A Canadian clothing manufacturer has broken the mould and brought her business into Port Alberni from Vancouver.
Michelle Lee moved Kloth Clothing Designs from Gastown to a storefront on Fourth Avenue, just up the street from city hall last winter. She was able to double her square footage for less cost than she was paying in the city, and that’s even factoring in ferry travel back and forth when she was setting up her business.
“We’ve found it’s just really been a change of address for our clients,” Lee said. “They’re sending things to us here rather than our old location. It hasn’t been difficult at all.”
Her worries about additional shipping costs proved unfounded: there is little or no added cost to shipping across Canada. There is only extra time to consider, she said. Things take an extra day to get off the Island.
Kloth is not a retail clothing store. Lee and her employees make patterns and samples for designers from across Canada and the United States. Designers submit their sketches and Kloth employees create patterns and prototypes of their work.
“Some of the garments we sew end up in European stores and all across the world.”
Lee said previous Internet-based media reports stating she was bringing her “manufacturing plant” to Port Alberni were exaggerated. She does have five commercial sewing stations with the capacity to add five more as work picks up. She is also developing her own clothing line.
The biggest bonus to moving her business to Port Alberni has been a change in lifestyle for the businesswoman, who grew up on Gabriola Island and desired to return to island life.
Knowing she wanted a career in fashion design, she moved to Vancouver and attended design school in Gastown. She went on to teach at another design institution, also in Vancouver.
She started making patterns and putting together designs as a side business. “But it took over my life,” she said. She opened her own business in Gastown in 2003.
As the cost of doing business in the city rose, Lee started looking for somewhere smaller and more economical. “We looked at several communities on the Island but we felt this was the right place for us. There’s a great labour pool to draw from here as well.”
Before moving to Port Alberni in November 2010 Lee conducted a “pre-recruitment” drive, wondering what the response would be. She was looking for people with a passion for fashion who didn’t necessarily have great sewing skills, but were willing to be taught. “The way we presented it was the right personality mixed with a love of sewing,” she said.
She employs three to five people depending on how much work there is, and she has taught them on the job. She hopes to increase her labour force to 10 employees here in Port Alberni; she still does contracted sewing in Gastown too.
“Training individuals is an investment of time but something that’s well worth it.”
Lee said she would encourage other business owners to relocate to Port Alberni. Although she is a block away from a known trouble area in uptown Port Alberni, she said it’s not as bad as where she came from.
“I am strongly supporting this community,” she said. “I think this is a great up-and-coming location,” especially people craving an outdoor lifestyle once quitting time rolls around.
“It is definitely a great place for outdoor enthusiasts.”