How Boathouse Sports Is Using Domestic Manufacturing to Build a Business and Attract Collaborations

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The Philadelphia-based company has done a string of collaborations, with the latest due from menswear retailer J. Press

by Kathleen Webber March 19, 2024

PHILADELPHIA In 2020, fashion veteran Cindy DiPietrantonio took the reins of Boathouse Sports from its founder, two-time Olympic rower John Strotbeck, with the initial goal of getting it into retail stores. The brand outfitted pro, college and team sports for years and it was time to take it beyond the athletic field.

DiPietrantonio had an impressive résumé. A former chief operating officer of the Jones Group, she was part of the team that managed seven acquisitions for the company, including Stuart Weitzman, Nine West and Jones New York. When she first visited the north Philadelphia facilities of Boathouse, she saw patternmakers and sewers and cutters again. It reminded her of her early days at Jones when, in a pre-NAFTA world, the group still had production in the U.S. But right before she started, COVID-19 shut down team sports and store; the factory kept its doors open by making masks and gowns instead of athletic apparel.

Today, more than three-and-a-half years later, DiPietrantonio has helped build social currency for the brand and boosted sales. To do that, she expanded its e-commerce business; added new styles for the everyday athlete; entered the brick-and-mortar market in Philadelphia, Boston and other cities (they are in 24 stores now), and created a series of brand collaborations with companies that share a similar DNA. The company also expanded its private label business and built an ecosystem of sewers and skilled labor in a city that was once one of the largest textile and garment manufacturing centers in the country, employing 35,000 garment workers.

Boathouse’s focus on domestic manufacturing is making it increasingly attractive to other brands for collaborations. It certainly is what appealed to menswear retailer J. Press, which will launch a joint collection with Boathouse later this month.

“Everything we can get from the U.S., we do, so we loved that it is made in Philadelphia,” said Robert Squillaro, J. Press’ chief marketing officer and senior vice president. “We have also wanted to offer performance activewear to appeal to a younger audience for some time.”

Fourteen styles will ship mid-March to J. Press’ four retail stores in New Haven, Conn.; Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan — regatta and coach’s jackets, athletic pants, a rugby shirt, vest, hoodie, shorts, long-sleeve UV T-shirts and a bucket hat. The pieces will retail for $45 to $174.

To promote the collaboration, they’ll shoot a digital ad on Boathouse Row (the company was named after the famous boathouses that line the Schuylkill River where rowing regattas have been held since 1835) featuring members of the Vesper Rowing Club. A launch party in April will be held at J. Press’ Madison Avenue location.

Last year Boathouse was introduced to Philadelphia native and pro skater Jimmy Gorecki, now a Los Angeles-based streetwear designer of JSP (Jimmy Sweatpants) who got into fashion through skateboarding and working with designer Pharrell Williams. He designed a limited-edition clothing line with the Philadelphia Eagles last fall and wanted to create a small collection that celebrated the skate culture at Temple University, his alma mater. He studied Temple’s old logos and vintage apparel for graphic inspiration, then toured the Boathouse facility spotting a mannequin with a hoodie, jacket, track pant and bucket hat, saying, “That’s the fit,” he says. “We wanted to make the clothes look like it would be an unofficial skateboard outfit if Temple had a team.”

The Boathouse, Gorecki, Temple University collaboration includes the Boathouse retro coach’s jacket, journey pant and bucket hat. JSP will produce a hoodie and T-shirt. The pieces, which will retail for $45 to $180, will be sold in Philadelphia stores (Nocturnal Skate shop, Lapstone and Hammer), online and at the Temple bookstore. An on-campus launch party is planned for April 4.

The shared connection to the water and the U.S. provenance also were the draw for DiPietrantonio to work with Portland, Maine-based Sea Bags, which uses recycled sailcloth for their bags.

“They have a rich history of sailing, sail making and coastal life; their bags are made from recycled sailcloth. Our company was born on the water,” DiPietrantonio said.

When the company chief executive officers met, they said “wouldn’t it be cool to do a jacket out of sails?”

