If you study fashion design and you live in Oregon, you may have heard of Sharon Blair. Her work has been featured in national and local publications including The Oregonian, Portland Business Journal, and Portland Monthly, and she has appeared on KGW’s Portland Today and KATU’s AMNorthwest. Sharon uses market research to uncover consumer insights that help the Portland Fashion Institute (PFI) provide an affordable training option for those interested in a career in fashion. More than 6,000 students have studied at PFI and one of their students was the winner of Project Runway (Season 8). Read on to learn more.
What was the spark that inspired the birth of your concept?
A young graduate from a famous New York fashion design school met with me to ask how he could produce his clothing line. In that meeting, I realized he had spent nearly six figures on an education and he had no idea how clothes work. After the third time this happened it came to me that it’s great to design pretty things, but it is more important to make sure people can wear them — and better yet, to know who would buy them.
What problem does it solve?
In its market research, PFI found:
- There are no affordable options for training in apparel and apparel business in Portland.
- There’s a hunger to learn from apparel professionals.
- According to Prosper Portland (former Portland Development Commission), the Portland metro area has become a hub for apparel and footwear manufacturers. The amount of talent in Portland is 45 percent larger than the national average for same- size metropolitan areas. These companies have a total estimated annual sales of $8,757,490,874 and employ an estimated 90,000 persons.
- Nike alone employs 12,000 persons at its World Headquarters near Beaverton.
- Nike, Adidas, and others spend hundreds of dollars to recruit talent from out of state when there is plenty of local talent to be had — as shown by the number of makers, independent designers, and boutiques in Portland.
I for one am surprised that Portland, a town with so many apparel companies, doesn’t have a viable apparel education alternative other than PFI. —Lauren S., Design Assistant, REI
How did you come up with the name?
We surveyed our students. They picked a name that said who we are, where we are and what we do. They said they would be proud to go to a school called Portland Fashion Institute. Portland has a cache in the apparel industry so it felt like the name could go nationwide.
How are you better/different than your competition?
Students can take a single class for continuing education or just for fun. Or they can sign up for a certificate program and get a career. All instructors currently work in the apparel industry. Thanks to PFI’s instructors and advisory board, we train students with skills demanded by the apparel industry and we get jobs for our certificate graduates. We are affordable.
What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?
Creating something of value. Helping others. Connecting to a great community of talented people. Growing a business. Always learning.
What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date?
We are daily sparked by the many people who are interested in fashion and design. So many are drawn to making this their future that they move to Portland for its creative environment. For example, about 40% of our students have moved to Portland in the past year. About 10% moved here just to attend our school.
Your biggest success?
The number of people we have launched and placed in the apparel industry. And the number of high school grads we helped boost into the world’s top fashion design schools.
Do you have a failure story to share? What did you learn from this failure?
Our only failure is not being able to take advantage of all of the opportunities offered to us. But we’ll be able to solve that by careful hiring and management of our time.
As an entrepreneur, what keeps you up at night?
Nothing keeps me up at night. Living the right life lets you sleep like a baby.
What is the best entrepreneurial advice you have received (and from whom)?
Keep your overheads low, know your metrics and keep track of your ROI. This is from Darcy Cameron, friend, and director of Shibui Knits.
What is your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur?
Know your customers, then constantly stay in touch with their needs. If you have more than one customer, as we do, rank them and stick with those priorities. From them comes your vision. From them comes your mission. Stick to that vision and mission. It will tell you when to say yes and when to say no.
What is the #1 book you would recommend for a budding entrepreneur?
Mastering the Rockefeller Habits then Scaling Up, both by Verne Harnish.
What song best describes your entrepreneurial journey?
I Won’t Back Down, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as sung at Florida’s Gator Stadium, October 2017.
Imagine your venture becomes wildly successful. What does that look like?
We are online, sharing what we know, growing businesses nationwide and living up to our vision.
What’s your favorite local business and why?
There are too many wonderful, talented people successfully living their dreams from which to choose.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
At age 4, I learned to sew and wrote a book on fashions for dolls. I was meant to be in and teaching fashion design.
Do you think Oregon is a good place to start a business? How has it helped you, and what challenges has it posed?
Yes, because of the creative culture. No, because all the funding goes to the latest fad, whether that’s tech, beer or cannabis.
Any other tidbits or fun facts to share?
More than 6,000 persons have studied at PFI since it opened. Eleven of them competed on Project Runway, a nationally televised fashion competition. One of them won season 8.
A bit about our backstory:
We’ve always had great cash flow and a positive balance sheet. Our philosophy about money is to make it before you spend it.
Portland Fashion Institute: portlandfashioninstitute.com/