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Missouri companies match fashion startups with tech, resources to bring designs to life

Fashion icon Ralph Lauren once noted that he didn’t design clothes.

“I design dreams,” he said.

That may be true, but turning dreams of a new clothing startup into the tangible reality of product hanging on a shelf can be a genuine challenge — even in fashion Meccas such as New York or Los Angeles.

Still, there is a small but growing fashion sector here in Missouri that can help to make ideas happen as they bridge the gap from concept to manufacturing — some of it using the latest technologies.

“It is kind of like a one-stop-shop,” said Bret Schnitker. “Internally, we have some of the latest technologies as it relates to 3D design work. When clients have an idea of an image, our artists can actually render it, and they can look at it from all angles.”

Schnitker is CEO/partner of Stars Design Group, a two-decade-old company located just south of downtown St. Louis. As befits a fashion concern, Stars is a tasteful blend of past and present. Even its current home is a smooth, modern architectural creation incorporating a pre-existing structure that still looks very much like the old church the building originally contained many years ago.

At Stars, Schnitker, who introduces himself with a distinctive metal print business card, often helps to get other people’s ideas off the ground. He said that, for many clients, the company stays engaged all of the way through the design stage and product development to factory production. With a treasure trove of experience and a library of more than 20,000 swatches, the company can help fashion newcomers to understand the possibilities as they build their “tech packs” — the schematic DNA for creating a given garment.

“When clients come in and start dialoguing about different fabrics for different needs in this industry, we have a wealth of information upstairs and we can help them to reverse-engineer products that way,” he said.

The company also has connections with 67 factories around the globe, which they’ve worked to vet so clients know they are dealing with quality manufacturers.

“Mentoring a lot of these different groups over the years, there are a lot of questions you want to walk through because today a majority of our business in manufacturing is offshore, so there are limitations in terms of quantities that overseas factories can produce,” Schnitker said.

For instance, most deal in larger quantities, so an initial question for entrepreneurs to ask is how many units they want. That relates to what stage the company is at and brings up other questions, such as the target-customer demographic and the retail price.

Stars works hard to ensure that factories with which it interacts produce quality products — even going so far as to partner with a third-party inspector to monitor the product.

“We have offices overseas,” he said. “We have people on the ground at the factories managing fabric flow, quality and communications.”

Others might look for options closer to home — even if they could bring higher costs.

“A lot of startups are utilizing what is becoming more and more a robust manufacturing opportunity in the United States and St. Louis,” Schnitker said. “It is generally more expensive than overseas, but you can start with smaller quantities. You can understand how your market is going to react and grow your customer base. It allows you [to make a] quick turn.”

Jennifer Lapka

Jennifer Lapka

Schnitker praised the St. Louis Fashion Fund for its work in creating a greater sense of community and trying to grow the Gateway City into a hub for the garment industry, which once had a presence there.

“They are kind of taking a cue from Cortex,” he said, referring to the city’s bustling technology hub. “How did they start building a community and pulling everything together?”

On the other side of the state, Kansas City has its own set of growing manufacturing options, including some with a unique social enterprise component.

“Our impact statement is to create jobs and opportunity in Kansas City through the business of fashion,” said Jennifer Lapka of Rightfully Sewn. “The apparel-manufacturing industry is coming back alive all over the country because of taxes and tariffs, and perhaps even more importantly, consumers are very interested in American-made goods.”

Situated in the city’s eclectic Crossroads Arts District, Lapka’s nonprofit organization runs a seamstress-training program for women with sewing experience or an interest in the trade. She said more than 80 percent of participants are immigrants, many from Africa, the Mideast or Asia. Graduates of the program can be placed in permanent employment situations with tailors, costumers, designers or others.

“There are, at any given time, 100 jobs open in Kansas City for skilled seamstresses,” she said.

Rightfully Sewn also offers its manufacturing capabilities to designers and can claim clients from New Jersey to California. While it still uses grants and donations, almost half of its income now comes from its earned revenue stream.

“We don’t even have to advertise anymore for our small-batch production services because it is in such high demand,” she said.

Lapka said Kansas City once was known for the production of suits, coats and dresses.

“We were a real leader in manufacturing in the last century,” she said. “Rightfully Sewn asserts that Kansas City will again be a strong leader in this industry.”

Meanwhile, some on the manufacturing side are looking to the tech sector for inspiration.

