Clothing Resellers are Buried in Your Stuff

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Clothing Resellers Are Buried in Your Stuff

January 30, 2024

Consumers are churning through clothing so fast, the clothing collection and resale business can hardly keep up.
By Kathleen Webber

In Eatontown, NJ, not far from the shore, a steady stream of trucks hauls in 33,000 pounds of used clothing a day to the Helpsy warehouse. There it is weighed, sorted, categorized, and recirculated to be sold at thrift stores, vintage shops, or on resale sites where shoppers can get their hands on everything from Everlane jeans to Aritzia dresses to Marc by Marc Jacobs blouses. Companywide, Helpsy, collects 96,000 pounds of clothes a day from thousands of metal bins in 10 states on the East Coast that dot parking lots of malls, churches, schools, and mom-and-pop strip malls.

Consumers provide Helpsy with most of their sales inventory. The change of seasons is the busiest. It is then when consumers, armed with bags of clothes fresh from the closet purge, will toss their once-loved merchandise into a bin ushering it into its new life.

Helpsy sorter inspecting clothes for brand and damage using proprietary sorting app.
Photos courtesy of Helpsy, Eatontown NJ.
A closeup of Helpsy’s sorting app.  The app is continuously updated and iterated by Helpsy’s tech team.

At the Helpsy warehouse, bales of clothing are stacked carefully like Jenga blocks up to the ceiling. Two dozen sorters will use digital scanners to help classify 12,000 items a day, by brand and category, to determine what new sales path the item will go to extend its life and keep it out of landfills.

Helpsy, a for-profit, privately held company, collects 66 pounds of clothing a minute and made $26 million in revenue in 2022 from used clothes and new wholesale clothing they buy from brands and retailers who need help with overstock, e-commerce returns, and styles that may not pass the quality control test like the thousands of Fourth of July swim trunks from Chubbies in a shade of red that did not pass muster with design. All of this clothing and shoes are resold via 6,000 resellers, including stores like Plato’s Closet, Uptown Cheapskates, and Beacon’s Closet, smaller vintage stores or on peer-to-peer selling marketplaces like Poshmark, eBay, Depop, and Mercari.
“We supply online individual resellers with brands to scale up their businesses and thrift stores with brands they can sell,” says Dan Green, co-founder and CEO of Helpsy. “For thrift stores, they either have too much inventory or not the right kind.” Helpsy can help swap out merchandise or fill up shelves with brands that are known sellers for them.

Helpsy’s three co-founders from left to right: Alex Husted,
Dan Green, and Dave Milliner.
Co-founders and management. From left to right, top row:
Alex Husted, Gina, Carmen, Nicole, Sandy, Madison, Bridgette,
Victor, Dan, and Lisa. Front left to right, bottom row: Dave Milliner, Devan, Jessica, and Karen

The Changing Market
The recommerce market, reselling previously owned products (including overstocks and retail returns) through physical and online channels, is a sector of retail that is outpacing regular retail. Over the past five years, recommerce revenues have grown 20-plus times faster than overall apparel revenues according to a study by consulting firm Deloitte. One reason this industry is booming: people are buying more clothes than ever and wearing each item less. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the average piece of clothing is worn 36 percent fewer times now than it was 15 years ago.

Recommerce sales reached $22 billion in 2022 according to a report by Global Data. They estimate that recommerce worldwide will climb to $51 billion in 2023. While wearing secondhand clothing has become mainstream, especially with environmentally-minded Gen Z and Millennial shoppers, the amount of fast fashion being produced annually keeps Helpy’s bins overflowing.
Upstairs at the facility, giant cardboard bins hold sorted, used merchandise from brands like Outdoor Voices, Eileen Fisher, Chico’s, Aritzia, J. Jill, and Banana Republic among others. When one of their stores or resellers calls to ask for a particular brand, they can fill their order.

