When John Elmuccio got a call in November 2018 about a business opportunity in St. Louis, he had been working in apparel and fashion for almost four decades, so he knew plenty about the industry.
But he wasn’t aware that the Midwestern city had a rich heritage in fashion or that from the late 19th century until World War II, it had a thriving garment district — second only to that of New York, where he had been based as a executive for Fortune 500 apparel companies and a founder of apparel brands and companies.
Elmuccio was starting a new company offering high-tech knitting and already had signed a lease in Detroit. But St. Louis Fashion Fund President Susan Sherman told him about St. Louis’ fashion history and asked if he would reconsider.
With a combination of tax credits, other financial incentives and a pitch that the city was tailor-made for his company, Sherman succeeded in luring Elmuccio to Missouri.
The two now share hopes that Elmuccio’s 3D knitting company, Evolution St. Louis, can play a key role in the revitalization of the local fashion industry.
“This is the first facility of its kind in the United States, so if you are in the knitwear sector or are curious about it or want to innovate, you have to come to St. Louis now,” said Sherman, whose nonprofit organization aims to boost the local fashion industry and create jobs in the sector.
Elmuccio and his business partner and Evolution co-founder, Jon Lewis, received $5 million in tax credits from the St. Louis Development Corp., and a $300,000 loan with a 4 percent interest rate from another city agency. Local philanthropist Ken Kranzberg also purchased a building in Grand Center, which he leased to Evolution for its manufacturing facility.
The company launched operations in February 2020 and now employs about 25 people. The co-founders are planning a second factory, which they hope will open by the end of 2022 and employ a total of 200 people within the next few years, Elmuccio said.
“We want to put St. Louis on the map with New York and Los Angeles in the conversation about fashion,” said Elmuccio, 71, who now is the company’s managing partner and chief operations officer.
He should know what that will take.
About five years before launching Evolution, Elmuccio and Lewis — also a fashion-industry lifer — were based in New York and running a company, Onis Design Group, that licensed high-end designer brands in the intimate apparel and swimwear space.
The co-founders noticed that it was becoming more difficult to sell clothing in department stores and that more people were buying from direct-to-consumer companies online instead.
They determined that the 12-to-18 month fashion cycle, which relied on projections of what people will wear next year and off-shore manufacturers to produce those pieces, would no longer work with trends quickly coming and going.
“The only way to resolve that was to think about having more domestic manufacturing,” Elmuccio said.
But how could that work, given that the cost of labor is so much higher in the United States than in places such as China and India? As is often the case, the solution arose from new technology.
Elmuccio said he and Lewis became “enamored” with two companies, Stoll and Shima Seiki, that were selling machines used in a new process known as 3D knitting, similar to 3D printing.
“Yarn comes in one end, and whole garments come out the other,” Elmuccio said. “That was very intriguing because, rather than the traditional model where you have one person and one sewing machine, now one technician could run a bank of 10 to 12 machines, so the cost of labor becomes significantly lower .
Also, the machines made it possible to knit new structures for clothing, such a shirt that is part jersey and part ribbed, or uses different threads, such as organic cotton and LED yarn designed to be luminous.
3D knitting also appealed to Mary Ruppert-Stroescu, an associate professor of fashion design at Washington University in St. Louis. After meeting Elmuccio at a Fashion Fund event, she and the Evolution co-founders discussed developing curriculum with the new knitting technology and even offering a master’s degree in art, fashion and 3D innovation at the university.
“The whole paradigm has shifted in the late 20th century from a top-down, designers telling you what you want to do to, to the consumer saying, ‘This is what I want,’” explained Ruppert-Stroescu, who has placed a student intern with Evolution.
“Consumers today want comfort, and knit is an elastic fabric that moves with the body,” she said. “And it also takes less engineering to get something to mold around the body because it will mold around different shapes, so it’s a very quick thing to make.”
Even though 3D knitting cuts down on labor costs, running the company in New York still would have been very costly, its co-founders said.
“For a couple of guys from New York who were used to paying $75 to $100 a square foot for rent, the ability to look at facilities” in St. Louis “that were available for $3 to $5 a square foot was eye-opening for us. Also, the vibrant culture of the city — all of that was very attractive to us,” said Elmuccio, whose factory has produced items for the Mara Hoffman swimwear brand and Outerknown, a clothing company focused on sustainability.
But how did they persuade St. Louis officials that their business model create jobs and energize the local economy, given that it centers on technology that reduces the amount of labor needed?
“The manufacturing facility that we built here is more like a tech environment than it is a manufacturing facility. All of our designers are actually programmers,” Elmuccio said. “We take design ideas from our brands and turn them into computer codes that a machine can read, so these are all still labor jobs.”
The company pays all of its employees at least $15 an hour, he said. To the growing number of consumers who are concerned about the clothing industry’s impact on the environment, Evolution’s approach is attractive because domestic manufacturing cuts down on pollution generated by shipping products around the world, Also, 3D knitting creates less waste than traditional manufacturing, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the global supply chain issues that resulted also heightened consumer demand for clothing manufactured domestically, Elmuccio said. Nearly 100 percent of clothing sold in the United States was imported before the pandemic disrupted production, shipping and delivery schedules.
“By creating more responsive supply chains and locating production in the United States with companies like Evolution St. Louis, brands and retailers have a better opportunity to react to demand in a world forever changed by the pandemic,” he said.
Timo Weiland, co-founder and creative director of New York-based menswear and womenswear brand Timo Weiland, also pointed to the “risks and barriers” of working with overseas manufacturers as a factor in his company’s decision to work with Evolution.
“We’ve seen huge delays and fashion manufacturing companies overseas simply going under and never shipping the product as promised,” he said. “By working with Evolution St. Louis, we’re able to keep a closer watch on our products and the process — from start to finish. They’re nimble and collaborative, and our partnership with Evolution St. Louis allows us to react to real-time consumer demand.”
Even though Evolution opened its facility only a month before the pandemic shut down much of the world, Sherman said she already has seen the benefits of bringing the company to St. Louis. She recently discussed Evolution with Washington University graduates who started Pareto, a Chicago-based clothing company focused on offering “fewer, more purposeful pieces” and sustainability.
The first thing Sherman asked them: Do you want to move to St. Louis?
While they haven’t yet said yes, “They said they would love to work with [Evolution] because they are going to get into that knitwear sector eventually,” she said. “One thing may lead to another. It takes time to get people to move here, and it takes money sometimes, too, but we are going to see a lot more people coming to St. Louis to work with this factory.”