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How a tiny superhero helped save a failing factory

Fall River Apparel is a cut and sew contracting business that has gone from a $3 million company in its heyday, to shuttered and bankrupt after the manufacturing bust, to back in business more than a decade later. 

Remarkably it and owner Jimmy Petrosso have survived, most recently knocking the dust off the old machinery to help out a small Etsy shop needing a boost of manufacturing power. This, at a time when the last relics of the garment industry are still standing like ghost ships in towns across America -- such as in Fall River, Mass.

“Back when I was a child, Fall River was known for its mills and its factories. And if you were going to work anywhere in Fall River that is where it would be," says Petrosso. "You could literally quit a job in one mill and get a job in another mill the next day. Labor was in demand and there was plenty of it.”

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Starting out of a two-bedroom apartment back in 1983 with a seamstress named Mary, Petrosso’s business grew until, at the height of success in 2001, he owned a 120,000-square foot-factory that employed over 100 people. “At our peak, we were at $2.5 to $3 million in revenue.”

But then all the mills in Fall River started closing. Offshore manufacturing was taking its toll.  “I went in one day and there weren’t anymore orders to come -- and we were forced to close. The day we closed and I had to tell those 100 people -- I was in the corner crying.”

Petrosso thought his factory was dead.

“I went bankrupt…And that was the end, right? But no—even if you're dragged down to zero, get up and keep going because if you are a true entrepreneur, whether you make cupcakes or make dresses, you just have to keep doing it. Success is in the doing and the surviving.”

And survive he did – with a little help from an unexpected hero.

Enter a young Allison Faunce, owner of the Etsy shop Little Hero Capes, which sells costumes for kids. 

“Little Hero Capes started when my oldest son was running around with a dishtowel," recalls Faunce. "It was around the holidays so I threw up a few capes [on Etsy] to try it out and the very next day, I had sold out of all of the capes. I got a wholesale inquiry from my first retail shop, and I got some press right away. I thought, 'OK, there might be something to this.'”

But Faunce was nine months pregnant at the time, and soon realized that demand for her superhero capes was beyond her reach. She needed a fast, reliable solution to swoop in to save the day. She called Fall River Apparel to get a quote. I had a lot of anxiety. I felt a little naïve walking into this grand mill building, which in itself was really intimidating,” says Faunce.

Petrosso proved to be just the partner she needed, and the job to sew superhero capes was an unexpected lifeline for a factory that otherwise would have remained shuttered. He admits he was open to considering newer, younger possibilities – including embracing a new attitude toward technology.

“The web was kind of a scary thing to me...I just didn’t understand what the web could be for my business,” Petrosso says. “[But then] Allison walks in smiling and happy and young – energetic like I was and she comes in with a hero cape. Mary and I are looking at the hero cape and we are like – what is she doing?”

Petrosso says of Faunce, “she’d been doing this herself out of her house and so she knew what she was doing -- she just needed us to do more of it….And I told Mary, you have to bet on people sometimes. Allison had energy and she was confident. So we started making little hero capes -- and it’s working out.” Now, Allison is able to keep up with the demand.  Fall River Apparel has now produced more than 5,000 capes that retail at around $45 and it is paying off for both parties.  Fall River is back on the rise and receives more than 20 inquires a week from home sewers.  A similar web-based business to little hero capes is Wrapeaze - a unique hooded wrap that keeps a child warm without the hassle.  Fall River has manufactured thousands of the hoodies and the orders continue to increase.

Petrosso and his seamstress have updated some of their technology, and Faunce is grateful for help from an apparel company that has so much wisdom and history to share. “Because really business is a relationship, that’s what I’m always connected with," says Faunce.

Petrosso describes it more like this: “What Allison has taught me is that there are energetic younger people out there that believe in what they’re doing and believe that making it in America matters. That gives me hope, because it was kind of tough when we lost it all…[Even if] she puts two people to work, if there's 1,000 Allisons, it’s still putting people to work. So I would hope that there are more Allison's, and they don’t give up and that there are still people like me to help them. I’m a dinosaur and if I go extinct, there’s no one to turn to.”

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Video produced by Jessica Ashford; co-produced by Emily Sharnhorst. Production by Michael Manas, Richard Rella, Josh Kesner, Maryann Vanderventor. Edited by Sean Elms. Audio Edited by J.J. Brown. Graphics by Todd Tanner and Adam Saul For Yahoo! Studios. Executive Producers: Russ Torres and Peter Gorenstein.