Google Images, a photo taken by NASA of China’s Pearl River with a dark blue streak of pollution running through it.

“It was the area of China where most of the blue jeans are manufactured,” he explained. “I thought everyone wears jeans. We could bring this problem to the world stage.”

The team thought if these rivers are being destroyed, what is the human impact? The film drills down to look at how jeans are made, specifically distressed jeans that are so popular now and how the chemicals used in the distressing process have been especially detrimental to workers, rivers and surrounding communities.

This decline has not happened overnight but rather over decades. For the denim industry, it started after the signing of the much talked about North American Free Trade Agreement. From the 1960s to the 1990s, El Paso Texas was the blue jeans capital of the world producing 2 million pair of jeans a week. The North American Free Trade Agreement allowed brands to find cheaper labor outside of the U.S., initially denim manufacturers left for Mexico and subsequently to China, Indonesia and Bangladesh where wages were low and environmental regulations weak.

As prices for denim jeans plummeted and consumers bought more of them, it was the waterways that paid the price. Today, the average American buys four pairs of jeans a year. In Europe they buy 1.5 jeans a year. Now in China’s Xintang province (where the movie’s polluted river photo came from) 300 million pair of jeans are made a year. Consider that one pair of jeans uses 920 gallons of water and many mills produce without water treatment plants.

The solution the film’s producers unveil is two-fold: through brand and mill innovation and consumer education and change.

McIlvride was determined to find brands making jeans without environmental damage. He located the father of distressed jeans: Francoise Girbaud who introduced the eponymous stone washed jean decades ago.

“It took 40 years before we realized what we made and what we did was wrong,” said Girbaud in the film.

In LA now, the designer was trying to re-establish himself as manufacturer of good jeans when McIlvride found him.

“He led us to the Spanish company Jeanologia,” Mcllvride said, “where they distress jeans by engraving images on the fabrics with lasers (light and air) eliminating water without increasing the cost.”

While filming the movie, denim manufacturers barred the filmmakers from shooting inside their facilities. It was not until they edited the film, that an innovative, Milan-based brand allowed them access. Italdenim has put money into water treatment at their mill and created a dye fixant made with chitosan (derived from the exoskeleton of crabs), a substance that is not dangerous for laborers to touch and saves money by allowing reuse of the wastewater.

“Going forward, the leaders of the fashion industry and other industries will have to be much more aggressive in cleaning up and make sure they are not making money off environmental destruction,” said former Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, one of the experts interviewed in the film.

Angelo agreed: “I think all corporations have to be accountable for their environmental practices. No one has the right to damage or destroy a river. More within the textile sector have to commit to a fashion industry without pollution. And, the consumer has the power but has to seek out clothing made in an environmentally friendly manner. That would go a long way to improve things.”

McIlvride hopes the movie will be an agent of change and thinks teens and college students, who buy the most fast fashion, are the ones who can make the most change.

“They are the ones who should know about this and try to cut back on their consumption. If they see the impact of these retailers, I think they would be receptive to change because they are socially conscious,” he said. “We want this to have an impact on the consumer level. We want consumers to ask themselves, ‘do you really need to buy more clothes.’ Consumerism is the problem.”

We are hoping we are taking the same route that the organic food movement took. When consumers learn more they will make different choices.