Since its start in 2016, Helpsy has added warehouses in New York and Massachusetts. In the $3 billion U.S. industry, Helpsy is one of about 100 larger collectors (the industry also has thousands of smaller ones). The big players include non-profits like Goodwill and Salvation Army, which also have brick-and-mortar operations and vertical integration and for-profits like Value Village, says Steve Rees, president of SMART (the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association). Helpsy is the only B corporation clothing collector. B corps are assessed for social and environmental performance and are re-audited every three years. Helpsy has been certified since 2018.

According to SMART, textile recyclers reuse and recycle 5 billion pounds of textiles each year (this figure includes bed linens and towels). Of the organization’s 150 members, half are domestic companies and half are international. Textiles are the fastest-growing waste stream in landfills. On average, each consumer throws away more than 100 pounds of textiles a year (up from the 1999 figure of 44 pounds a year) and 84 percent ends up in landfills (this figure also includes things like bed linens and towels) or is incinerated. There, it decomposes and releases greenhouse gasses or leaches dyes and other harmful chemicals into the ground and local water supplies.

Working to Transform Waste
Last year, Helpsy kept 35 million pounds out of landfills. They say 95 percent of what is collected is salvageable; 50 percent is sold as clothing and used again as such, while 45 percent becomes things like furniture insulation, or wiping cloths. “Re-using it is the best ecological way to extend the life of a piece of clothing,” says David Milliner, COO at the company. “The more times clothing can be reused, the less virgin material will be used, and that saves water and other resources,” he adds.

The production of clothing makes up 10 percent of global carbon emissions, pollutes rivers and streams with dyes and finishes, and uses fossil fuels in the making of synthetics, which makes up the majority of the clothing we wear. Additionally, up to 35 percent of all microplastics released into the environment can be traced back to textiles.

Up until 2021, Helpsy had outsourced its sorting, but when Covid shut down sorting facilities, the trade of used clothing plummeted, virtually cutting it in half. “If we wanted to expand and make a profit, we needed to sort the clothing ourselves,” says Milliner. So, they brought that function in-house.

Their IT team built the QuickScan sort technology. A sorter enters the brand name into a tablet and then reviews the item for wear and tear and enters that information into the system. A barcode for each item is created assigning it a value and that information gets entered into their data warehouse. A re-seller store will call them and ask for specific brands of clothing or accessory categories. There is an algorithm with an assigned value to a Talbot’s skirt with a broken zipper versus a Banana Republic piece that is in perfect condition.

“Some companies rely on people to decide the value of the clothing,” says Milliner. “What happens when those experts leave the company? We wanted to build technology so that it got it into the best sales channel,” he adds. Last year they sorted and graded 5 million pieces of clothing and shoes by brand and categories (prom dresses or athleisure) to determine the best sales channel for them. Sorters are incentivized to sort as much as they can a day. “Many collectors are working on the process for better sorting,” says Rees. “The process is still not fully automated. Maybe AI down the road will help, but for now, every piece is touched and requires a human to sort.”

To date, Helpsy’s scanning system recognizes 10,000 brands but sorters encounter 200 per day not in the database. They have data that moves through their ecosystem from the bin to the sort to the proper resale channel. “Then we can provide that data back to brands and our customers,” says Jessica Rennard, Chief Merchandising Officer. “Brands can learn things like what types of styles are being donated of theirs and what is selling and use that in their research and development.” They also provide data to the Corporate Social Responsibility teams and the municipalities on how much they are collecting for their reporting.

Helpsy has also started working on extending its sorting technology to encompass fabric type detection and categorization. Green noted, “This is an important step in really being a complete solution for textiles of all types and qualities. Just like recyclers of other materials, we are working to transform waste into useful products as close to the source as possible.” Their team is engaged with a number of partners developing technologies to transform the unwearable clothing that does not have another productive use into new fibers again.

Walter, Helpsy’s warehouse manager of Eatontown, NJ operation, moving a bale of clothing.

Starting the Business
Founders Dan Green, David Milliner, and Alex Husted, childhood friends from suburban Philadelphia, started Helpsy seven years ago after an ed-tech start-up they had failed in 2000. They went back to their jobs in finance and tech, but bought three clothing collection businesses in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts and then added six more to their portfolio. “We wanted to do a triple bottom line business and looked at niches that were ignored,” says Husted, Chief Information Officer. “We stumbled upon this clothing collection business in New Jersey and it served the community and the environment and had unlimited room for growth.”