Boathouse will ship a windbreaker of full sail cloth and another style with sailcloth and their waterproof material (retail $130 to $170) to sell in their stores and online in June. They have also made UV T-shirts, a bucket bag and cooler. Later in the summer, Boathouse will drop a new varsity-style jacket, made of heavier weight recycled Dacron sails.

“These collaborations have helped us tap into new markets. They also allow for the exchange of creativity, innovation and expertise with our collaborators,” said DiPietrantonio.

Beyond the collaborations, Boathouse has created a line without a logo or license to reach new customers. The Destination collection launched last fall during a season when both the Phillies (baseball) and Eagles (football) teams were a point of pride.

“Philly was having a moment. We thought, how can you still be a fan in a subtle way? Why not just put PHL, the airport code, as the logo,” said DiPietrantonio.

The PHL plain gray sweatshirt ($108) and hat were born ($28) and are sold in-store and online. They have since added a BOS, ATL and ACK and will expand to other cities. “We are shipping them all over the country. It has been a real hometown pride piece,” she added.

Boathouse is working with professional sports teams like the Wings (lacrosse) and Flyers (ice hockey) to make custom fan apparel to sell at their arena stores. “We have applied for an NFL license to make apparel,” said the CEO. “We receive numerous requests from both fans and teams for NFL apparel due to our exceptional quality and the preference for domestically made products.”

As other athletic brands left the U.S. to produce overseas, Boathouse resisted, feeling a responsibility to their workforce. Many at its production facility have been there for decades. A vertical operation with 130 employees, Boathouse is capable of cutting, sewing, embroidering, sublimating and shipping. Because of that, they are contacted by private label companies to produce under their brand name. Last year they completed a large project for Boston-based New Balance for their Made in the USA line, a collab with Teddy Santis. They made a track short and matching short. Santis specifically requested all components of the apparel be made in the U.S., including those that involved sewing.

The biggest challenge to meet their production demands is training and keeping a skilled labor force. “Finding skilled workers may be more challenging domestically and why we need to have a continuous cycle of teaching,” she said.

DiPietrantonio is part of a planning group in Philadelphia with a few other cut-and-sew operations in the city working together to train garment workers. She is also working with the state of Pennsylvania and city and a consulting group to teach people in the community the craft of sewing, patternmaking and other skills related to the industry. The consulting group helped Boathouse apply for a $25,000 grant through the Workforce and Economic Development Network of PA for training. “We want to have the ability to bring in more to learn this trade. The company pays a competitive living hourly wage instead of a piece rate and provides health benefits and a 401K to their employees. “We are contributing to the employment of more people.“

The CEO said bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. on a larger scale requires a multifaceted approach involving government, businesses and consumers. She cited the recent closing and layoffs at North Carolina textile plants as an example of trade policies, namely the de minimis rule in this case, that are hurting the industry. (A coalition of Congressional and industry leaders is examining closing some of the loopholes in this rule to help domestic manufacturers.)

“The government can implement policies that incentivize domestic manufacturing such as tax breaks, subsidies, and tariffs on imported goods to level the playing field,” she contended.

As other athletic brands left the U.S. to produce overseas, Boathouse resisted, feeling a responsibility to their workforce. Many at its production facility have been there for decades. A vertical operation with 130 employees, Boathouse is capable of cutting, sewing, embroidering, sublimating and shipping. Because of that, they are contacted by private label companies to produce under their brand name. Last year they completed a large project for Boston-based New Balance for their Made in the USA line, a collab with Teddy Santis. They made a track short and matching short. Santis specifically requested all components of the apparel be made in the U.S., including those that involved sewing.

The biggest challenge to meet their production demands is training and keeping a skilled labor force. “Finding skilled workers may be more challenging domestically and why we need to have a continuous cycle of teaching,” she said.

