WORKING: Designer stays analog, does just fine
You can't really help Adam Arnold work — you can only watch.
He does his job alone, standing in his socks, at an 18-foot table in the Pearl District. He cuts cloth with his Mundial scissors, resting the lower shear on the table for control, following the outline of his paper pattern in smooth arcs and straight lines. When he snips notches for darts, he has such control that he doesn't cut to the tips of the scissors, but stops exactly where the line ends, mid-action.
Arnold makes custom clothing for men and women: suits, dresses, shirts, even sweaters — and hats if he feels like it. He is not just a tailor but a designer too. Clients (all word of mouth, he never runs ads) come in with ideas and sometimes swatches of fabric. He sketches in a pad, measures them and makes a paper pattern and a test garment from beige cotton. They come in for a fitting, he adjusts the pattern, then makes a stiffer one from manila card and sews the final product. It's three weeks for a dress, jeans or a shirt, six weeks for a suit. Jeans or a shirt are about $300, a suit about $2,000. In his cursive handwriting on the green chalkboard, you can see the names of current clients; "Georgia Lee Hussey, slacks; Scott Spencer, overcoat."
Dealing with the new economy has been strangely easy for Arnold. He does almost everything in the hand-made or analog way. He's seen drafting programs such as Optitex, but is not interested.
"The whole reason I went to school to study clothing and fashion design is that I love every aspect of it," he told Pamplin Media on a recent afternoon. "I love pattern making and fabric and sketching and people and measuring and fittings, and I love all of that. It seemed kind of tragic that I would end up sitting at a desk, making quite a bit of money and not doing a single thing that I loved."
He only recently gave up his paper appointment books and moved to Google Calendar, and only then because it sent people reminders. He's been stood up before and didn't like it, so the internet solved one major problem for him.
A friend updated his website using Wix, but it's more of a portfolio and booking site. If he gets a small order online (non-custom, always from a graded pattern), it's still a surprise, but he can turn it around in 10 days.
Ultimately, Arnold's business survives in spite of the new economy, with its digital marketing, bitcoin payments, and clothes chopped out by laser in China for dropshipping.
Arnold, 47, has been working for himself for 20 years. He came into the business through inspiration. As a small child, his grandmother encouraged his interest in clothing and crafting. Then, at age 12, he went to see his clothing designer aunt at work at Roffe Ski Wear in Seattle.
He loved her corner office filled with sketches and swatches, its floor-to-ceiling windows and view of downtown Seattle, and how it opened on to the cutting and sample sewing floor.
"I absolutely fell in love with this woman's job, the designer's job. I fell in love with her office, mostly. I was like, 'I want that!' That's the job when someone's like 'Are you going to become a fashion designer?' That's the job."
In junior high in Vancouver, Washington, he was making most of his clothes. He took flak on the streets for his eccentric fashions — including monk robes.
At the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 1990, Arnold first started thinking of clothing as sculptural.
"I was going out dancing like every weekend and I was making myself an outfit to wear every weekend. Someone was like, 'Why don't you go to design school?'" He couldn't wait to get out of Portland and went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco in Union Square.
After that he got a job as an assistant designer working at a company called Koret of California.
It was known as "missy" wear, lots of banded bottom sweatshirts with appliques and matching pants and like Teflon coated pants, plus separate like sportswear separates for women. He called it a 1930s company that had aged with its clientele. The designs weren't the problem, it was the job.
"It was basically a glorified working at Kinko's kind of thing. You're just like making photocopies sending them to China, answering emails and doing like drawings on a computer."
He met with the lead designer and told him of his 12-year old's view of the designer job he wanted.
"And she's like, I'm sorry, but that job doesn't exist anymore. You're describing the designer's job in the '70s and 80s.' And that doesn't happen anymore. I don't even remember the last time I sketched."
He was essentially self-taught.