Husted visits consignment and thrift stores regularly to see what is selling or is not. “The eye candy is the Louis Vuitton bag, or the Dolce and Gabbana sweater, and they make great margins on those kinds of pieces, but lululemon moves faster and brings in cash faster. Some of their best-selling brands for resale are Adidas, Nike, Everlane, The North Face, Zara, and Madewell. They send their higher end/luxury merchandise from their sort to The Real Real on consignment.

Husted says many of their individual re-sellers who buy from them have quit their day jobs to do this full-time. “Many specialize in a category like athletic wear and will only buy and sell that. So instead of them spending time sifting through church sales and Goodwill bins, they come to us for specific brands or categories,” Husted says of this time-saving step. “Re-selling is growing by leaps and bounds, and we see ourselves as selling the picks and shovels to the gold miners. We provide the tools and materials for them to
succeed.”

Controlling the Process
Helpsy Source is a new channel of the company that started 16 months ago where the company sells curated boxes to resellers. The company promotes these bulk boxes on Tiktok, Instagram, IG Live, and Facebook. Rennard oversees all sorted products putting them back into circulation. She works with a growing list of brands and retailers, many of whom hear about the company by word of mouth and who need a plan for what to do with e-commerce and out-of-season returns, overstock, and damages. “We keep their end-of-life product in circulation and out of the landfill and address their concerns as it relates to brand equity; we are able to control the merchandise within our own supply chain to ensure over saturation does not happen.”

Inventory gluts are a headache for brands and retailers. “The warehouse guys say I have 500 pallets of merchandise we need to get rid of. The finance guys say we need the income from those pallets,” Green says. Those pallets will be bought by the small consignment shop owner to a thrift chain to individual sellers looking for a part-time income. Box sizes vary anywhere from 40 items to full pallets which can be close to 600 to 800 units.
Husted says e-commerce returns have become a growing part of the business for them, accounting for about 10 percent of their revenue (90 percent still comes from collected clothing). “When something goes back to the retailer, there is a lot of effort that goes into inspecting it and reshelving it. Consumers buy multiple sizes and send ones that don’t fit back,” he explains. “It is hard for them to re-sell. It takes up space. Returns are now coming directly to us. I can see that business growing.”

When Helpsy works with brands, they will say where they want their clothing sold or not sold. “It is idiosyncratic from brand to brand what they think is a risk to their reputation,” says Green. “Some don’t want their brand in thrift stores, some don’t want their brand on Poshmark or eBay, and others don’t want their product in a market in Ghana if it can’t be sold in the U.S. “

Clothing drives also generate substantial inventory for the company. They will do 400 this year with DARE, AMVETS of NJ, Big Brothers/Sisters, churches, YMCAs, Girl Scouts and hundreds of other nonprofits as well as municipalities who need solutions for their textile waste. “For municipalities, clothes are worth more than plastic and glass and create more greenhouse gas emissions,” Green explains. They would like to work with more in the future.

Working with Cities
In November 2022, Massachusetts banned the dumping of textiles in landfills. With landfills in states across the U.S. filling up, there may be more state textile bans in the future. Helpsy is the sole collector for the city of Boston where they started curbside clothing collection in 2020. They have bins throughout the city and at public schools. The schools are paid by the pound for what they collect. The company shares a monthly report with the city on what they are collecting, says Kristen Shelley, who is in charge of Zero Waste Contracts for Boston Public Works.

The business is not without its challenges. The biggest hurdle is apathy—the sheer inconvenience of donating versus throwing clothing in the trash. “It is a behavioral mindset,” Green explains. The company has begun curbside collection in select cities across the East Coast, most recently in three counties around Philadelphia, PA. They also work with universities and colleges. For instance, Princeton University in New Jersey has collection bins in or near their dorms and does end-of-year cleanouts collecting 40,000 pounds of clothing last year that went straight to Helpsy according to Matt Brinn, of their Office of Sustainability.

