Baltimore’s Fashion Innovation Hub Boosts Sewing and Start-ups

As U.S. cities like Detroit and St. Louis are building ecosystems for local production, a Baltimore contingent has been quietly laying the groundwork to strengthen the needle trade industry.

In Baltimore, the aim is to revive the city’s needle trade and to advance design innovation as well as area businesses through Sew Bromo, an organization that was started in 2021 by Stacy Stube, an experienced fashion executive. She also serves as the founder and president of the Fashion Innovation Hub. In August, the hub welcomed the Buyback Baltimore’s Needle Trades, an initiative that uses existing sewing machines to support future generations, to an 8,300-square-foot space. That same month, Sew Bromo established the Fashion Heritage Needle Trades Foundation so that industry veterans’ knowledge would be transferred to the next generation of Baltimore-based fashion entrepreneurs.

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After working in the U.S. and abroad for Burberry, Alexander McQueen, Hugo Boss, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, Club Monaco and other brands, Stube moved back to her hometown in 2016 and worked for one of Baltimore’s last needle trade factories, Fashions Unlimited, as head of innovation. She moved on three years later since working with start-ups was not something management was interested in. Keen to work with area start-ups, line up prototype development and provide them with other industry skills, she decided to take action.

In the prime of the city’s needle trade in the 1970s, there were 22,000 stitchers and sewing machine operators located on one city block versus 30 or 40 workers today. There were about 26,380 sewing machine operators in the entire U.S. as of 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. People don’t realize that when a longtime, experienced needle trade factory owner dies, that operation usually closes since succession plans are often not in place, Stube said. That dwindling base is a disservice to the fashion industry, since it limits the options for new talent to develop prototypes or small-batch production runs.

Stube is literally racing to get things done even though she has been campaigning to fund the industry for more than five years. After she completed an eight-day 200-mile solo run in the dead of winter to simply honor the city’s needle trade history, “all these veterans from the industry came out of the woodwork.” Although most of them had left the industry and/or switched careers, a small number of them had kept sewing and brought them out of their garages and second rooms to create a new community with start-ups under Stube’s advisement. The seasoned needle trade workers are teaming up with newcomers to share their skills and expertise.

Baltimore runners
Nicole Myrick and Stacy Stube plan to run 333 miles in 10 days this summer to support Baltimore’s needle trade industry.

As a result, what was initially a 3,000-square-foot space in an abandoned factory has become a 20,000-square-foot facility that houses the veterans, entrepreneurs and needle trade-related nonprofits. “That floor is just humming and singing. It is such a delight to walk through,” Stube said. There is now an additional 8,300-square-foot space for the Fashion Innovation Hub on the building’s sixth floor for users to develop prototypes, launch early-stage businesses and develop soft goods innovation.

The Buyback Baltimore’s Needle Trade campaign will cap off this summer with a memorable sporting event. Stube has also been training for the “Bali to Baltimore Run,” which will cover 333 miles over 10 days, with another Baltimore entrepreneur, Nicole Myrick, founder of Icosa Apparel. They will be going the distance with Indonesia’s longest distance runner Valentine Lily. The run’s name is a nod to the one that Stube and Lily did in 2016 that spanned the circumference of Bali, where Stube had been working at that time. They aim to exceed the $100,000 fundraising goal for Buyback Baltimore’s Needle Trade campaign. All three women will be running in garments from the Fashion Innovation Hub.

“As we know, Under Armour is headquartered here, but very little of their work is produced here. This [run] is really meant to activate the running community to see that a lot of the garments that they are wearing [are not made in the U.S.] We want people to turn the tags inside out to see on the labels, where they are made. That’s where you are investing your dollars,” Stube said.

Under Armour does have the UA Lighthouse Manufacturing and Design Leadership Center, a 35,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility to help with larger productions runs, whereas the Fashion Innovation Hub focuses on start-ups that want to build their companies and keep their manufacturing rooted in Baltimore.

The funds from the campaign have been and will continue to be used for equipment in the innovation space to benefit participants like Girl in Space Club and Truuce. Another local brand, WhitePaws RunMitts, a running glove company started by Susan Clayton that has distribution in REI and other stores, will soon be rolling out a version for children for the local needle trades campaign by developing the prototypes locally.

Aware of the potential for other cities to create fashion-focused infrastructures, Stube is open to sharing information. Stube said she has shared notes with the U.K.-based Fashion Enter organization, which is trying to keep needle trade skills, as it did by absorbing the 75 machinists from a Laura Ashley factory in Wales. Whereas Stube is focused on little-known entrepreneurs in early-stage launches, Fashion Enter works directly with more established forces in the industry.

“Baltimore is the capital city for impact-driven needle trades,” said Stube, who is trying to attract more prototyping, pre-selling and testing of the local market. “In the fashion industry, so many ventures never get off the ground, because they can never get to prototypes,” she said. “Traditional factory workers work on the same thing day-in and day-out so they get fast. But they don’t think about the whole product that’s being made. That’s why you need innovation stitchers. If we can build this in Baltimore, it will be a cost saving for people not having to travel to Asia to do this.”

The Baltimore-centric infrastructure is suitable for DTC brands in that it “removes some of the exploitive elements in an industry that is trying to save money by making abroad. If you are selling DTC and are looking to invest in local communities, you may not need that cost savings,” Stube said.

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