Britt Howard, the founder and owner of the Portland Garment Factory, pictured in her workspace.  She's standing with folded fabrics on a big table. Behind and around her are tools and sewing materials, some at smaller workstations in the background. Brightly colored fabric art hangs on a white wall behind her like flags.

Britt Howard, is the founder and owner of the Portland Garment Factory, in her workspace.

Amanda Leigh Smith for Nella Media Group / Courtesy of Portland Garment Factory

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The Portland Garment Factory is a small textile and fabrication studio based in Southeast Portland. For over a decade, the female-run small business has prioritized “upending the traditional factory model.” Its projects, for local clients large and small, have ranged from clothing to footwear to stage sets to, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, personal protective equipment.

A firefighter can be seen partially in the foreground of an image, which focuses on a building that shows signs of heavy damage from a fire.

Portland firefighters continue to put water on hot spots at the Portland Garment Factory at Southeast 79th and Stark streets on April 19, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

But just as the struggles of the pandemic were starting to gradually subside for Portland’s small business community, the Portland Garment Factory was rocked by an unforeseen crisis. In the early morning hours of April 19, a fire ripped through the facility, collapsing the roof and destroying the building. Fire investigators soon determined the fire to be arson. Security camera footage showed a person starting the fire in a nearby dumpster. It then spread to the exterior wall and into the building. Investigators are asking people with any information to call 503-823-4636.

The Portland Garment Factory’s founder and owner, Britt Howard, was left picking up the pieces of her business and its community. Howard said she feels devastated and deeply hurt by the loss. But amid the grief and anger, she’s also found motivation, belief in her own continued creativity and gratitude for the support her business has received in the fire’s wake.

Just over two weeks after the fire, Howard talked to OPB about her experience of fire loss and what’s propelling her forward. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Jenn Chávez: For people who aren’t familiar with your business, can you take a few moments to tell me about what you’re proud of as its founder and owner?

Britt Howard: I’m so proud. We’ve been in business for 13 years, and we do all different types of soft goods manufacturing and soft goods manipulation. Something I’m proud of would be our core values, which we infuse into every project and every interaction, as often as we can. One of our core values that’s sticking out to me right now is “invite challenge,” and that has certainly been on my mind, because this is quite the challenge.

Chávez: It’s been just over two weeks since the fire at your facility. Can you talk me through some of the feelings that you’ve been going through in the past two weeks since this happened?

Howard: I feel devastated, and ultimately very sad, and betrayed by my own vision of the future, in a way. I’ve felt angry. But I lately have just been trying as much as possible to feel hopeful, because it has the most oomph. That feeling, to me, gives me the most moving-forward motion. I think it’s important to grieve, and it’s important to feel all of the feelings, and really let them come and go. But this isn’t just only affecting me, this is affecting all of my employees, all of our clients, our community, all of our families. It’s really rippled out in a big way. And so, I feel strongly that I need to be there for everyone, and use that hopeful feeling that’s coming toward me to propel us forward.

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Chávez: In a video that you posted on the business’ Instagram account, you mentioned that you had actually experienced fire before when you were younger. How do you feel like you’re affected by your past experiences with fire? How do these things stay with you?

Howard: When the fires happened when I was a kid, … my grandmother’s business also had a fire. She ran her business out of her house, and it was a small and contained enough fire that my dad was able to rebuild that part of her house, and it actually made her business better. I remember that being a really sad thing, though, for my grandma. And then again, when I was in high school, the back of my own house burned down. I wasn’t home when it happened, but it made us have to move into a hotel for like three months, and it was just traumatic to be uprooted.

I think in general, just the idea of something that is completely out of your control happening and taking the oxygen out of your life in such a quick way, that’s just so scary. Even though I had experienced it before, I had absolutely no idea this would ever happen to me. It’s almost like the literal worst-case scenario that they talk about when you own a business. You know, “If your business was to go up in flames,” people would say that. But you never think it will come true.

Arson fire feels terrifying, and it feels so invasive, and it hurts my heart because, for whatever reason, another human was in control and chose to take this action and that really hurts. And it was almost — I felt my love and support of humanity kind of wavering after this happened. And I really told myself like, “Do not give up on people.” That frustrates me that I even have to be wavering in my feelings.

Chávez: In a recent TV interview you did about this experience, I think you said that right before the fire, you had been telling your husband about how you had been feeling especially creative and alive at this moment. And I imagine that must be hard to think about, after what’s happened. But I wanted to ask how you’re holding space for your future creativity right now?

Howard: I think that I’m going to have to creatively problem solve my way out of this in a lot of ways. Even down to like, what building we decide to move into, and do we augment our services, and what, in this opportunity to start over, how do we creatively navigate that, right?

I can’t help but think that that creativity was inside of me for this reason, I guess. I guess I’m just trying to make sense of it all and use it, because it was there. This was a very big deal to me that I was having this pivotal moment in my life, and I shared it with him and then with a few other people that day. So I don’t want to let that go, and I want to use it to creatively solve the problems of starting back up after 13 years in one space. And then from there, how can we use all of our collective creativity to bring to the new projects that come along? I know that it will be there when I’m ready. I believe in myself, and I believe in my creativity. I mean, it’s one of my greatest assets. I’m not going to give up on it now.

Chávez: I understand that you’ve felt really motivated towards community work recently. You’re now on the board of Business for a Better Portland, which is a local business organization, and part of its mission is to “advance social justice and equity.” How are you feeling now about what your role can be in this work as a business owner?

Howard: Well, I feel invigorated, and I feel so close to some of the issues that other business owners and other, just — in general — residents of Portland are going through. It gives me a platform, like even this interview right now, to speak about the work that Business for a Better Portland does, but also just the injustices and the hurt that the city is going through, and just shining a deeper, greater spotlight from the perspective of a small business owner on those issues.

As soon as I am able and my company is back up and running in full force, we will be there right back where we were helping the community. The reciprocity that’s been shown to me has actually helped me so much through this. Because of course, when COVID hit and we were making the PPE, there was no question in my mind that we would do everything we could to help in any way possible. Whether that was making hospital gowns, or making masks, or just making our own things and selling them and donating money, whatever the community needed, we really wanted to show up.

And I feel that back at me right now in a way that I never thought I would ever have to feel, but it’s special and it’s very dear to me and I’m just so grateful in so many ways and I can’t wait to give back. I want to volleyball the volley back over the net as soon as I can.

Listen to this entire conversation using the audio player at the top of this story.

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