Rennard works with mall and athletic wear brand VPs and C-Suite execs to help them navigate their inventory options. “Because we are a B Corp, we are transparent,” says Rennard. “They know what we do with their product. We ensure it doesn’t end up somewhere they don’t want it to end up.” Rennard and her team send out 160 mystery boxes a day of new and used merchandise to resellers. She calls them an important vehicle to circularity. “They (the resellers) push the inventory to the end consumer.” While she is encouraged by the number of people who want to shop at thrift stores and donate clothing, “fast fashion keeps getting faster,” says Rennard.

Rees says there are more players internationally and more recently China has taken an interest in the industry. SMART decided to hold its first international conference in Dubai this past year to share best practices and innovation. Their domestic conference in Houston will explore the use of AI technology in recycling, Rees says. “As long as the population is growing, the business will keep increasing,” says Rees. | WA.

Kathleen Webber is a freelance writer and academic who teaches journalism at The College of New Jersey. She worked in retail and brand product development before writing about the New York fashion industry for many years. Her research and writing focus on sustainability in the global fashion industry, retail innovation and the circular economy. Her bylines have appeared in Women’s Wear Daily, The Philadelphia Inquirer, sustainablebrands.com, Sierra magazine, and ecowatch.com. A version of this story previously ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer on October 12, 2023. Kathleen can be reached at webber@tcnj.edu.

For more information about Helpsy, call (800) 244-6350 or e-mail info@helpsy.co.

Resources
www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/fashion/overview
https://recommercereport.com
www.bcorporation.net/en-us/certification/
https://helpsysource.com

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This N.J. company collects nearly 100,000 pounds of clothing every day to help stock thrift stores and resellers

Consumer

Secondhand clothing has become popular with environmentally minded Gen Z and Millennial shoppers. The recommerce market in the U.S. could climb to $43.5 billion in 2023.

Recommerce sales in the United States reached $38.6 billion in 2022, according to Global Data, and could climb to $43.5 billion in 2023.
Recommerce sales in the United States reached $38.6 billion in 2022, according to Global Data, and could climb to $43.5 billion in 2023.Read more
Helpsy

by Kathleen N. Webber

October 12, 2023

For the Inquirer

Not far from the Shore, a steady stream of trucks hauls in thousands of pounds of donated clothing a day to a warehouse in Eatontown, N.J. There, it is weighed, sorted, and categorized so it can be sold in bulk to a coterie of 6,000 wholesalers, thrift stores, and small resellers who will sell everything from Aritzia dresses to Abercrombie & Fitch jeans to Outdoor Voices yoga pants.

The warehouse in Monmouth County is owned by Helpsy, a company that collects 96,000 pounds of clothes daily from the thousands of metal bins that dot the parking lots of malls, churches, and schools. The cargo, items that people have discarded from their closets, is retrieved from 11 states on the East Coast.

Helpsy gets most of its sales inventory from consumer donations, but it also buys unsold inventory from large thrift stores. The change of seasons is the busiest time for the company. It’s when consumers, with bags of clothes fresh from the closet purge, will toss their once-loved merchandise into a bin ushering it into its new life. The same thrifts that sell clothing to Helpsy will often buy stock they know will sell in their stores.

Once the clothing arrives at the warehouse, three dozen sorters will use digital scanners to help classify 20,000 items a day, by brand and category (athleisure to prom dresses), to determine where the item will go to extend its life and keep it out of landfills.

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Helpsy, a for-profit, privately held company, made $26 million in revenue in 2022 from donated clothes and new wholesale clothing it buys from brands and retailers who have to off-load their overstock, e-commerce returns. Some brands also sell them their styles that may not pass the quality control test like the thousands of July Fourth swim trunks from Chubbies in a shade of red that the company decided not to sell.

Once it’s cataloged, all of the clothing collected by Helpsy is resold at stores like Plato’s Closet, Uptown Cheapskate, and Beacon’s Closet. Helpsy also resells to smaller vintage stores (over a dozen in our area, including the non-profit The Wardrobe), and small resellers who then peddle their merchandise on peer-to-peer selling marketplaces like Poshmark, Depop, and Mercari.

