Los Angeles has long been synonymous with Made in the USA denim. As we entered the new millenia, domestic production was booming, with consumer demand bursting at the seams for brands such as Citizens of Humanity, True Religion, 7 For All Mankind and AG.

However by 2010, the city that was once a mecca for fledgling, locally designed and made brands, began to buckle as one after another, companies either outgrew local production capacity, or found better profit margins elsewhere and left for offshore facilities. This exodus created massive, multinational and complex supply chains and left a trail of empty factories and jobless garment workers in LA. But recently, the Los Angeles denim scene has been on a slow road to recovery with an unexpected catalyst: Covid-19.

The pandemic forced many companies, such as Lucky Brand and True Religion to file for bankruptcy or even close their US production facilities permanently, like AG. But the adversity has also created opportunity for some companies to build from the ashes.

Artistic Milliners fabric finished by SFI laundry in Los Angeles.
Alaina Miller, VP of SFI Design, in the SFI design and development center.

Even before the pandemic, mass retailers and premium brands had begun to explore nearshoring options, vendor relationships had deepened and consumers put more emphasis on locally crafted and ‘Made in America’ goods. The pandemic gave the industry the extra impetus to take a serious look at its global supply chain and reevaluate its pre-pandemic practices. However, simply shifting to local suppliers and vendors is not easily attainable.

As the pandemic rerouted domestic manufacturers’ priorities from jeans to PPE, companies staggered to establish local access to fabric, new measures for quality control, and smaller, more streamlined supply chains. So often in life and business, challenges create solutions and that PPE pivot got a lot of people re-thinking their game plan.

One such company had their heart set on the ultimate Hollywood comeback story; the resurgence of LA’s once vibrant and beloved denim industry. Just a quick ride from downtown sits the roughly 20,000 sq ft facility, just east of the Los Angeles river in Commerce, alongside the likes of Joe’s Jeans, Hudson, and countless wash, print, sewing facilities that have been operating here for years. The company to see its potential and make the move was Artistic Milliners, the internationally renowned vertical mill and garment factory from Pakistan, and they have named the new facility SFI (Star Fades International)

Sample development at SFI.

Led by a local team with extensive denim industry expertise, SFI uses leading-edge technology to offer a comprehensive and customizable scope of design solutions for its array of clients ranging from international, mass-market retailers to premium designer labels.

Based on this support model, the design teams’ capabilities incorporate every aspect of the design process from garment conception to production operations. Through strategic planning, the company grew employment numbers back to pre-pandemic levels, retained long time staff familiar with local operations, and are underway to increase production capacity to 300,000 units per month, propelling the regrowth of large scale production in the area. 

Artistic Milliners have recognised the exploding potential of digital tech and have harnessed it to drive their new operations.

“In 2021, we anticipate increased demand from international retailers and brands for near-shoring capacity, digital design services and sustainable solutions.”  

— Murtaza Ahmed, co-founder of SFI & Executive Director at Artistic Milliners

Samples are meticulously inspected by the design team.
Senior Technical Designer, Amber Isaac, uses 3D and pressure mapping technology to perfect patterns.
Alaina Miller, VP of SFI Design and Lizzie Kroeze, VP of Brand Design & Development, work hands on and in depth to help brands achieve design goals.

We have seen the synergie between fashion and technology with launches such as Carlings “the last statement tee” and Gucci’s $12 dollar virtual sneakers. Many of the most impactful developments in the utilization of 3D design are happening behind the scenes, with the major brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Wrangler and Lee adopting these technologies.

With vast application potential in every facet of the denim industry from pattern block building to virtual showrooms, 3D design is quickly shaping the future of design development, sustainable operations and time and cost allocation. However, shifting to such technologies and practices requires extensive investment, something brands are going to struggle with at this challenging time.

SFI is investing heavily in building out its digital fabric, wash and processing libraries based on current and past production, vintage samples and in-house innovations, which is accessible to all of their clients, further propelling their in-house design capabilities beyond what many brands may be willing or able to invest in on their own. This seems to be the perfect multi-layered solution for a time when brands need all the help they can get.

