Behind the Seams

High fashion created in an unlikely place
Item-House_059

Photos by Shawn Kinney

Trina Turk, a beloved fashion designer whose clothes are sold at Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, introduced her fall collection to high-fashion executives and journalists at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York in 2013. Glamorous style enthusiasts swarmed the collection as bright-white camera lights flashed. Every major fashion media outlet, including Vogue, Style.com and New York Magazine, broadcast it on their websites. What they didn’t report, however, is that the high fashion coats that graced one of the world’s most popular fashion shows got their start in Tacoma.

Down an alley off Center Street is a spacious, nondescript warehouse tucked between a boarded-up abandoned building and the local Humane Society. The entrance isn’t easy to find. A GPS gets you close, but you don’t notice the front door until you wind around the parking lot. Rusty-green Dumpsters are out front. As you climb the creaky stairs you almost feel lost. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a yellow glowing office. As you walk through the doors, you feel like you have gained access to a secret fashion society.

Inside, mannequins wear luxurious, colorful coats. Hanging on the wall is a “Partners in Excellence” award from Nordstrom. Everyone buzzing around the polished, bright waiting room is well dressed and wearing big smiles.

Welcome to Item House. A high-fashion powerhouse you’ve probably never heard of and would expect to find in New York.

Item House is a clothing company that designs, manufactures and distributes high-fashion coats. Some of their products are made under their own labels and others are licensed through major designers like Trina Turk. The Northwest has a great athletic outerwear fashion presence that includes REI, Eddie Bauer, Nike and Lululemon.

According to Item House president Greg Davis, the company is the only major high-fashion coat-design company west of the Mississippi.

Item House might be in Tacoma, but much of their design inspiration comes from their presence in New York and Shanghai, where they also have offices. They stay in Tacoma because their roots are planted in the city’s industrial heritage — and some of their top talent calls
the area home.

It all started in 1956, when a Seattle retailer decided to partner with a Tacoma manufacturer to develop a quick-turn fashion house that would produce trending outerwear pieces. A few years later, Item House was an established business, manufacturing racks of coats. By the ’90s, a lot of the fashion manufacturing market was moving overseas and Item House grew its footprint, too.

“The business today, you have to be global,” said Davis, who works with factories in Asia and Central America.

Like many American manufacturers, Item House made the transition from maker to designer. They started paying closer attention to fabrics and outsourced fine wools and cashmeres from Italy. They launched their first label, Kristen Blake, which became an overwhelming success, and afterwards introduced additional labels, Forecaster of Boston and Sachi.

Satoko Haydu at her sewing machine

Satoko Haydu at her sewing machine

Today, Item House has licenses with major design companies, including Trina Turk and Pendleton. Each license is different, with varying levels of engagement from the label owner.

“It varies a lot by the organization you’re working with,” said Davis. “With Trina Turk, it’s a real collaborative effort, we do a lot of the groundwork in regards to fabrications and the ideas, but there is a great exchange back and forth between Trina and ourselves.”

A common fabric mill introduced Item House to the California designer and they’ve been working closely together since. When Turk’s models took stage at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, the coats under the bright lights were designed in collaboration with Item House and every one of them came through the Tacoma headquarters. From curly lamb furs to zigzag wools, the collection exhibited the crème de la crème of coat design.

Item House doesn’t sell directly to customers (besides the few major sales they have every year to clear out their warehouse). They work hard in the shadows to see their fashion in the spotlight.

At one point, Davis considered moving the headquarters to New York. But he had built a tremendous team in Tacoma and the current warehouse is only 20 minutes from the airport. Because his team travels to meet with clients and partners, Tacoma works.

And they keep growing. Everything Item House produces has to live up to their high expectations of excellence. Every detail is checked, every stitch considered, every fabric carefully selected.

“In the fashion world, fashions come and go. You’re always trying to interpret the looks and the runway designs. You know that’s an every-year, every-season business. But the one thing that is a constant … creating that credibility in the consumer’s mind … I think we have achieved that,” said Davis.

Item-House_044The small team religiously visits their retailers’ websites. They study every comment that’s left. Their No. 1 objective is to always present the best garment possible. Because for them, a coat isn’t something you wear once. It’s the thing you wrap yourself in day after day. It’s the first thing people see when you walk down the street. It’s the thing that will fight off the bitter cold after a long day. It has to last. It has to work. And it has to look fabulous.

“It’s passion,” said Nancy Bartkus of University Place, who heads the design and merchandising team. “If you don’t like the business, you won’t be in it. You have to love it.” Bartkus is a tall brunette who can be both outwardly charming and quietly focused. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

The Tacoma staff of 30 employees is always on the go. Fall 2014 is just around the corner, and designs for the collections are in full swing.

In one of the big, open warehouse rooms is a long table with layers of the most divine fabrics you can imagine. Twisted around enormous rolls, Davis and Bartkus unravel them as if they’re sacred scrolls of paper waiting to be read.

“Feel this, isn’t that incredible?” said Bartkus, as she runs her fingers over a strip of alpaca wool. She and the rest of the team are engulfed in the texture, the color and the look of each individual fabric. It’s not just cloth — it’s the soul of their business.

On the first floor, Bill VanGunda is in the back cutting fabric for sample coats. It’s a complicated job because every pattern has to align perfectly once assembled on the coat. But VanGunda is a master. He’s been cutting fabrics for Item House for more than 49 years.

Satoko Haydu, who sews VanGunda’s cuts, has been at Item House for 46 years. Her delicate fingers work quickly under her Juki sewing machine. Her desk is covered in fashion sketches of coats waiting to be assembled. But she doesn’t seem stressed. Her smile comes naturally and often. In fact, the Sachi line is named after her (it’s her nickname). Last fall, Neiman Marcus featured a tall brunette wearing a Sachi reversible, blue-dyed fox cocoon coat.

Item House is a warm, fashion-forward place tucked inside a dark warehouse — an unexpected high-fashion creator in the middle of a town with an undiscovered fashion reputation. It’s a place where dedicated and talented folks quietly contribute to the high-fashion world — minus the glitz, glamour and flashing cameras — behind the seams.

is the managing editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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