Four designers are currently participating in the Factory Fashion Small Batch Manufacturing initiative. To produce the garments, sewing students receive training in skills ranging from basics to haute couture. Lisa Ramfjord Elstun, one of the instructors at the factory, explains that the program enables local designers to participate in the vital “made local” project.
“They want ‘made in Colorado,’ and it’s the same as the farm-to-table beer industry or the craft beer industry,” Ramfjord Elstun said. “People want to know where their clothes are made. And so if we can say they’re made here in Denver and in Colorado, it would be fun to see that happen.”
Ramfjord Elstun is an award-winning bridal and lingerie designer who has been working towards this idea for the past eight years, so she was thrilled when Barker Maa asked her to join the program.
“I would like to have all levels of experience to work with,” said Ramfjord Elstun. “And because the sooner we get to higher-level skills, the sooner we can bring in more designers.”
And the clothes they make are as diverse as the people in Colorado. Around the bright space, waiting for the next batch of artists to go to work, are rows of sewing machines, workbenches and sergers.
One of the designers working with Factory Fashion, Norberto Mojardin, said the program is more than an opportunity to grow his business. The Mexican-born stylist’s work draws inspiration from a wide range of Latin cultural elements, and he co-owns Beto Hair Studio.
“Not only thinking about myself, but about my community, also opening doors for designers, our youth, our children – but also older – that they don’t consider themselves designers,” said Mojardin. “They say, ‘Oh, I’m just a seamstress.’ And I always tell them, ‘No, you’re not just a seamstress. You are a designer and you can create and you can do more than you think.’”
Barker Maa said the school not only helps people learn how to make clothes, but also how to get their work in front of people who might buy it — start building a following.
“I think part of the challenges that new designers have, especially local, is that when they try to bring their clothes to market, they’re usually sent to LA to source,” Barker Maa said. “And so you know, they’re running into people, manufacturers who want minimums that are too high. They might want to sell five to 10 pieces or 50 pieces — or less — like a small designer.”
And Ramfjord Elstun said that just having the opportunity to learn from others and gain experience with cars can make a difference to young designers … just like what Factory Fashion offers.
“Designers really, while starting their lines, don’t have access to the kind of equipment or skill levels that a facility like this will offer,” said Ramfjord Elstun. “And we have such a wide range of skills of teachers and workers here, as well as designers, that we can call on a lot of people to help us here.”
The program is also part of larger conversations about returning manufacturing jobs to the U.S. and revaluing trade school education.
“What we are able to do and discovered during the pandemic is that the sewers were and are an essential person who should be employable in this country,” said Ramfjord Elstun. “We didn’t have any [home economics] in high school curricula for nearly 30 years. The technology that is available to bring advanced manufacturing back to the sewing goods industry requires a lot more than your grandmother’s sewing machine at the table kind of mentality.”
And the net Fashion Factory in attracting more people to the industry is even wider. It also focuses on the inclusion of refugee communities and those leaving the prison population.
“You know, we have opportunities for these populations to start a career and a career that provides benefits and a career that provides financial stability,” Barker Maa said.
And Barker Maa dreams big: She said she even dreams that one day the program will offer its students help on the path to citizenship, if they need and want it.
“You know, we’re trying to train in a very skilled environment,” Barker Maa said. “And so we’re also working really hard with local nonprofits to provide a pathway to citizenship and a place to home, if that’s something you need as well. So these are things that are important besides the love of fashion and the excitement of what we do. But I think there’s just a lot here that we’re trying to explore.”