By  on June 20, 2011

On a bright, sunny Saturday last September, two dozen indie fashion brands set up shop in an antiques warehouse in Minneapolis for the first edition of a men’s marketplace called Northern Grade. About 2,000 shoppers browsed the stalls, which showcased wares from labels like Tellason jeans, Taylor Stitch shirts, Fox River socks, Red Wing shoes, Stormy Kromer hats and J.W. Hulme Co. bags. Among the variety of products, there was one common link: They all were manufactured right here in the U.S. of A.

Like the locavore movement in food, there’s been a swelling of interest in fashion brands that make their shirts, jeans and bags close to home. As production costs soar overseas, especially in China, manufacturing goods in the U.S. can make a lot of sense, especially for smaller businesses that need to keep close tabs on their supply chain and can’t afford the minimums that foreign factories require.

What’s more, companies have found that the tagline “Made in the USA” has become an attractive selling point to a new generation of shoppers taken with the ideas of Americana, traditional craftsmanship and buying local.

“We wanted to support brands that are made in America and the response was fantastic. The world is changing and people are starting to care about this. I think it’s both economic and emotional,” says Jen Guarino, chief executive officer of St. Paul-based J.W. Hulme Co., which organized Northern Grade with Minneapolis-based Pierrepont Hicks neckwear. A second edition of the marketplace is planned for Sept. 10.

This fall, Pendleton Woolen Mills will introduce a new, upscale contemporary line called the Portland collection, geared toward young, trend-conscious consumers—and U.S. production is central to that strategy. “It’s very much a selling point to this consumer,” says company president Mort Bishop. “We’ve noticed the impact the greatest in our men’s division. I think with the recession, American men shifted from continental looks to comfort brands. And because of the economy, Americans have become much more aware of where products are made.”

Similarly, the New England Shirt Co. has made its home base in Fall River, Mass., a key element of the brand. The company manufactures in a factory that is more than 75 years old and was acquired in 2009 by Bob Kidder, an executive who worked at the plant in its previous incarnation as the longtime maker of Façonnable shirts for Nordstrom, which decided to move production offshore to save on costs.

“I purchased it with the idea that ‘made in America’ was a viable alternative if done properly, with fast delivery of quality product,” says Kidder. New England Shirt Co. now has 125 accounts around the country. “We sell to both traditional stores and a new base of younger stores that are excited about Made in the USA product.”

The company also produces private label shirts for retailers, which accounts for the majority of its business. “We can turn around an order in two to three weeks. If you’re ordering from the Orient, you’re going to wait much longer,” says Kidder.

One of the biggest challenges for Kidder is the cost of health insurance for his employees. It’s those kinds of high costs that led to the decimation of domestic apparel and footwear manufacturing over the past few decades.

In 1991, 50 percent of all apparel sold in the U.S. was produced overseas, a figure that grew to 98 percent last year, according to American Apparel and Footwear Association data. In footwear, 53 percent sold in the U.S. was made overseas in 1978; that figure ballooned to 99 percent last year.

However, some recent U.S. Labor Department figures show some newfound signs of life in domestic apparel manufacturing. In December, apparel manufacturers added 1,300 jobs to payrolls. This bump up was on top of several months of increases earlier in 2010 as well as in 2009—figures the sector hadn’t seen since 1997.

Rag & Bone aims to make as much product in the U.S. as possible, but for some categories it’s impossible to find domestic production. “The majority of the cut-and-sew collection is produced in the U.S., as well as all our denim and about half of our accessories. The only significant part of the collection we make outside the U.S. is knitwear as there really are no factories left in the U.S.,” says Marcus Wainwright, co-founder of the New York-based label, which uses factories in Manhattan, Connecticut, Vermont, Kentucky and Los Angeles. “It is so important for people to understand that producing goods here is not only a matter of pride and heritage, but also essential to keeping our economy alive and creating an entire infrastructure of jobs.”

Among the brands that continue to produce here are a number of high-end suit makers—which make them favorites of politicians, including sitting Presidents. Hart Schaffner Marx and Oxxford Clothes both manufacture in Chicago; Hickey Freeman is in Rochester, N.Y., and Germany's Hugo Boss is in Brooklyn, Ohio.

The denim industry is also thriving in the U.S., with its nerve center in L.A., home to a large immigrant pool of workers that populates the apparel production centers there, such as the high-profile American Apparel facility.

“Buying local is a big trend when it comes to food and I think it’s trickling over to apparel,” says Sam Ku, men’s design director at AG Adriano Goldschmied, which operates a 400,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in South Gate, Calif. “Since AG is a high-end brand, we manufacture in South Gate to have the highest quality and the Made in the USA label,” explains Ku.

For Matt and Carrie Eddmenson, founders of Imogene + Willie, making jeans in Nashville is a matter of personal pride. They set up shop there in 2009 when Carrie Eddmenson’s family firm, Sights Denim System, shuttered after more than two decades in business in Henderson, Ky. “In the mid-Nineties, NAFTA happened, and everything started moving offshore,” she recalls.

At Imogene + Willie, everything is produced on-site or at a nearby, third-party denim production facility. The duo salvaged 20 sewing machines from Sights, and a handful of workers moved with them to Nashville. The company is on track to double its business this year. “We’ve really become a destination. About 75 percent of our business is from out-of-town folks,” says Eddmenson.

For a small company like accessories maker Ernest Alexander in New York, high production costs are an obstacle—but e-commerce can allay some of those issues. The company makes very little money on its wholesale accounts and relies much more on its direct-to-consumer business via the Web, where margins are higher as it cuts out a middleman. “It can take eight to 10 hours of labor to make a single bag—and that costs a ton in Manhattan—but we still have to keep our prices below $400 retail,” says company founder Ernest Alexander Sabine. “Our wholesale margins are very low, but we use those stores’ visibility for the brand, which helps drive online sales.”

The Made in the USA label is not only important for U.S. sales, but can also be crucial for business overseas, where consumers tend to care more about country of origin. “We were testing product not made in the U.S., and none of them were successful in international markets,” says Dan Dahl, senior director at boot maker Red Wing’s heritage division, which now makes 100 percent of its product in America. “They didn’t tell the story that Red Wing should be telling.”

David Hamilton, a fourth-generation member of the family that founded Houston-based Hamilton Shirts, notes that U.S. manufacturing for high-end products is oftentimes less expensive than producing in Italy or France. “We used to have to apologize for making in America, because people thought if it wasn’t from Italy, it wasn’t good,” he says. “Attitudes have really changed and people are excited about America.”

J.W. Hulme’s Guarino points out that manufacturing in Minnesota allows the company to develop product quickly and for highly personalized customer service. “If a bag needs repairing, we can do that right here in our factory. Try doing that in China,” she says of the company’s St. Paul manufacturing plant, which employs 22 bag makers. “People may argue that it’s more expensive to make here, but when you add in all the logistics and waiting costs for overseas production, it’s not as cut-and-dry as you might think.”

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