by Kasey Cordell
The Swoosh. The Stripes. The Diamond. Even Copernicus might struggle to chart the myriad constellations that make up Portland’s ever-expandingoutdoor and activewear universe. All told, the metro area boasts close to 600 footwear and sport apparel companies—which together paid Portland-area employees more than $1 billion in wages in 2008. "Having a lot of the same type of industry actually makes those industries better," notes Oregon State economics professor Patrick Emerson. "It makes them cheaper for one—you have the critical mass to develop cheaper supply chains—and then there’s the huge talent base."
That brain trust not only feeds giants like Nike, Columbia Sportswear, and Adidas, but also serves as an incubator for spin-offs. Currently, the metro area is dotted with more than 2,500 one- and two-person activewear firms, many of them started by former employees of the Big Three. (The Portland Development Commission is even creating a genealogy chart of the industry.)
Hemingway Footwear Co offers a prime example. The high-end casual men’s shoe company, which took its name and the inspiration for its line from the famed writer and sportsman, was founded by former Nike and Adidas execs. Their shoes just hit the market in June and have already been picked up by Nordstrom and Filson and have graced the pages of style bibles such as Esquire. But according to economists and industry insiders, to grow companies like Hemingway Footwear requires an ingredient that has long been hard to come by in Portland: venture capital.
Enter the PDC’s new Seed Fund, a $500,000 fund set to provide capital to start-ups across a host of industries (not just activewear). The PDC is also trying to jump-start the West Coast’s first materials lab, a kind of ground zero for the development of new fabrics, technologies, and processes. Couple that with Portland’s "living laboratory"—mountains, rivers, and an ocean all ripe for product testing—and the outdoor sector seems to be approaching supernova status.
Nike Phil Knight. Michael Jordan. Just do it. Need we say more? Oh, OK, fine, how about 34,000 employees and $19 billion in revenue in 2009?
Columbia If Nike is the father of our modern activewear industry, Columbia is the mother (a tough one, of course). Established as a hat company in 1938, Columbia has continued to evolve with the industry, absorbing high-performance outdoor companies like Mountain Hardware, Sorel, and Montrail in recent years.
Hot jobs: Product developers and designers; product line managers; merchandisers; sales and marketing specialists; inventory controllers.