Mikaela Aitken
Writer, Editor & Strategist

Setting a pattern

For five decades until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lithuania churned out government-issue uniforms for the eastern bloc. While the regimes didn’t last, the  workforce’s skills did, and now a new generation is keeping the country at the forefront of the garment manufacturing industry. 

Writer: Mikaela Aitken
Photography: Krzysztof Pacholak

A mechanical blade rounds a bend then swooshes deftly back across a hairpin turn at breakneck speed. Its driver Vita Gofmaniene, 56, works nimbly to steer the sharp tool through several sheets of black fabric along the course of a dress pattern. Gofmaniene pauses to peer over the next portion of the pattern, squints for focus and continues with precision. She has worked at Kauno Baltija, a textile company in Kaunas (Lithuania’s second-biggest city), for 36 years and is part of a longstanding line of seamstresses, pattern cutters, designers and technicians studding the Lithuanian workforce. The Baltic nation is a manufacturing engine for some of Europe’s biggest fashion houses.

“Our country has a good knowledge set and technical ability,” says Kauno Baltija’s general manager Vidas Butkus. “We have so many years of knowhow and knowledge of techniques that quality is always guaranteed.” It’s a fact supported by Butkus’s roster of clients. “We produce Marimekko’s most difficult garments, from silk blouses to pleated skirts and items with laser-cut details.” 

Dating back to 1940, Kauno Baltija is one of the Baltic nation’s more seasoned clothing manufacturers, and it’s lived through seismic political shifts. In 1940 democratic Lithuania came under Soviet rule, then was briefly occupied by the Nazis before returning to being a USSR state in 1944. Factories, many of which employed several thousand people, supplied government-issued military and school uniforms and, through necessity, the country became the region’s textile capital. Simonas Gedzius, 38, recalls the monolithic factory buildings that dotted the landscape during his childhood and the workforce that remained after the fall of the  Soviet Union in 1991. “Although the Soviet state collapsed, the textile manufacturing skills were still here,”  he says from LTM Garments’ office on the outskirts of Vilnius’s old town.  
Gedzius, in his post as CCO of LTM, has come to represent a new generation of fashion manufacturing in the country. “Even though other Eastern European countries such as Romania and Bulgaria have more technology in their factories, Lithuania has a better skill-set,” he says. It’s a unique selling point that has helped drive business for LTM, which operates as the middle man between international fashion houses and Lithuanian factories. Since opening in 2004, the company has grown to employ more than 50 staff ranging from project managers to pattern cutters and quality controllers.

Fashion is important business for the southernmost Baltic state, with the textile, clothing and leather manufacturing industry estimated to bring in upwards of €850m a year. And, while the total volume of exported goods from Lithuania has declined in recent years, the exportation of apparel has seen a steady rise, with Germany, Denmark and Sweden the biggest markets.

When Monocle visits LTM, in-house teams are developing spring/summer 2019 lines for Acne Studios, Joseph and APC. “Acne Studios accounts for 30 per cent of LTM’s capacity,” says Gedzius, whose team help develop a large portion of the Swedish luxury label’s woven items, plus some of their outerwear, trousers, blazers and shirts.

Other high-profile accounts such as Net-a-Porter’s Mr P range, Norse Projects, Whistles and Reiss help bring LTM’s total output to around 250,000 clothing items a year. “Most brands don’t have their own production department so they need us to provide services such as quality control and project management,” says Gedzius.

LTM production staff work between 20 selected factories in Lithuania and the fashion houses’ headquarters across Europe, testing fabrics, doing fittings and putting out fires. “The brands grow to trust us and on a daily basis our teams will exchange hundreds of emails with them,” says manager and co-founder Laima Ingileikiene.

“The garments not only have to be the perfect fit for the end user but the quality has to be beyond what the normal eye would catch.” Such precision requires time, with items taking anywhere from six to 12 months to develop from sketches to stock. This means the number of clients LTM can take on is limited, but the company believes this is a positive for Brand Lithuania. “We don’t want to operate in the fast fashion sphere,” says Gedzius.

It’s an admirable outlook and one that’s seen ethically minded brands such as Joseph move production to Lithuania in recent years. It also helps that many of the country’s factories are mom-and-pop organisations. “Most factories are run by one family so we’re dealing directly with the owners,” says Gedzius.

The efficiency of production is evident when walking across factory floors in Vilnius and Kaunas. Technicians at Kaunas linen factory Klasikine Tekstile (which makes fabrics as well as clothes) are experimenting with fabric dyes. Across the room booted mechanics in green overalls are servicing hulking machines. At Kauno Baltija, seamstresses operate the ordered rows of sewing machines.

Yet beyond their smooth efficiency, the average age of these workers is a cause for concern. In this post-industrial society, the pull of vocational employment such as tailoring or dressmaking is ebbing. “It’s not a prestigious profession anymore. Younger generations don’t see potential for growth and wages are not as competitive as other careers,” says Ingileikiene. “But this is not just a Lithuanian problem, it’s worldwide.”

It’s a phenomenon also felt by Klasikine Tekstile, which works with brands such as Lacoste and Muji. “It’s becoming harder and harder to fill positions and the average age of our worker is going up,” says sales manager Donatas Akelis. “With quality textiles there’s no chance to switch to solely computers. We’re always going to need people.” Akelis says a solution may be found by looking to fellow European fashion powerhouse Portugal for solutions. “The Portuguese fashion manufacturing industry is subsidised heavily by the government. The EU also offers programmes for small and medium businesses, although [our company is] too big for that now.”

The specialist company, founded in 1991, employs about 300 people and has an annual turnover of €200m, 40 per cent of which is attributed to fashion work. Since the global financial crisis, the company has sustained an incremental revenue increase of approximately 10 per cent each year. This trend of growth across Lithuania’s clothing manufacturing industry is a point of pride and one it will fight hard to maintain. “We want to cover more niche and luxury brands,” says Akelis. “And we want to keep textile manufacturing in Lithuania as much as possible.”