A West Coast sportswear capital's best-kept secret. Seattle's fashion scene isn't just skiwear and hiking gear; the big news these days is sunshine fashion
Seattle — There's more to life out here than the great rainy outdoors. There is, for instance, the great sunny outdoors. Sunshine fashion is the best-kept secret in Seattle, just as are sunny days.
``We agree with all those people who pity us for our rain -- we do this so they won't move here and get things so crowded,'' the happy locals say with a smile.
And while many may know about Seattle's great skiwear and hiking-gear firms, the surprise today when you look around the fashion manufacturers sprouting up is the abundance of crisp chambrays, pants and shorts in bold cotton batiks, and exciting message prints.
A sense of fun and lightness is strong with the new Seattle fashion scene.
You'll find Seattle-made clothing all over America, but the new crop of designers here is little sung in its own backyard. Several of the most original of the new firms have perhaps one or two outlets in the city itself, though they are bought, thanks to participation in leisurewear trade fairs, by stores and their customers as far flung as New York, Florida, California, Tennessee, and Minneapolis.
Export is a mystery word to them. Only the older, strongly sportswear-oriented firms are interested to date.
The fresh note about the new, softer leisurewear of Seattle is that nearly all the firms making it are two or three years old, and their presidents and export men and designers have invariably sprung from an older firm, Britannia Jeans.
The life style of the wide-open Northwest draws many of the young fashion people here, and the scene is peppered with refugees from Los Angeles who wearied of smog and traffic jams and opted for a boat at the end of the garden. One factory, smack on Lake Union on the city's outskirts, gazes down on the boats of its employees who sail or putt-putt to work.
Union Bay Sportswear is one of the phenomena of the country. Only four years old, it expects to turn over $100 million worth of fashion in 1985. It is introducing its sixth line, one for sophisticated older men, this spring.
Like many a Seattle fashion firm, Union Bay has nearly all its clothes manufactured in the Far East, including more and more in China.
The attraction of a major port city has brought many fashion firms, as well as others, to the area.
``What we're getting out there,'' says Karyn Kline of Helly-Hansen, ``is superb workmanship at wages we simply could not rival in the US.''
``Over 80 percent of Seattle fashion is, I would reckon, made in Asia,'' says Union's dynamic founder, Dick Lentz.
Still, perhaps in fear of putting too many eggs in one basket, Union is now doing knitwear in Italy, with a Florence agent to oversee it.
Designers Lisa Bain and Robina Ward are delighted at this move. ``The most innovative ideas in knits still come from Italy.'' Adds Mr. Lentz, ``European men change fashion far more quickly than American men.''
Miss Bain is that rarity on the Seattle fashion scene: a designer with a degree. She holds one from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and a fashion merchandising degree from Los Angeles.
Robina Ward came eight years ago from England's prestigious Kingston College of Fashion.
Spring sweaters from their stable, ribbed pastels, with fabric tabs and patch details, will be long and very big. They will retail at $32.
A second group of clothes in deep jewel colors continues the baggy mood, but in poplin, while a third comes in acid brights. Poplin tapestry prints are vigorous, to be succeeded in autumn by dark woven plaids and some paisleys.
The 1960s stirrup pants are back again at this young firm.
What, no sailor collars? Union has taken the classic spring nautical theme and interpreted it afresh, mixing yellow with the navy and white. There are full Burma shorts coming up, too, and short cotton jackets.
One of the most exciting fabrics on the tryout rail is a curious new weave in denim, very crinkly, called ``uncut corduroy,'' which is being used for a soft unlined duster coat. Suddenly, in this new sophisticated guise, denim looks desirable again.
Another rising star in Seattle is the firm of Helly-Hansen, which traveled from its native Norway (where they know about rain-repellent clothing) to the outskirts of the city only four years ago. Now the baby has long outstripped the parent. The company has done innovative work developing polypropylene yarn for its underwear with Hodkin-Gillibrand of Bolton, England, and has introduced its Norwegian parent to pastels for this Lifa thermal underwear, whereas before the belief was that only navy would be acceptable or workable. ``And how many women do you know who want to wear navy underwear?'' says Ms. Kline, export director, who had the idea.
Helly-Hansen, started in 1877 in Moss, Norway, by a sea captain weary of constantly being wet and cold, first experimented with coating unbleached canvas with linseed oil. His firm has graduated to tough gossamer-light outerwear and to an underwear range, which is expected to sell 500,000 pieces this year.
Unlike so many other Seattle-area firms, Helly-Hansen does not do everything abroad: Vietnamese immigrants skillfully deal with the underwear knitting right at Helly's new factory, where one knitting machine alone has more than 1,700 tiny needles. Rainwear made in Canada is a new venture, supplementing the rain-shedding jackets made in the Far East, and for both lines they have active representatives throughout Europe.
Wild graffiti prints (red bands of scribble on white cotton, green bands alternating), a baggy pleated-all-round pant called Bombachi, a huge overshirt in the 1985 mood that they label the GTH (got-to-have) -- all these and scores more bright ideas pour out of a merry shed on Seattle's fringe, bathed in sun from its skylight, hung with banners and posters sharp with good graphic design.
The firm is called International News, and it doesn't let the customer forget it. The floppy pure cotton shirts sizzle with their logo, perhaps across a pocket or down one sleeve.
More in a London mood than anything one had expected in outdoorsy Seattle fashion, the International News setup came, as did many others, out of the Britannia firm. President Mike Alesko, a burly Yugoslav-American, recently won a top menswear award in the California Fashion Mart.
Mr. Alesko and his design director, Ann Wenzel, fly to Japan four times a year to sniff out young street fashion and graphic ideas. A basket in their showroom spills over with candid color snaps which inspire their own print designs. The actual making-up, for a change, is not done in the Far East but in Bombay, where Mr. Alesko's Indian partner oversees production.
International News makes a point of coordinating and accessorizing, and are therefore careful about how the clothes are bought and displayed.
Experiment is the word at this place: They love to overdye a print, or wash it vigorously to get a paler background. Look, this spring, for bold stripes like those of the Finnish. Look for racing prints with motifs of Pirelli and Brands Hatch and other race tracks round the world. Some prints have fine dots like newspaper comic strips, on which is boldly lettered in red a word like ``freshest'' or ``neatest.''
Competition? They reckon it could come, for Seattle creativity is humming just now. It's a city of sportswear shapes, however softened; no one even knew of an actual manufacturer of dresses.
Seattle fashion isn't all giant factories, whether actually in the city or in the Far East. Women who want something more formal, more unusual, trek out to Broadway on Capitol Hill, where Opus 204 offers Irish linen jackets, handsome hand-woven tweed coats, swashbuckling hats, and copper bangles of curious twist covered in green patina. The Latvian owner designs many things herself, as well as buying from both local and French designers.
In the heart of the city, at Butch Blum's on Fifth Avenue, women choose from half a dozen top European designer names such as Karl Lagerfeld, Byblos, and Genny, but they can also buy stunning leather coats and trousers by a young Seattle designer, Carol McClellan. Nearby at Nubia's on Union Street, at more modest prices, women choose sleek town dresses and heavy striped cotton separates, all beautifully accessorized on stands in the little shop.
The younger crowd ferret out bargains among the secondhand clothes shops in Pike's Place market, but they put it all together far more calmly than their London equivalents.