Buttoned Up


In the spirit of spring cleaning, I often procrastinate on more traditional practices, like vacuuming behind the couch, and opt for time in a treasured space, my closet.

Though always somewhat painful, I find thinning and transitioning my wardrobe per season therapeutic. This time, shoved in the very back, I found a bright pink coat that I’ve had for almost a decade now. It hasn’t been worn in a few years because a single button is missing. It pains me to admit that the majority of my generation, including myself, doesn’t know how to sew a button. Sure, we can pull up a video on YouTube for step-by-step instruction, as my friend recently did, but that would mean owning a needle and thread.

I was tempted to donate the coat for this single flaw before convincing myself that it was worth the simple fix. I also considered taking the opportunity to update and customize the garment, then found that the price to replace all 13 buttons would be close to buying a new coat. I made the trip to a sterile box store and found a similar yet blatantly mismatched button and secured it to my coat.

Less than a lifetime ago, this scenario would have unraveled much differently. I wouldn’t have thought twice about replacing the button. I could’ve walked just a few blocks to Baltimore’s garment district and selected a matching button or a new set from a vast collection, shopping at the same retailer as designers and manufacturers. The repair cost would have been small in comparison to the cost of the coat, and I would have been able to sew without a patronizing tutorial.

Growing up on the cusp of cheap, fast fashion, my generation doesn’t understand city districts characterized by where things are made. Our lives have been a blur of “Made in China” hangtags and correspondingly low retail prices. In the global manufacturing shift, most America-based clothiers closed their doors. Some factories, however, continue to thrive, latching onto their ideals, gusto and confidence in their work.

Quietly tucked away on Southwest Baltimore’s Wicomico Street hums one such manufacturer, Baltimore’s biggest fashion secret, Fashions Unlimited Inc., which was opened in 1976 by Phil Spector.

Spector started with just five employees and soon grew the business to 110. At one point, he operated three factories in Maryland, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In fact, Spector remembers when Baltimore was so successful in clothing manufacturing that menswear here was second to New York, and household names like London Fog and Jos. A. Banks churned out style after style.

“At one time, there were 25,000 sewers working in one square block. All the apartments you see,” Phil motions towards his office window, “those were all factories.”

Currently, his company employs about 30 operators and creates an assortment of athleisure wear and undergarments for companies like GC2 and even Champion. The far wall in his office is covered in a collection of hanging samples. I run my hands over a Coach one-piece swimsuit and Spector shows me how the fabric has to lie in a particular way for the logos to fall accordingly. Next, we examine a running shirt with a heart monitor embedded seamlessly below the neck and underneath the breast plate.

Further down the wall, I am drawn to a blue jacket. Spector explains that these outerwear pieces were developed by Champion for a Mount Everest climb. Each sample can be worn layered over one another, and the pockets are made to reach from one into the next. He describes the precision in the sealed seam in order to make the garment waterproof as opposed to water-resistant.

As I walk through the space, Spector shows me samples of the bras they make for mastectomy patients, tops for transgender people and a line of seamless underwear for Commando (sold at a Nordstrom near you). Everyone is hard at work sewing, cutting, cleaning and pressing. They turn out an impressive 4,000 pieces of clothing per week.

As demand increases, Spector intends to enlarge Fashions Unlimited; in fact, expansion plans are “in development.” After closing his Pennsylvania factory in 2016 and selling in North Carolina in 2017, he is ready to focus on Baltimore and increase staff here. He once had plans to invest in the revitalization of Baltimore’s garment district by establishing a sewing school and employing ex-offenders as well as veterans. But he could not secure funding, and for now, the plan is filed away.

A few weeks after meeting with Spector, I was fumbling through old jewelry I had tucked away in a drawer and came across my pink coat’s missing button. Since sewing on the mismatched button, my coat felt defective. Quality was becoming more important to me: Once I began to notice details like thin fabric and loose stitches, I couldn’t stop. I pulled out my new sewing kit and switched the buttons. It was like looking at a brand-new coat, hand sewn with a story I was proud to tell.

Here’s another part of that story. In a strange twist of events, I ended up speaking with Spector again about two months after I initially interviewed him for this story. I was reeling from an unfit job and wondering how I had strayed so far from my career aspirations post college. It seemed that the only way I could pursue a fashion career would be to move to New York, and my love affair with Charm City just wasn’t finished yet.

Spector, as it turns out, was in a difficult spot, too. His sourcing manager had moved on to other opportunities, and heartbreakingly, his office manager and dear friend of 41 years had suddenly died. On Jan. 2, I started working for Spector — now my boss, Phil — at Fashions Unlimited. I regularly travel to New York, communicate with recognizable brands (also the sweetest people on earth) and physically prepare shipments. Today I am an integral part of an actual American garment factory and I have never felt so fulfilled and inspired.

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