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How did you get started in art and design? I’ve been making art for most of my life, but I became more serious about art and design when I was a teenager and was accepted into an arts-focused high school. I studied everything from poetry to dance to painting and sculpture. I found much of my visual self-expression through sculpture, 3-D art and fashion since about 1997 and have been playing in those worlds ever since!

What inspired you to specialize in fabrication and soft sculpture, and what led you to establish Portland Garment Factory (PGF)? In 2008, I was designing clothing and was active in the Portland art scene. I noticed how many of my clothing designer friends were having trouble finding a local manufacturer to help make patterns and prototypes, much less produce their clothing lines. So, I decided to open PGF in a small studio in southeast Portland. Initially, I thought PGF would function as a shared creative space where designers could come and work together to cut and sew their clothing, but it quickly became apparent that what was needed was not a shared workspace but an actual garment factory! I hired a few people to cut and sew along with me, and we began focusing on producing other people’s work.

The work has morphed over the years to include more than just garments. As the business has grown, we’ve taken on more and more creative projects, including sculptures, installations and costumes. I still love the collaborative aspect of the work we do. I am an artist, but I don’t feel that I need to be making my personal work all the time to get creative satisfaction. There is extreme enjoyment in collaborating with my team to bring our clients’ visions to life.

I’m so sorry that you recently lost PGF’s previous space to arson. What was that experience like, and how was it finding a new space? It was very hard. PGF had been in our former space for more than a decade; that space was where the business took off and became what it is today. Seeing everything I’d worked for literally go up in flames put me in a deep state of grief. Gathering regularly with my team during the months between our old space and our new one helped me climb out of a dark emotional place. I felt a strange mix of emotions during that period: grief over what we’d lost and excitement over what was next. When it came to looking for a new home, we knew what we wanted in a new space, and after a few months of looking at what was available, we found it. We went from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet, gaining the space and amenities to take on more ambitious projects. In many ways, our new building is the complete opposite of our old one, but it’s beginning to feel like the PGF I love.

You’ve created soft sculptures for Nike’s REACT and Department of Unimaginable campaigns. From an artist’s perspective, what is it like to sculpt for clients? Creating for corporate clients and ad agencies forms the bulk of what PGF does, so in that respect, I’m comfortable with the collaborative process and understand what it takes to get everyone aligned. As an individual artist, I am lucky to have great partnerships with agencies and more prominent companies in Portland that value my perspective. I like to approach projects in a way that almost takes the “client” part out—at least, at first. Sometimes, that relieves some pressure. It’s good to keep in mind that almost all the people I work with on projects like this are also artists and creators in their own rights outside of the work they do for the companies for which they work. We are all the same, really: just creative people coming together to make a living while trying to bring a unique perspective to the world.

Working on the Department of Unimaginable project is fun because the job is wacky from the start. From there, we suss out how to take a 2-D concept into 3-D reality. Proportion, whimsy, texture—these are all elements that we dive into with the client. Sometimes we don’t see eye to eye, but those disagreements are actually where the best ideas end up coming from.

Don’t limit yourself by trying to be what you think others want you to be. Let your designs and your professional life reflect the artist you are on the inside.”

How was working on the Ugly Masks products with Wieden+Kennedy (W+K)? That was a very make-lemonade-out-of-some-sour-2020-lemons kind of project! The Ugly Holiday Masks were part of a larger campaign from the Oregon Health Authority to encourage being safe during holiday gatherings in the pre-vaccine days. We had a lot of fun designing and making very off-the-wall masks with W+K. The campaign was super successful—I think we sold out in one day—and we hope that the masks brought some joy and laughter during a difficult time.

We’ve worked with W+K a lot over the years as we’re both headquartered in Portland. I’d say some of our most wacky and creative projects have been with the ad agency. A few past favorite collaborations include the Picnic Polo, a gingham polo shirt with a secret pocket that folds out into a blanket for KFC; gummy worm costumes for a Trolli commercial; and tailored blazers made from paper for Old Spice that were scented and folded into GQ issues. I love the way the creative team’s brains work over there at W+K!

How does your design process change when you work on large-scale installations like the sculpture Pegasus for Nike’s SOHO retail space or the concert backdrops for the Sun Ra Arkestra? Large-scale installations are always exciting and challenging because of the various factors we must consider—spatial and material constraints, installation, and durability—to make our client’s vision a reality. Our design process depends on the project, but it always starts with an ideation phase where all ideas are welcome. I love to make sketches and go to our material library for inspiration.