DiPietrantonio is part of a planning group in Philadelphia with a few other cut-and-sew operations in the city working together to train garment workers. She is also working with the state of Pennsylvania and city and a consulting group to teach people in the community the craft of sewing, patternmaking and other skills related to the industry. The consulting group helped Boathouse apply for a $25,000 grant through the Workforce and Economic Development Network of PA for training. “We want to have the ability to bring in more to learn this trade. The company pays a competitive living hourly wage instead of a piece rate and provides health benefits and a 401K to their employees. “We are contributing to the employment of more people.“

The CEO said bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. on a larger scale requires a multifaceted approach involving government, businesses and consumers. She cited the recent closing and layoffs at North Carolina textile plants as an example of trade policies, namely the de minimis rule in this case, that are hurting the industry. (A coalition of Congressional and industry leaders is examining closing some of the loopholes in this rule to help domestic manufacturers.)

“The government can implement policies that incentivize domestic manufacturing such as tax breaks, subsidies, and tariffs on imported goods to level the playing field,” she contended.

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 Boathouse.com 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.

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 (https://tonle.com/) 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.”
 
For more information, visit www.tonle.com.

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.

A Vow

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 22, 2017.

Hip Mata Traders lift women out of poverty

In December 2003 three best friends from Northwestern University set off on a year-long, around-the-world trip, falling in love with the people, markets and textiles of India. They vowed to make the country part of their futures. One of the friends, Maureen Dunn Fetscher, returned the following year and bought lots of textiles and jewelry to bring back to Chicago to sell. Shoppers asked if the things were fair trade. They wondered how they could use their buying dollars to help alleviate the poverty they saw in India?
 
The following year, Fetscher sought out fair trade producers in India to replicate a few dresses she brought them. She tested the market selling them at street fairs in Chicago, then retail pop ups, then holiday shops. Finally, they approached stores to sell their line and started marketing at trade shows.
 
In 2007, they registered the name Mata Traders. Today there are over 1,000 artisans in India and Nepal who create Mata Traders clothing and jewelry, wares that are sold in 600 stores in the U.S., Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom and provide a stable source of income to their families in the poorest of communities. Based in Chicago, Illinois, they design the colorful, hand-blocked print dresses and separates sold in 50 states and 12 countries. The friends work with 6 organizations in India and Nepal that educate, employ with fair wages and working conditions, and empower women in marginalized communities.
 
 
The printing helps to preserve a high-end cultural craft that is a dying art. “In India many times printing is a small family business,” says Fetscher. “Many prints are hand blocked or stamped.” The art of block printing has been practiced in India since the 12th century. “The printers have hundreds, maybe thousands, of blocks in their workshops from decades of printing. This kind of printing is passed down generationally in families. It had been the main technique for applying prints to textiles in India for centuries, a healthy and robust cottage industry, until the more efficient and economical machine-printing took over, putting many craftspeoples’ livelihoods, and the craft itself, in jeopardy,” Fetscher explains. Stamp designs are traced onto and then carved from wooden blocks, called “bunta.” Large pieces of fabric are fixed to a tabletop and the carved blocks are then dipped into colorful dyes, stamped on the fabric, and the process continues for the entire sheet of fabric, forming an intricate pattern. Block prints can be simple or can involve many layers of printing for each color. A special part of block printed fabrics is their occasional small imperfections – very much a part of the handmade process.
 
In India they also screen print fabric, a craft that has been in the country for centuries. A screen is burned with a design, fabric is pinned down to a tabletop, ink is pushed through the screen with a squeegee to transfer the design onto the fabric, and the fabric is left outside to dry. Often the process takes two people, one who handles the printing and one who assists in moving the screen and placing it in the appropriate place. Screen printed fabric, just like block printed, can sometimes contain small mistakes or stray spots, making each garment truly one of a kind. 
 
Hand embroidery is also a craft in India that is seen in the Mata dresses.  “Any pieces with embroidery come from our most traditional artisan group – the women can embroider from their homes and even get together in sewing circles within their communities.” At the co-ops where so many of their dresses are sewn, there are many benefits. They have social workers, health care, literacy training. workshops on financial literacy, domestic violence, hygiene and sanitation, and parenting. “This work helps them support their kids, buy their school supplies and afford educational fees. Many women can go to college or their kids can. That is where the change really happens for their kids. Some women can buy homes,” explains Fetscher. “In India the culture is such that women don’t work outside of the home. 
 
