Alibi V.28 No.25 • June 20-26, 2019 

Arts Interview

Sew Poor

The state of the New Mexico garment industry

Kathleen Fasanella
Kathleen Fasanella at work in her Albuquerque sewing factory
Photo by Clarke Condé

The exact numbers are hard to come by, maybe because they are so small as to be within the margin of error for our gross domestic product, but it suffices to say that New Mexico isn’t leading this country’s fashion industry. With the recent cancellation of Santa Fe Fashion Week (what would have been the eighth annual), New Mexico’s fashion industry, such as it is, struggles to find its footing. There are innovative designers in the state, but few have translated their designs into significant volumes of garment production. The result is that few New Mexicans are making a full-time income in fashion.

Kathleen Fasanella believes it doesn’t have to be that way. She has worked in the garment industry for over 30 years, establishing the country’s only solar-powered sewing factory on Albuquerque’s Westside in 2015. Her book The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing is a staple in an industry that often seems divided. On one side are the fashion designers and on the other, the people who actually make the garments. Fasanella says there is a skills gap in the industry and has grown her biannual apparel manufacturing boot camp as a way to pass on her knowledge to the next generation. Sadly, while applicants flood in from around the world to be a part of a lottery for a spot in the four-day intensive workshop, the three slots she holds open for New Mexicans are slower to fill.

Weekly Alibi sat down with Kathleen Fasanella to talk about the state of the garment industry in New Mexico and what can be done to change it for the better. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Weekly Alibi: What is the state of the garment industry in New Mexico?

Kathleen Fasanella: You are dealing with a very neophyte base that have basically no grounding in the business. They don’t even know the proper terminology. So, for example, let’s say you have someone locally that wants somebody to manufacture, their product, they’ll look for a clothing manufacturer and they won’t find any here. The thing is, legally, they are the manufacturer whether they sew it or not. The person they need to look for is a sewing contractor, but because they are green, they don’t know that; they won’t find that here and they’ll go to LA.

Have there been times in the last 30 years when conditions were different?

I can tell you now, honestly, because of full employment, it seems like there is less entrepreneurial movement locally.

They’re not hungry?

Right. When you have a situation where people are nominally employed or marginally employed, then they’ve got more time to invest in doing something like this. Somehow, they get the money from friends, family, savings or whatever. I would say it slowed down because everybody’s got work.

Is that a problem for the state of New Mexico?

I think it is because we have very little movement in that space. I think we can be competitive in ways that people in other places can’t, but we need to do things differently. If you get people who just want to do what California is doing with sweats and super-casual disposable-type fashion, then you are just a “me too.” You can actually do things like they do in New York, except you don’t have to use New York sample rooms and New York pattern makers.

If more people here had the technical skills that go into production, would they find work here?

I would say so.

So, there is a latent demand for work, not locally sourced but coming from other places?

Oh yeah. And it acts like an export. That is the really cool thing. You bring in work, but you are not having to allocate local resources.

It’s not mining.

Exactly. You’re not having to provide the infrastructure for businesses, and you can charge commensurate to people in other parts of the country.

But your overhead is lower on say, Old Coors Road, than compared to Brooklyn.

That’s the thing. We could never have these kinds of amenities there.

Is there a role that the technical schools in the state could play, but are not playing?

Technical schools? You’ve got air quotes around that?

There seems to be a disconnect between creating fashion and making garments here that doesn’t exist in other places. How does that change?

I think a lot of it is young people. There has been a generational change and this whole back end is seen as … one, it’s seen as wizardry. What happens back there? Who knows? The other thing is that people have this assumption that factories are really terrible places. They’re horrible places to work, and they’re ugly and they’re dangerous. Here, we try to dispel that. We have a nice factory. It’s a nice place to work. We have all nice equipment. People like to work here. There is a lot of misinformation, one. And there is a lot of fear, two. People don’t know—What is the process? How do I do this?

Tell me about your bootcamp.

There are no prerequisites. You can come to bootcamp even if you’ve never sewn before.

What skills do participants learn at boot camp?

Project management. Documentation. Certification of operations. Quality control. How we track things.

For more information about the fall and spring Apparel Manufacturing Boot Camps, as well as the Albuquerque Fashion Incubator, see abqfi.org.