Helpsy can swap merchandise or fill shelves with brands that are known sellers for their clients. Best-selling brands are Adidas, Nike, Everlane, the North Face, Zara, and Madewell. It sends its higher-end merchandise to luxury resale company the RealReal on consignment.

“We supply online individual resellers with brands to scale up their businesses and thrift stores with brands they can sell,” said Dan Green, cofounder and CEO of Helpsy. “For thrift stores, they either have too much inventory or not the right kind.”

A $40 billion resale market

The recommerce market, in which retailers resell previously owned products through physical and online channels, is outpacing regular retail. Over the last five years, recommerce revenues have grown more than 20 times faster than overall apparel revenues, according to a study by consulting firm Deloitte. One reason: people are buying more clothes than ever and wearing each item less.

Recommerce sales in the United States reached $38.6 billion in 2022, according to GlobalData, and could climb to $43.5 billion in 2023. While wearing secondhand clothing has become very popular with environmentally minded Gen Z and millennial shoppers, the volume of fast fashion produced annually keeps Helpsy’s bins overflowing.

Helpsy is one of about 100 larger collectors in the U.S. The big players include nonprofits like Goodwill and Salvation Army, and for-profits like Value Village, said Steve Rees, president of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART). Helpsy is the only clothing collector in the country that is a B corporation, which means it is assessed for social and environmental performance and reaudited every three years.

According to SMART, textile recyclers reuse and recycle 5 billion pounds of textiles globally each year (this figure includes bed linens and towels). Textiles are the fastest-growing waste stream in landfills. On average, each consumer throws away more than 100 pounds of textiles a year (up from 44 pounds a year in 1999), and 84% ends up in landfills or is incinerated. There, it decomposes and releases greenhouse gasses or leaches dyes and other harmful chemicals into the ground and local water supplies.

Last year, Helpsy kept 35 million pounds out of landfills. It said 95% of what is collected is salvageable; 75% is sold as clothing and used again, while 25% becomes furniture insulation or wiping cloths.

“Reusing it is the best ecological way to extend the life of a piece of clothing,” said Helpsy COO David Milliner. “The more times clothing can be reused, the less virgin material that will be used, and that saves water and other resources.”

Helpsy’s high-tech sorting

In 2021, Helpsy brought the sorting function in-house, and their IT team built proprietary technology to make the process more data-centric. The next year, Helpsy sorted and graded 5 million pieces of clothing and shoes in a more detailed process that allows the company to share with wholesale buyers how much of a particular brand or item is available.

For most of the recommerce industry, the sorting process “is still not fully automated,” Rees said. “Maybe AI down the road will help, but for now, every piece is touched and requires a human to sort.”

At Helpsy, a sorter enters the brand name into a tablet and then reviews the item for its condition, entering that into the system. A barcode for each item is created assigning it a value and that information gets entered into the database and includes the material composition for each piece, valuable information for recycling. The system recognizes 10,000 brands and counting. “Then we can provide that data back to brands and our customers,” said Jessica Rennard, chief merchandising officer. Helpsy also shares the numbers with brands who track their environmental impact, as well as to municipalities that report local sustainability efforts to state and federal agencies.

How Helpsy got started

Founders Milliner, Dan Green, and Alex Husted, childhood friends from suburban Philadelphia, started Helpsy seven years ago. They bought three clothing collection businesses in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts and then added six more to their portfolio. They now have 140 full-time employees, all of whom are offered stock options in the company.

Husted, chief information officer, said they were looking for a business that could make a social and environmental impact while also being profitable.

“We stumbled upon this clothing-collection business in New Jersey and it served the community and the environment and had unlimited room for growth,” he said.

The company now sells curated bulk boxes to resellers, which can range from five items to full pallets (which can be close to 600 to 800 units). It promotes these boxes on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. Rennard works with 11 mall and athletic wear brand vice presidents and C-suite execs to help with their inventory options by buying merchandise that didn’t sell or was returned. The number of partners is growing.