"I didn't call myself a designer until I really felt confident that is that I could pretty much make anything that anyone might asked me to make. I didn't really have a lot of focus in terms of what I design at that point. It was just more like, if somebody would pay for it, I would make it and learn how to make it. So, I was doing a lot of different kinds of things but just doing fittings and learning fit. It wasn't until I moved to Portland in 2000 that I designed a collection and took it to a few stores in Portland, and ended up in Mimi and Lena on Northwest 23rd. They placed an order and then I just graded the patterns in different sizes and I felt totally qualified and prepared to do that."
Grading the patterns meant making the designs in different sizes. It's not done by simply multiplying lengths, it's more of a math equation.
"There's definitely equipment that you can use to digitize a pattern and grade patterns. I've just always loved using my brain and I think there's something inspiring that lies in every step of the process of making it making a garment."
He moved back to Portland in 2002 because there were better fabric stores here: Mill End, Oregon Tailor Supply, and Josephine's Dry Goods.
He subscribes to the author Malcolm Gladwell's idea that after you have practiced a skill for 10,000 hours, you can start to be a master. He hit that around the year 2005, having made pants the same way so many times that it began to feel like a bodily function, totally natural, "like a sneeze or a handshake."
Each one, teach one
Arnold recently began teaching an introduction to garment making, back at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Mostly they are students whose main interest is something else, like painting or sculpture, but he loves that they all want to make clothes.
"It's like the first year of fashion design squeezed into like a semester that meets once a week. Some of them have never sewn. Yet it's always the ones that have some sewing experience that you have to be the most careful with because I was that person. They just typically have to unlearn some things that they learned. And that's harder than learning."
The backbone of his business has been keeping his clients happy and their referrals too. He holds on to their patterns for seven years after their last order. They hang in a large closet, like flat, manila ghosts. It gives such consistent business that the Great Recession almost passed him by.
"I wouldn't have actually known that there was a recession if somebody hadn't told me. What I did notice was that all of a sudden, people were not ordering things like jeans and shirts and skirts and pants. They were ordering more special occasion items, more suits and gowns and that kind of thing," Arnold said.
However, in these boom times, the local economy has cruelly asserted itself. For nine years, he was based in a warehouse on the inner east side near Sheridan Fruit, his rent increasing steadily, to the point that it doubled over nine years. Then, the owner said they were increasing the rent from $2,500 a month to $5,500.
"I was like, I can't pay that. Are they insane? I'm making everything myself — it was already a miracle. I work six days a week, like typically 11 hours a day. But they wouldn't even negotiate anything. So, then I found this space. This was a
bare-ass warehouse, peeling lead paint off the ceilings."
In May 2019, he got his Pearl space through a client. It's relatively cheap because it has no heat, no hot water, and the bathroom is across the courtyard. He painted it white, built platforms and closets, and added carpet. There is no art on the walls and no music playing because he prefers to work in silence.
"I redid it myself, but that is the state of affairs for creative people in the city now, unfortunately. It's becoming harder and harder to find a space to actually work in," Arnold said.
He lives in a studio apartment at Burnside and Northwest 23rd and says he can't afford to buy a house here. His old MG car stays garaged most of the time. Nor can he afford an assistant.
"Just to employ someone, you almost have to have double the income that they actually receive."
"I learned pretty early on that the only job security that there is out there is knowing that you can survive. As a working artist you're always like a step away from homelessness. I've always found security in knowing that whatever happens, I know how to survive. I call people back, I do what I say I'm going to do."
He will keep working to the end.
"I can't even imagine myself retiring. My grandfather was a cartographer, and he lived in Vancouver, Washington and lived to be 97. And he actually got up in the morning on his last day of life, and was working on drafting this map with a pencil, had some soup for lunch and took a nap and died. I don't ever not want to work."
Portland has a skewed view of itself.
"This isn't really a fashion capital. My clients are all basically all patrons of the arts — not West Hills people. I would say rich people, on the whole, are the worst clients. Just the fact that someone is rich or has money or means doesn't make them a good client. They need to have some kind of interest in that process."
He prefers patrons of the arts, or students who save up for the opera or their book collection, or support their artist friends. Some of them pay in installments, but they all love the hand-made process, the fittings and the final delivery of a garment that fits beautifully.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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