NEW YORK — Long before private label had a name, Carole Wren was making clothes for stores who then put their own label on the sportswear items.
"In those days, there were no labels on the garments, only content labels," said Martin Leff, chairman of Carole Wren Inc., who purchased the company in 1946. Its main client then was Lerner Stores. "We didn’t pre-ticket goods, but we just knew they were retailing for about $4."
Fast-forward to the present, 60 years later, and the majority of Carole Wren’s business is still generated from private label business — 90 percent, to be exact. The company also produces the moderate brand New York Clothing Co., sold at Dress Barn, Sears and Mervyn’s. Today, its separates wholesale from $10 to $20.
Originally a bottoms maker, Carole Wren now makes blouses, sweaters, skirts, pants and jackets. Its items are sold to stores such as J.C. Penney, Sears, Charming Shoppes, Chadwick’s of Boston and Mervyn’s. The company’s volume is about $50 million.
In addition to Martin Leff, the family-owned business includes Norman Wolf, president; Jeffrey Leff, secretary and treasurer, and Robert Mann, vice president.
The consolidating retailing and manufacturing landscape has not left private-label manufacturers unscathed. Wolf said a key to Wren’s success has been its ability to adapt to change. Just four years ago, the firm implemented the necessary computer systems and hired a team to study sourcing opportunities.
"We’re able to grow because we’ve made the necessary moves to fulfill our customers by putting in the high tech equipment for marketing, grading and cutting," Wolf said. "The investments we’ve made are really what’s kept us in business."
Private label, Wolf said, is much more challenging than branded because of the demands placed on companies by retailers.
"If a retailer purchases a brand, they accept the fit and fabric," he said. "Whereas we have to test the fabric and use the customers’ specs. It’s much more difficult."
The company also has four designers that travel Europe looking for the next hot trend and who work in the company’s design warehouse in Long Island City, N.Y. Its showroom here is at 1385 Broadway.Still, there’s no question that the retailing and manufacturing landscape has changed dramatically in the last six decades.
"In the old days, the manufacturers made the product, period," Leff said. "As a retail buyer, I took part in every step to make sure the goods got out overnight. Now we do every single thing for the retailers. The only thing we don’t do is sell the items."
In a world of retail consolidation, it is survival of the fittest, even for private-label manufacturers.
"Years ago, one could go to a buyer with a little resource," said Wolf. "The problem today is the challenges are so great to meet the needs of the retailer. Sourcing is also a challenge; we went from being a domestic manufacturer to being completely global, and we are producing goods all over the world."
The company resisted the move to source abroad for as long as it could, said Leff, but inevitably went offshore seven years ago. Today, about 85 percent of its goods are sourced in places like Guatemala, China, Indonesia and the Ukraine.
"We were one of the last to go," Leff said. "We tried as long as we could to be domestic."
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