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Production in the City: making space for DC's creators

A MakerBot 3D printer makes custom collar stays at Hugh & Crye. It's a small step, but producing these stays in the District means that the company is one of many that have begun making things where they're sold--i.e. in the District itself

Pranav Vora, founder and CEO of Hugh & Crye shirtmakers, a Georgetown company. Hugh and Crye makes some of its products locally (pocket squares in Virginia, collar stays on site), and offers "near-custom-fit" shirts based on body type

Vora and an employee look at a design book

D.C. has never been a booming metropolis of manufacturing. While the lobbying branches of America’s largest manufacturers fill more than a few office buildings in the city, the District lacks the warehousing and industrial infrastructure that’s more abundant in places like nearby Baltimore or the ever-reinvented Detroit.

But that doesn’t mean that stuff’s not being made here.

Operating out of rowhouse apartments or shared kitchen spaces, D.C. harbors a creative class of small-scale producers that’s starting to scale up. They’re making silkscreened T-shirts, candles and cold-brewed coffee.

Producers have begun to carve out niches for made-here products that are a good fit for D.C.’s makeup like fashion, paper goods and, most observably, food.

On Dec. 4, Production in the City will bring these creators and consumers together to discuss how the city can support — and create space for — products that are made here. Elevation DC, Smart Growth America and Think Local First DC will host the event, the fourth in a series this year.

The event will include a marketplace featuring 20 D.C. producers and their products as well as a panel discussion in the upper level of the Boilermaker building at Navy Yard, 300 Tingey St. SE.

The event space above the new Bluejacket Brewery (a local manufacturer of beer to be represented on the panel) will soon be home to a D.C. Ideaspace set to open in February.

The 16,000-square foot co-working space will provide more than Wi-Fi and desks, with manufacturing tools like CNC routers and 3D printers available to its members (membership is already filled for its opening).

Stacey Price, executive director of Think Local First DC, says the space is an example of the type of infrastructure the city will need to welcome more production.

“I think if we can create some spaces in the city, both literally and metaphorically, for the creative class, we’ll just start to see it blossom and grow,” Price says, mentioning Union Kitchen as another example of thoughtfully shared space.
Without them, she says, “We have people trying to produce out of their homes.”
Using small spaces
Jon Wye started crafting products in D.C. a decade ago, before it was cool, selling the artisan belts and buckles he made in his parent’s two-car garage.

“We were so overcrowded that, anytime we wanted to make a new product, we’d have to retool the workshop and move everything around,” says Wye, who now manufactures belts, clothing, dog collars and wallets from a 1,200-square-foot space near Brookland.

Wye says his is the only company manufacturing clothing at “production quantities” in the District, using (mostly refurbished) automated machines.

But other clothing makers like Nana or a handful that sell online through Etsy are finding success with handmade pieces. Wye says this reflects a much-welcomed renaissance in D.C.’s craft culture — and in consumer demand for local products.

“Our customers buy something as a gift for someone and get to say, ‘Hey, this was made in D.C.,’” Wye says. “I just want to see more of that, more D.C. pride.”

Melanie Ouellette Karlins has seen firsthand the pride that’s forming around D.C. products. The most popular item from her letterpress business, Grey Moggie Press, is a print of the DC flag made out of the names of District neighborhoods.
Karlins began working out of a small studio near Union Station after the letterpress machine she bought wouldn’t fit in her home.

She originally came to D.C. for a policy job and then law school. But, after her daughter was born two years ago, crafting cards and posters soon became “a hobby that paid for itself.”

Her cards feature quirky sayings like, “Have you tried it with Sriracha?” and “Smile, Ryan Gosling exists.” The small business makes a little more money each year, and Karlins says she doesn’t want it to get too big.

“I make every single card myself at this point. I really feel comfortable running a business that way,” she says.
Choosing D.C.
When Pranav Vora and Philip Soriano set out to create a better-fitting dress shirt for men, they knew there was no better place than D.C. — both because they’re from here and “in terms of guys that need better fitting garments per capita,” Vora says.

The pair of entrepreneurs started Hugh & Crye three and a half years ago, designing a line of shirts with sizes like “tall and athletic” or “short and skinny.”

The Georgetown-based business has since expanded to offer a dozen sizes and launched new products like blazers, ties and pocket squares. Most of the garments are made by manufacturers certified for good practices in countries like India, because “there’s virtually no infrastructure for that to happen here,” says Vora.

But Hugh & Crye has ventured into what could be the next frontier for made-in-D.C. manufacturing: 3D printing.

The company recently purchased a MakerBot to print custom collar stays practically from thin air. Customers can order online stays emblazoned with their Twitter handles, for example, or see them created in the store. Though plastic stays aren’t a visible part of an ensemble once they’re inserted into a collar, Vora says customers have gotten a kick out of having them customized.

“When you think about 3D printing, that paradigm, it’s amazing what you can do in a matter of minutes — from design to production,” Vora says.

He says he’d love to produce more clothing in the District but that it’s important to look at what makes the most sense.

Ilana Preuss, vice president and chief of staff of Smart Growth America, agrees that the city needs to focus on its niche for production.

Smart Growth sees production in cities as key to economic growth and local employment, but Preuss says the makeup of producers looks different for each city.

While the need to fill empty spaces has driven cities like San Francisco to attract manufacturers, Preuss thinks D.C.’s “entrepreneurial spirit” may be the greater impetus here.

“People are creating a strong community of entrepreneurs, from small cheese businesses and clothing manufacturers to startups that could operate internationally,” Preuss says. “It’s an exciting time to see if we can use that to leverage more production work to employ residents."

Production in the City takes place Dec. 5. Register here.

Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. She writes about food, etc. at thinkabouteat.com.
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