Inventory gluts are a headache for brands and retailers, but Husted said ecommerce returns are a growing part of the business, accounting for about 10% of their revenue (90% comes from clothing donations and clothing drives).

“When something goes back to the retailer, there is a lot of effort that goes into inspecting it and reshelving it. Consumers buy multiple sizes and send ones that don’t fit back,” he said. “It is hard for them to resell. Returns are now coming directly to us. I can see that business growing.”

Clothing drives also generate substantial inventory for the company. It will do 500 this year with organizations like DARE, AMVETS of NJ, Big Brothers/Sisters, churches, YMCAs, and Girl Scouts as well as municipalities that need solutions for their textile waste to keep it out of landfills. It pays by the pound for that inventory. The company also works with universities and colleges on end-of-year cleanouts. Helpsy collected 40,000 pounds of clothing from Princeton University last year, according to Matt Brinn in the college’s Office of Sustainability.

“For municipalities, clothes are worth more than plastic and glass and create more greenhouse gas emissions,” Green explained. Helpsy was selected to be the city of Boston’s official textile recycler in February of 2020 and would like to expand in other major cities.

The business’s biggest hurdle is apathy — the sheer inconvenience of donating versus throwing clothing in the trash. To make it easier, the company now has curbside collection in Boston, and in Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties locally. It will expand to Delaware County soon.

“It is a behavioral mindset,” Green said.

Husted visits consignment and thrift stores regularly to see what is selling or isn’t. “The eye candy is the Louis Vuitton bag or the Dolce & Gabbana sweater and they make great margins on those kinds of pieces, but Lululemon moves faster and brings in cash faster,” he said, adding that reselling is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We see ourselves as selling the picks and shovels to the gold miners. We provide the tools and materials for resellers to succeed.”

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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» 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.”

Made Institute fashioning entrepreneurs (and more Makers) in Philly

by Kathleen N. Webber

Philly Voice Contributor

Zoey Hudson, center, assistant director and instructor at Made Institute in Old City, gives a demonstration during a recent Introduction to Sewing class. The school will move to the Spring Arts District in August. Photo by Thom Carroll/Philly Voice

Class is in session at Rachel Ford’s Made Institute in Old City.

The first cohort of aspiring designers in the 15-course Designer Development Program is sketching, draping and sewing, and this summer they will have new, bigger digs in the Spring Arts District as one of the centerpiece businesses in a new maker community masterminded by developer Craig Grossman.

Grossman, who worked for the late visionary developer Tony Goldman (SoHo, South Beach), is best known for revamping South 13th Street into the current Midtown Village and sees this section of town as a center for the creative class where art, culture and technology will co-exist. His father worked in the New York garment industry and when he met Ford last summer, they clicked.

Before launching Made Institute, founder and owner Rachel Ford designed for Urban Outfitters and was a cutter/draper for the Philadelphia Opera. “This is a new approach to fashion and design schooling,“ she says. ”We want to help designers launch small fashion companies of their own.“

Ford, a designer and educator, has a vision, too: a new fashion ecosystem in a city that was once a hub for clothing and textile design and manufacturing.

In August, she will move Made Institute into a 3,400-square-foot space at 448 N. 10th St. The 7-story, 50,000-square-foot building formerly housed the Haverford Cycle Company, one of the last industrial buildings in the area. The Spring Arts District spans from 8th to 12th streets, from Noble to Spring Garden streets.

Grossman’s Arts and Crafts Holdings has also signed leases with two tech firms, Azavea and Boco Digital, and the Roy-Pitz brew pub.

“This pocket seemed like an overlooked area with a great history where some of the original makers of Philadelphia worked,” he said.

‘SO MUCH ROOM TO GROW HERE’

Made’s space will not only hold classes for aspiring fashion designers but also feature a membership-based “Fashion Co-Working Space,” fully equipped with industrial machinery, cutting tables, dress forms and resources for the growing fashion community in the city. This past August, Ford received a license from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for the program. She has already received more than 50 application requests for the spring session.