The women behind the scenes making it all happen. Alaina Miller & Lizzie Kroeze at SFI wash house in Commerce, CA.

Last week, we visited the facility and sat down with Lizzie Kroeze, VP of Brand Design & Development, Alaina Miller, VP of SFI Design, and Amber Isaac, Senior Technical Designer, to talk about Artistic Milliners vision for the future of SFI. 

“What we’re hoping to build here is a space for any customer, with or without a plan for what they want to make, to come and go through our libraries, pick what they want to work with and build out a whole collection."

— Lizzie Kroeze, VP of Brand Design & Development

The travel and social distancing regulations of the last year brought 3D design’s capabilities to the forefront of denim manufacturing. Lizzie explained that while many SFI and AM clients were in the exploratory phase of 3D design support, only one major retailer was heavily invested in the technology pre-2020.

“Before the pandemic more and more of our mass-market customers were starting to rely more heavily on their vendors for operational solutions, including 3D design support, which only increased and accelerated during the pandemic” she said. “The past year has really displayed that these things are necessary, not just nice to have.”

To showcase their 3D design and pattern capabilities, SFI recently released a seasonless capsule collection, brought to life with only one physical sample needed before going to a salesman sample.

SFI capsule collection
SFI capsule collection

Amber, Senior Technical Designer, explained,  “Alaina and I held 3D fittings, where we could correct the pattern in real time at my computer, and just like a regular fitting, you get your marking orders, you go off and make the changes, come back and adjust everything.”  Pressure maps generate fit feedback while allowing the digital designer to interchange fabrications and gain real time insights in fabric performance and pattern shape – a technology that works in amazing synergie with the mill’s fabric offering.

SFI’s 3D offerings include grading all of the dry and wet processes related to the fabric. The team is able to tweak and perfect any artistic processing that might vary between sizes – virtually – and share 3D samples with customers.  “We’ve been able to show them the full size range of wash artwork, how it is going to look on a size 2 vs. a size 18 without any physical wash samples needed,” says Amber. 

SFI Capsule Collection
SFI capsule collection
SFI capsule collection

The design team also produces seasonal wash and fabric development reports, market insights and design inspiration for SFI customers. “What we’re hoping to build here is a space for any customer, with or without a plan for what they want to make, to come and go through our Artistic Milliners fabric, SFI wash, vintage and pattern block libraries, pick what they want to work with and build out a whole collection. And then talk about all of the different production methods that we are able to offer” said Lizzie, VP of Brand Design & Development.

SFI creates custom wash and surface recipes specific to each client. Pictured: Lizzie Kroeze, VP of Brand Design & Development.
VP of SFI Design, Aliana, builds out collections based on the latest trends and sustainable innovations.

SFI and AM are investing in top of the line machinery and adding new sustainable finishes to their portfolios. There’s also Artistic Milliners’ Global Wash Innovation Tech, Maria Georgiana Ciubotaru, AKA Gigi. She has been with the company nearly 3 and a half years and her previous 19+ years of denim experience makes her a key player in establishing uniformed production processes between existing sustainable machinery in Pakistan and upgrading to new sustainable practices and chemicals in Los Angeles.  As Lizzie put it, “Gigi, she’s a genius.”

SFI provides clients with the latest in eco-conscious wash and finishing innovations to include bio-softeners, made from beeswax and essential oils; all-natural and salt-free dyestuffs, derived from the food industry and minerals. Recently introducing Clear Fade and Clear Vintage, water-saving finishes developed by Officina+39. SFI and AM secured exclusive rights to the tech in North America and Pakistan.

SFI capsule collection
SFI Capsule Collection

Star Fades International marks a new era for not only Los Angeles-based denim production, but US-based manufacturing capabilities. Based on principles of collaborative, future-focused, sustainable business practices, Artistic Milliners and SFI are setting the standard for the factories of tomorrow.

Through SFI, the company is building an advanced-yet-accessible and manageable avenue for domestic production for local brands while maintaining the highest levels of quality control and sustainable initiative. 

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Trend forecaster, denim designer, industry journalist and author of Denim Dudes.