Workplaces are not inviting. Co-ops are opposite. The women are quiet at first; the co-op then becomes a family with the friendships becoming as important as the work. They become leaders in their communities.” 
 
In the fair trade model, a company like Mata Traders pays for half of their order advance and other half when we receive the goods. This way we know the artisans are being paid, not just when it sells. Fetscher says the dresses are popular not only for their style but because they are ethically made. “When we first started the line we felt there was a deficit of cute, young clothes that we would wear that are fair trade,” she says. “I do think the story is important to our customers. There are a lot of people who have been searching for ethical.” 
 
But Fetscher believes more consumers have to embrace the alternatives. “Most consumers don’t even know where their products are made. There has to be public outcry.” While the three friends are entering their 10th year, they keep pushing towards producing more ethically and sustainably while preserving cultural traditions. One goal is to make sure that the fabrics they buy in India are organic. Another is to continue to help the women in their co-ops. “Our motivation is off the charts. We are doing it because they are counting on us but we wouldn’t have this business without them.

Manos Zapotecas

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 9, 2017.

Creating handbags to educate

Five years ago, at an age when most are making retirement plans, Shelley Tennyson, who had run an outdoor adventure business, decided to start Mano Zapotecas, working with artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico to make loom woven accessories and home goods. Before her business idea came about, Tennyson had been a volunteer for a microfinance company working in a traditional Mexican village. On average, households in the village had four looms, where extended family—grandparents, sons and their wives would partake in the craft. Grandparents would teach their children to weave and most started at age eight or nine. 
 
Tennyson got to know the village families through her volunteer work. “We taught them things like money management skills.” What she had found was many families had up to 200 rugs stacked up in their homes that they couldn’t sell. “Tourism was down and big items like rugs were tough to sell so we looked at making woven bags. We felt like high-end bags that catered to the American market would sell. “
 
So Manos Zapotecas, a fair trade company, was born to help families support themselves while preserving the craft and cultural heritage. The company produces two to three collections a year, giving work to 50 families. One recent collection was inspired by artist Frida Kahlo and featured deep scarlet reds, teals and navy in the palette. 
 
 
When they first started creating the collection, the first thing the creative team did was change colorations in the bags. Instead of making them in the traditional bright colors native to Oaxaca, she advised them on on-trend colors to use each season. While their rugs are in intricate designs – they may have six patterns and 12-15 colors (in their culture the more intricate, the more valuable a piece is), the bags are less so. In a bag they will have four colors maximum. Once colors are chosen, they dye the yarn, made of churro wool, and make all the patterns. The women create their own designs based on traditional symbols. “You see a lot of the same symbols from the Navajos, Incas and Aztecs,’ Tennyson explains. “Every indigenous group will say they have certain patterns. If a style is chosen for the line, the villagers will then hire people to produce it. 
 
A part-time style coordinator lives in Mexico and communicates with the weavers and California where Tennyson is.  “The weavers will suggest a style and size for their pattern and Samantha (the style coordinator) encourages them to mix it up where needed.”
 
While they sell many bags in the U.S., they are also selling in Australia, Japan and Europe. One recent German account found the company on Instagram. This fall, she started a new line of rugs and pillows in similar color palettes as the bags.  
 
In the future Tennyson, who employs four people who work from home in Portland, Chico and Oceanside, California in and a production team in Mexico, would like to get into larger U.S. stores and get an Asian distributor (they just found a European one) and have a strong ecommerce site. “We want to get into museums and specialty stores and diversify into other products as well.” 
 
The impact these bags have had on the community who makes them has been tremendous. Last year the company sent $250,000 to the village and much of it goes to education. Many can now send their children to university, make improvements to their housing and pay for healthcare.  
 
“For me this business is a natural result of all of my life endeavors, including a love of different languages and cultures, social services and responsibility, business entrepreneurship, and adventure, “says Tennyson. “In some ways it was inevitable that I would start Manos Zapotecas. To the artisans I think it is a way to continue their rich cultural heritage and weaving tradition, and still make a decent living. It also allows them to work at home and stay close to their extended families.”
 
For more information, visit www.manoszapotecas.com