By  on August 29, 2011

NEW YORK — The Stoll Fashion & Technology Center is evolving from the one of the Garment District’s best-kept secrets to an important resource and a catalyst for change.

Opened in April 2009, the center, located at 250 West 39th Street, is becoming an integral part of the fashion center for sample making and knit apparel education and production training, and a “connector” between designers and manufacturers looking to utilize and cultivate U.S. manufacturing.

“We like to say ‘Through our door comes our future,’” said Beth Hofer, senior manager for customer relations and educational resources for the New York-based unit of Reutlingen, Germany-based H. Stoll Gmbh & Co, one of the largest knit machine makers in the world. “So we do take on some smaller production of lets say 30 pieces from a young designer. There’s not a manufacturer that I know that will do a 30-piece order. We will do as small as 10 pieces per order and go as high as 100 pieces, but after that, that’s not our business.”

Prior to opening the Stoll Fashion & Technology Center, the company had U.S. offices in Garden City and Port Washington, N.Y., mainly for selling and servicing its 3- to 18-gauge machines.

“As we started to change our approach, so did our location,” Hofer said. “We decided we had to take a little bit different direction. We decided we had to work with the designers and the retailers, see what they thought of our collections through presentations.”

Hofer said she and her colleagues visited designer firms such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis to show them what they could do with Stoll’s machines and get feedback from them and began to perceive a need for the multifunctional fashion and technology center serving a variety of purposes that either didn’t exist in the garment center, or certainly wasn’t put together under one roof.

“We asked them ‘If we build it, will they come?’” and they said ‘Yes,’” Hofer recalled. “Then Stoll Germany made the commitment and we said, ‘OK, we are going to build a facility in New York City,’ and that’s how it all started.”

What was built was a three-story, 30,000-square-foot facility consisting of sample-making and production departments that encompasses eight knitting machines, a linking machine, and washing, finishing and steaming machines; an archive; a showroom, and a production training area used for commercial and educational purposes. A parts department also services all Stoll machines in North America.

The center has become an integral part of New York Fashion Week, with many firms using it to develop and make their runway samples.

Markus Kirwald, product development manager for Stoll Fashion & Technology, said he has about 200 samples a week in the production cycle from the beginning of August through fashion week, which will then be followed by duplicates and sample lines. Kirwald, while showing off the facility’s machinery and explaining its capabilities, agreed with Hofer that there’s also a larger mission in play.

“Our business is to sell machines,” Hofer said. “Our business is also to be the connector between the designer or company here and the manufacturer. So if they want to manufacture in China, Italy, Turkey or the U.S., then we start by introducing them. The connection we don’t charge for. We charge for the sampling or for the production. It actually helps us throughout the world. If we have someone here saying they want to knit in Italy and they’re knitting on Stoll machines, we’re happy. We don’t look at U.S. manufacturing as a goal or a by-product, we look at it as a necessity. This generation of young designers is very proud. They want to make a quality product and they only want to make it in America.”

Hofer said she often hears from people that there aren’t any mills left in the U.S., even if they want to have some Made in USA production.

“There are mills here, it’s just that people aren’t aware that they’re here,” she said, citing, for example, Machinit Inc. in Farmingdale, N.Y., which has about 100 machines, and Knitcraft Corp., the Winona, Minn.-based manufacturer of the St. Croix Collections men’s wear line.

Kirwald said it’s difficult to measure how many machines Stoll sells by operating the New York center, but by having such a facility “eventually we will sell the machines…even if you don’t actually see it. Virtually every other customer comes in with a desire to do production in America. The Tristate area would be ideal for us. We are in desperate need of someone looking to invest in factories. We have customers for them. We do what we can here, but there’s only so much production we can do in our facility.”

The Stoll center helps designers develop a first sample or prototype, and helps determine what the best stitch or yarns would be, starting with a paper pattern, then a muslin or tech pack, with the Stoll Collection or archive often serving as inspiration or to understand capabilities. Many designers take a two-day knitting class to gain further understanding, Hofer said, because “knowledge is power.” Products being made at the center range from basic jersey to the most complicated top, such as a hooded sweater with collar and cuffs, to accessories, office furniture and technical applications.

Kristy Chen, associate designer at Doo.ri, said the company has been working with Stoll for several seasons.

“The people at Stoll always seem to come up with innovative ideas — new stitches and combinations, new techniques — that help us do what we do better,” Chen said. “They have exceptional machinery for knitwear. We do samples and production with them.”

There are five levels of membership in the Stoll center: student, educational instructor, single designer, a four-designer membership and a 10-designer membership. For a single designer, the fee is $525 for the year. The designers receive all the Stoll Trend Collection magazines, use of the virtual Stoll Library, a 25 percent discount on the hand flat knitting class, $25 off of each seminar they attend, the “Basic Stitch Reference” volume and they may use the membership fee toward their first development of a sample.

Students from schools such as the Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons The New School for Design, Savannah College and Kent State take classes and some have used the facility as the subject of their masters thesis. Production managers also receive training on the machinery at the site.

“The industry is getting to know us better and better,” Hofer added.”‘And it’s all by word of mouth and networking. We don’t do advertising.”

Kirwald said the New York center is the only one like it in the world for the company. There is a Stoll Fashion & Technology Center in Shanghai, but it is more production oriented, and there are Stoll offices in Italy, Turkey and India, and a representative in China, but they are more geared toward selling machinery.

“This facility is unique,” he added.

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