With a project like the Nike Pegasus retail installation, the basic idea we were given was “a runner who has been running around the globe, winning every race.” Together, we took that seed of an idea and created “Peggy,” a mannequin in a running stance wearing a skintight silver bodysuit. She has reams of fabric around her waist and ankles that fly behind her: the built-up ticker tapes from all the races she’s won. Some of my favorite projects come from a simple prompt that we get to interpret and run with.

For the Sun Ra Arkestra backdrop, beyond the spatial constraints, we had total creative freedom. I wanted something super dynamic for that project that would feel like we were being transported to another realm with Sun Ra watching over the audience. We ended up making a giant cosmic eyeball with Saturn in its center and eyelashes that extended into the audience.

How have you incorporated zero-waste practices into PGF? Do you have any advice for other production companies who’d like to do the same? Being in an industry responsible for 8 to 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, I knew from the start that I wanted to do things differently at PGF. Since our early days, we’ve saved, organized and reused fabric waste in our factory. We’ve also invited our community of makers and artists to take our scraps for their projects. But at the end of the day, we still had lots of material waste that couldn’t be reused. My longtime goal was to figure out a way to pulverize this type of waste. A few years ago, we met this goal by collaborating with another organization with pulverizing abilities. We now use our PGF Puff, made from pulverized fabric scraps, as filler for pillows, pet beds and sculptures. We’re still exploring ways to use this material, and I’m excited to experiment with it and expand what we do in the zero-waste realm.

My advice to other companies would be to start small with an organized system of reducing and repurposing what you consider waste. I’m calling on the big corporations to take this seriously. Small companies like mine are leading the way, but it’s the big corporations that could take a clue—or call me—to refine their sustainability processes and outcomes.

Suppose an ad agency was considering a project with soft sculpture, fabric products or installations. What kinds of limitations or material considerations would it need to be aware of? Since each project has its own particular set of needs and considerations, it’s important to ask many questions during the ideation phase. Does the product or project have a function, or is it a purely visual piece? Will this piece be up for an extended period? How will it be installed? Who will experience it? What is the best-case scenario for this project’s outcome, in general? It’s good to get the why before tackling the how.

A hurdle that comes up sometimes is when I have to do some finessing of expectations with materials. Most materials are not made in the United States, and they are taking longer and longer to procure. Other limitations include expectations about what said material is actually capable of. I feel like I have a lot of those conversations. Like, “Can I put a non-colorfast material in a window display?” No—I hate to say—not a good idea!

The best work we’ve done with agencies involves very open communication, from design to fabrication to installation. PGF is unique in that we have the capabilities to be both the agency that comes up with the creative ideas as well as the manufacturer who brings those ideas to fruition.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Don’t limit yourself by trying to be what you think others want you to be. Let your designs and your professional life reflect the artist you are on the inside. I think all designers working now need to keep sustainability at the forefront of their design decisions and processes. Are you designing durable, useful and timeless products to the best of your abilities? Can you seek out and utilize sustainable supply chains? Mama Earth cannot afford to have sustainability be an afterthought or a marketing buzzword that gets thrown around only to benefit corporate bottom lines. There’s only one you and only one Earth, so start making the work you want to make as sustainably as possible. Some of it will resonate with others. Some of it won’t. But it’s all worth exploring!

What personal/pro-bono creative projects are you working on, if any? This is a fun question! The shop recently worked on patchwork blankets for a nearby shelter. Personally, I’m working on creating sculptures and fabric wall pieces for our new space. We lost all the original artwork we’d made over the years in the fire, so we needed to start fresh. I’m trying to use this project as an opportunity to experiment, play and showcase what PGF can do—even down to the curtains. I’ve also been busy designing new products for PGF’s Gift Shop, which we relaunched in February. I’m very excited to share what we’ve been up to soon! ca

Britt Howard is the owner and founder of Portland Garment Factory (PGF), an award-winning, full-service soft goods manufacturing company that bridges design and production with experiential marketing installations, soft sculpture and high-end custom garments, among other offerings. Through her focus on developing a bustling creative hub, she has concocted a blend of art studio and factory in PGF’s model, seamlessly offering space for experimentation and the fabrication of complex products. A lifelong entrepreneur and supporter of ambitious enthusiasm, Howard stays involved in social infrastructure and community aid, sitting on the boards of the financial development nonprofit Business for a Better Portland and the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, where she engages directly with community issues. 


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