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Garment district, 1926

FILE PHOTO: Women textile workers in factory of Jonaline Inc. in a downtown building on Sept. 22, 1926. Photograph by Eugene Taylor. Missouri Historical Society

St. Louis’ efforts to re-establish itself as a hub for clothing manufacturing and design are poised to take a big step forward if a team of apparel and fashion industry veterans can pull off a plan to build a high-tech garment factory downtown.

The project, led by New York fashion and apparel industry veterans Jon Lewis and John Elmuccio, envisions a factory with about 40 apparel machines that would employ about 60 people. They hope to work with both small boutique designers and larger brands that want to move some production back into the U.S.

Labor costs are going up as the middle class grows in developing countries, and the supply chain of offshoring makes big clothing companies less able to react to consumer tastes, Lewis said. Meanwhile, e-commerce gives smaller designers the ability to market directly to a smaller customer base with a story and a “focus on their authenticity,” while advancing 3-D printing and other manufacturing technology can keep domestic labor costs down.

Jon Lewis

Project I executive Jon Lewis, who wants to build an apparel factory in St. Louis.

“We feel a lot of the innovation is coming from the small emerging brands, and they have difficulty sourcing overseas because they don’t have the scale,” Lewis said. But there are also large brands “who would love to manufacture in the U.S., they just don’t have anywhere to go.”

Lewis and Elmuccio lead an investment Fund called Project I that has previously worked to invest in fledgling apparel designers in Lansing, Mich., and Detroit. But Lewis, who spent part of his early career working for department store Famous-Barr in St. Louis, said he recently moved to St. Louis to focus on the St. Louis Apparel Manufacturing venture.

“The focus is reshoring jobs to the U.S. and apparel manufacturing jobs — that’s been Project I’s focus from the start,” Lewis said. “It’s really the right time to look at a way to bring that manufacturing back to the U.S.”

Adding to the area’s apparel manufacturing capabilities with a high-tech factory has been a goal for the St. Louis Fashion Fund since its inception in 2014. Co-founder and board chair Susan Sherman helped connect Lewis and Elmuccio with the region’s efforts to reinvigorate its historic garment district on Washington Avenue.

“They’ve really helped create and re-establish a fashion ecosystem in St. Louis,” Lewis said. “St. Louis has always had that historic presence” in apparel manufacturing.

The Fashion Fund operates an incubator at 15th Street and Washington Avenue, and last year took in its inaugural class of six designers from around the country, who are provided studio space, business connections and a retail showroom. This year, the Fashion Fund, in partnership with the Downtown Community Improvement District, hired a design team to come up with a plan to revitalize the city’s old garment district and encourage the fashion industry there.

But the Fashion Fund and area designers already know they want more resources to be available so they can produce their wares here.

“Having a high-tech factory here really gives St. Louis the opportunity to be the center of high-tech apparel manufacturing in the U.S.,” said Fashion Fund Executive Director Kathleen Bibbins. “I think it would have a ripple effect across the St. Louis market” and would “gives St. Louis enormous credibility throughout the country.”

Details are still being finalized, including the location, which could be in either a repurposed warehouse in the area or a completely new manufacturing facility. Lewis said he had been in discussions with the St. Louis Development Corp., the mayor’s office and the state, as well as private investors, about the project.

“There’s a very welcoming investor group here in St. Louis,” he said.

One potential site for a new factory is a piece of vacant ground on Washington Avenue the city of St. Louis is considering selling to a firm affiliated with developer Jassen Johnson and a principal of Twain Financial Partners.

Twain is converting the building at 22nd Street and Washington into its new offices, and Johnson is leading redevelopment efforts throughout the Downtown West and Midtown Alley areas, including plans for a new hotel, revamp of several historic buildings and a shipping-container commercial development.

Johnson said the vacant ground the city owned on Washington next to Twain’s future offices is a potential site for the St. Louis Apparel Manufacturing Group’s factory. Alderman Christine Ingrassia is sponsoring a bill to sell the land to a company affiliated with Johnson and Twain partner Marc Hirshman for $650,000. It has had two readings, and she said it could receive a final vote within weeks.

If all goes as planned, Lewis said, the hope is to get the plant running by the end of next year. There’s been a lot of support from the city and people who are very interested in “having the garment district re-emerge,” he said. “We feel confident the project’s going to come together.”