“We’re looking to take advantage of the most technological advances that are available in this industry, and we want to really try and create the supply chain and manufacturing of the future,” said John Elmuccio, COO and managing partner of Evolution St. Louis, a high-tech knitting facility. “We really looked at the changing shift in the retail climate and how consumers were buying,”

Elmuccio and his other managing partner, CEO Jon Lewis, said they noticed an ongoing shift in the retail climate and how consumers were buying. They saw traditional retailers such as Macy’s were closing stores while Amazon was hiring. A lot of the new brands emerging were direct-to-consumer.

John Elmuccio

John Elmuccio

They also believed these trends might forecast an opportunity for a change in the way manufacturing was done.

“Instead of having one-person, one-sewing machine, we had machines that were run by a person on a tablet controlling a bank of 10 machines,” he said.

Programs and designs could be assembled through the computer, and smaller runs were possible.

“We don’t have the large minimums that are required overseas,” Elmuccio said.

Lewis said that roughly 35 percent of the apparel category is knit, and Evolution aims to be at the center of the rise of a new way of making garments.

“You don’t have to go to L.A. You don’t have to go to New York anymore,” Lewis said. “Fashion is ubiquitous.”

Elmuccio said Evolution isn’t looking to recreate the old manufacturing environment but instead hopes to help invent a new one.

“If you can imagine 3D printers, our equipment is essentially 3D clothing,” he said. “Yarn comes in one end of the machine, and a total garment comes out the other.”

So what can a new entrepreneur do when seeking to move to the next step in the process?

“I think the first element is relationship,” advised Elmuccio. “No matter where you are manufacturing, it is very important if you are a startup especially . . . to have a relationship with a factory rather than have multiple factories. If you have a relationship with a factory, even if your quantities are small but you give them multiple styles, it will have more meaning to that factory.”

He also cautions newcomers to check out the manufacturer to make sure it will be around next week.

“Typically, in a startup environment, those companies are dealing with smaller manufacturing facilities, and you want to make sure those factories are financially secure as well,” he said. “We’ve seen many instances over the years where a startup will buy fabric and all the supplies and send it to the factory. Three months later, they found out that factory went out of business.”

The best reassurance is to look at who a company is doing work for, he added.

Jon Lewis

Jon Lewis

“That’s a perfect way to find out what their quality is like and what their reputation is like,” he noted.

Stephanie Hurrell, product development manager of Makers Row, a Brooklyn, New York platform that links to manufacturers in Missouri and around the nation, suggested using a factory that has reviews or positive word of mouth.

“If they are not on the platform, then they should at least go with someone who is recommended by a friend or a friend of a friend,” she said. “I think word of mouth is something that is so powerful. Direct recommendations are so valuable. The one thing you want to know going into the relationship is that you can trust this manufacturer. They are not going to dupe you.”

Who you choose is important to your success, Hurrell said.

“You are going to be partnering with this person for a very long time,” she said. “This person can be on your speed dial on your phone. Some people have really close relationships with their factories, and you really should.”

Quotes may not give an exact price for everything, she noted, but it is always a good sign when a factory is upfront about costs by giving a package price or relaying an hourly rate.

“There should be some kind of visibility and transparency with pricing so that you know the ballpark of what your budget needs to be,” she said.

Factories that work entirely with an hourly rate are OK to use as long as the potential impact on the final bill is factored into costs, she said.

“It is completely fine to work that way,” she said. “It is just that your costs have a little bit more leeway to increase.”

However, she warns designers to stay away from manufacturers who want the entire cost upfront during the sourcing stage — before a sample has even been produced. A 50 percent deposit followed by 50 percent after the first prototype is more typical.

“They should not, at that stage, request 100 percent payment for the whole development process,” she said.

Schnitker said that finding the right manufacturing partner can be a challenge. You need someone who will deliver a quality product.

“When a startup brand starts to gain momentum and they think, ‘OK, I’m going to go offshore,’ many times that’s when they come to us telling us horror stories where they’ve been beaten and bloodied overseas because they don’t have the experience and the relationships,” he said.

It is all part of withstanding what he calls the “positioning years”, the timeframe of perhaps three to five years in which a new company sees large outlays of investment but hasn’t yet built the brand enough to gain customer traction.

“[Assuming] you have the right product and you are focusing your efforts consistently, if you build it they will come eventually,” he said. “But it takes a while.”

That’s why having a blueprint for operations can be just as important to the next Ralph Lauren as it is to have a dream. Schnitker joked that some of those he’s helped have referred to him as a “tormentor” rather than a mentor because of how relentlessly he insists that they have a coherent business plan.

But, without one, you risk being yet another defunct fashion label that just didn’t make it, he said.

“It is not that they don’t have brilliant ideas,” he said. “It is that they don’t plan out long enough and realize there are cash outlays and sustainability over a period of time.”

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