She and her staff will train students to become professional sewers, tailors, fashion designers and design entrepreneurs. 

“This is a new approach to fashion and design schooling. We want to help designers launch small fashion companies of their own,” Ford explained. “We focus our curriculum on the entrepreneurial experience, while still presenting the fashion landscape as a whole. A focus on sustainability, resourcefulness, and embracing the latest technical methods are what really set us apart from other school experiences.”

Before launching Made, Ford designed for Urban Outfitters and was a cutter/draper for the Philadelphia Opera. Her instructors have master’s degrees or work as fashion designers, she said. Her students come to her with other degree backgrounds, looking to switch careers or save money getting training. The Designer Development Diploma in Fashion Design, which focuses on teaching start-up designers what they need to know to enter the marketplace, can be completed in one year. The full cost of the diploma is $7,845.

“When I was introduced to Rachel and visited Made Studio, I saw the Wolf forms and the machines and it brought me back to visiting my dad in Midtown Manhattan.” – Craig Grossman, Spring Arts District developer

The second prong to the Institute is the launch of their Fashion CoWorking Space, which allows members to use their state-of-the-art machinery, tables and start-up know-how to produce small collections. It will be open late night and offer three levels of membership (4 visits monthly, $75; 12 visits monthly, $150; 25 visits monthly, $300) as well as locker storage, access to machinery and 10 percent off classes. Ford received a $10,000 grant from The Merchants Fund to purchase 12 new industrial sewing machines for the making of both knit and woven garments. 

“Designers that need a home base can avoid the costs of equipment capital and space, and use our studio whenever they need to,” Ford said. “In order to bring some manufacturing back to Philadelphia, there needs to be an investment made by private businesses like us into the design community at large. Our fashion co-working space is created to be a hub, open to the public at a low cost to promote and facilitate Philadelphia design businesses.

“I hope that the space serves to inspire other aspects of the industry, like textile factories, fashion tech resources, and manufacturers will start to pop up and grow to inspire Philly’s designers to stay in Philadelphia and imagine their design goals,” she continued. “Textiles, fashion tech and manufacturing have so much room to grow here in Philadelphia.”

STITCHING A PATH TO SUCCESS

It was just four years ago Ford opened her doors in Old City teaching skills to the start-up designer, dressmaker, or home sewer with hands on instruction. She expanded to courses in patternmaking, textiles, tailoring and design studio. She will now add product development to the list of services they offer.

“I am now in a position to create a full circle ecosystem, where designers and makers are treated as equals, working together toward the common goal of making beautiful garments for their customers,” she said.

Ford said the program will have two starts a year. While the curriculum she wrote is heavy on technical sewing, a designer who doesn’t care for sewing can come to the fashion gym and pull from their batch of sewers to complete a small collection.

“Small-batch manufacturing and direct-to-consumer selling is a trend in the industry for smaller designers,” she noted.

Her long-term vision addresses the challenges of domestic clothing manufacturing. For many emerging designers, getting into a factory means reaching certain piece minimums that are just too risky for start-up businesses. The challenge for factories is finding sewers to man machines.

The trade of sewing and patternmaking has been harder and harder to sustain in this country, according to Ford.

“With fast fashion driving price points and constant deliveries, American consumers have a false sense of what a garment should cost,” she explained. “This creates a false bottom line for what designers can spend on manufacturing and in turn, what manufacturers can pay their workers. By educating designers and their customers about how a slower, more sustainable fashion landscape can keep sewing jobs domestic, more and more people will seek out sewing as a viable living. Independent designers could hire their own small team of sewers, and manage production themselves.”

Grossman has high hopes for Ford’s enterprise.

“When I was introduced to Rachel and visited Made Studio, I saw the Wolf forms and the machines and it brought me back to visiting my dad in Midtown Manhattan,” said Grossman of his father, who worked in the childrenswear business his whole life.

“I have been intrigued by makers my whole life,” he said. “What Rachel is doing speaks to me. She is a true maker and feel she can attract other makers to this area.”

Kathleen N. Webber
PhillyVoice Contributor