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A high-tech, high-end clothing company that’s keeping jobs in America

September 5, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Voormi transforms locally sourced Rocky Mountain sheep wool into high-end outdoor clothing. But the Colorado startup is also hoping to help transform rural communities into small manufacturing hubs, where economic development is needed the most. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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JOHN YANG: Next: one company’s attempt to bring textile jobs to rural America through an unusual approach.

Hari Sreenivasan is back with that story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It doesn’t look like the textile mill towns of New England and it’s certainly not Silicon Valley.

Yet here in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, a mountain town of less than 2,000 people, an upstart company hopes to disrupt the textile industry using a high-tech, outside-the-box approach.

The company is called Voormi, a made-up name for a mythological mountain creature. And it was started by former Microsoft-manager-turned-entrepreneur Dan English. His idea? To manufacture a brand-new kind of fabric from locally sourced materials and then sew the garments in small micro-factories in rural communities.

DAN ENGLISH, CEO, Voormi: It’s more like a craft approach, kind of like the beer industry. We like to think, if we can take a small batch mentality and turn things quicker, that consumers want new, fresh things on a regular basis.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The clothing is made for recreation in harsh conditions, whether that’s mountain biking under the blazing sun, fishing in icy cold streams, or climbing in all kinds of weather.

English wanted to build his company in a region where his products could be sewn in the morning and tested in the afternoon. So he chose Pagosa Springs, surrounded by two million acres of national forest.

DAN ENGLISH: We have a large staff of so-called mountain professionals, whether they’re ski patrollers, or river guides or fly fishing guides, or hunting outfitters, that love to test our gear. And these guys give us honest, straight feedback.

HARI SREENIVASAN: English has chosen not to outsource to large sewing facilities in Asia, where much of the once-strong U.S. textile industry ended up.

That shift left many communities in the U.S. devastated.

DAN ENGLISH: What we hope to do is provide an industry in small rural towns that allow people to live here, play here, and work here without having to have multiple jobs throughout the year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: English eventually hopes to have as many as 10 facilities, each with eight to 10 sewers, scattered throughout Colorado.

Currently, he has just three, including this one at the company headquarters.

Twenty-four year old Joan Walker says being able to work in the area where she grew up has been a dream come true. She graduated from college two years ago with a degree in fashion design.

JOAN WALKER, Design Assistant, Voormi: I was pretty convinced that I was just going to have to settle in a city for a couple of years, or probably longer than a couple of years, until I could do something differently to get back to where I really wanted to be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Melinda Volger wasn’t as lucky when she graduated from college 35 years ago. She too was a fashion design major who wanted to return to her hometown, but because there were no full-time sewing jobs, she became a secretary, and did sewing alterations on the side.

Now she designs and sews full-time for Voormi, and has just a one-minute commute, walking across the back alley from her home to the shop.

MELINDA VOLGER, Seamstress, Voormi: I get to give input on the design process from the start, through the pattern-making, through making the initial prototypes. And they’re very accepting of any suggestions that I have, and we work as a team back and forth.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Like all of the employees at Voormi, Volger and Walker wear many hats. Not only do they design and sew. They also take shifts working at the retail store. CEO English says that makes the company more responsive to the needs of customers.

DAN ENGLISH: It’s a new way of manufacturing. It’s what we believe is the future of manufacturing. It’s a very — it’s a much more nimble experience. And it’s a wider range of skill set.

And that’s what we’re focused on. And we think that’s repeatable and scalable across the United States, and especially in rural communities that need economic development.

HARI SREENIVASAN: University of Denver business professor Kerry Plemmons:

KERRY PLEMMONS, University of Denver: Somebody like Voormi who can say, I see a trend, jump right on that trip with what we would call agility, and an agility to jump on a trend, and then be first to market, in that — because the thing about Voormi that I think important is, they know who their target market is. And it’s a niche. It’s not broad, like Target or Wal-Mart, but they have a specific segment. They can address that segment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That segment is very high-end. A simple T-shirt costs $80. Lightweight jackets start in the mid-$200s and go up from there.

English admits he’s serving a specific market.

DAN ENGLISH: We have a saying here, that our goal is to make competition irrelevant. And if we try to do the same thing that other big brands are doing, you know, it just won’t work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Voormi clothing has been getting positive reviews in sports magazines. But whether the company will be able to meet increasing demand while keeping its commitment to rural economic development remains to be seen.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

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