San Antonio, Texas

Owner and Technical Designer Calley Rivera offers a launchpad for small apparel brands.

Photos Bart Taylor

Sew Studio is rooted in Rivera’s experience as a private-label designer beginning in 2010. “I did all of the product development up until manufacturing,” she says. “I just didn’t want to manufacture because it wasn’t my thing.”

But manufacturers “were straight-out lying to [clients], and it was nauseating to listen to,” she says. “People would tell me their horror stories.”

That led Rivera to pivot to manufacturing in early 2019 in order to fill what she sees as a big void in the market. “Small brands need a place to start, because the biggest barrier to entry is the MOQs [minimum order quantities] that start at 500,” she says.

Orders can be as few as five units and as high as 1,000, but Rivera says the sweet spot is around 300. “It depends on the complexity and the time it takes on the line.”

Sew Studio’s 2,000-square-foot facility in central San Antonio has two sides: a production side and a sampling and unique stitching area. Capacity “varies by product,” she says. “We do not block the line for anybody. I could get one company and fill the line, but then I wouldn’t be able to serve the community that I want to serve, which is the small and mid-sized businesses.”

Clients bring Sew Studio clothing for men, women, and children, as well as some swimwear and other items. “We try to stick with apparel, but we do some other items, like handbags,” says Rivera. “Really, it comes down to equipment. Do we have the right equipment to do what they need and the right skill set to do what they need?”

Sew Studio’s employees often have the right skill set. “We’re not a traditional manufacturer where team members just sit at one machine and do one thing,” says Rivera. “They’re all trained to use all of the equipment, to understand all of the stitching, to understand the patterning — so when they’re sewing it, they can see a problem and know what that means. They’re not sewing blind and making mistakes because they don’t know it’s a mistake. That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of: They have the technical understanding of what they’re doing and not just doing a function of sewing. They are skilled at what they do.”

Turnaround time is usually three to six weeks — easily less than half the norm when manufacturing in Asia — and clients benefit from Rivera’s keen eye and experience.

“To be perfectly honest, I’m not interested in fashion at all — if you see me, I’m all about my jeans and T-shirt — but I love design,” says Rivera, who worked in construction when she was in the U.S. Air Force from the late 1990s until 2007. “My brain works that way. I can take 2D things and make them 3D, and I get it. The body, the curves, I just get the structure of it.”

Due to Levi Strauss & Co.’s presence in San Antonio from the late 1970s to 2004, there was a good cut-and-sew labor pool in the city when Rivera started Sew Studio in 2019. The company had more than 20 people on the payroll in early 2020, but has scaled back since the pandemic.

“Since COVID, labor in general is difficult to find, and especially skilled labor in this area,” she says. “My target is eight people.”

But they need to be the right people: “Our workforce issue is different from other companies because I’m not just looking to add team members who can sew. They want to have to learn all of the equipment, they want to have to push quality and challenge each other. In general, I’ve found that other facilities do not like to be challenged.”

The pandemic affected numerous clients as well. “Some of them had to start over with sourcing,” says Rivera.

To avoid the common pitfalls, Sew Studio helps brands scale production with other contract manufacturers once they outgrow its capacity. “We educate them about the process and let them see it,” says Rivera. “Our primary goal is to give them everything they need to continue on beyond us. We hope they come back to us for new products and stuff they launch, but our goal is that they outgrow us.”

Challenges: “The challenges for the company Ithink are the challenges for the industry in general,” says Rivera. “One, the supply chain has been totally disrupted. It affects everybody — and they’re projecting it’s going to last three to five years. The second challenge for everybody is the price increase in everything.”

Opportunities: Reshoring cut-and-sew manufacturing. Rivera says the “mask fiasco” of spring 2020, when the lack of domestic PPE stymied the system, was a wakeup call. “I think there’s a huge opportunity in the market, and not just for apparel manufacturing,” she explains. “What the government and most businesses learned is that when they needed masks, it was the small businesses and small manufacturers who were agile enough, one, to pivot, but two, they had the connections for smaller orders, because the big companies could not get rolls and rolls of anything. The small manufacturers either already had it on hand or knew where they could get it.”

While the trend predates COVID-19, the pandemic accelerated it. “What do we need to do to build out that supply chain?” asks Rivera. “I think it was a lightbulb moment for everybody up the chain.”

There’s also a lot of opportunity to make clothing for men. “There’s opportunity in all of the genres, but menswear I’ve said for years is really one of the biggest opportunities out there,” says Rivera. “Menswear has the least amount of choices, and all you’ve got to do is go to a mall and see what I call the man uniform of cargo pants and a T-shirt. You’ll have five guys standing next to each other and they’re all wearing a variation of the same thing. And that’s because there’s just a lack of items. Men are just discovering denim that has stretch in it — women have had that for years!”

Needs: A national network of like-minded competitors. “My vision for this business is not a bigger facility,” says Rivera. “It’s another facility, and I would like 10 facilities around the U.S. just like this one and essentially share work — because we can’t take everything.”