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LAS VEGAS — Choosing a manufacturer is no longer a one-sided decision weighted toward pricing.
This story first appeared in the March 11, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
At the recent Sourcing at MAGIC show, held at the Las Vegas Convention Center, factories from 43 countries tried to appeal to designers and retailers that offer private-label clothing with pitches that also addressed quality, flexibility, compliance and provenance.
“As the world becomes smaller, it’s a more level playing field,” said Marisa Fumei-South, president of Two-One-Two New York Inc.
Since the debut of Sourcing at MAGIC nine years ago, the U.S. was this session designated as a country of focus for the first time. Occupying nearly 5,000 square feet at the front entrance of the convention center’s South Hall, more than 40 domestic makers highlighted their expertise in everything from epoxy resin enamel jewelry and colorfully dyed leather to sublimation printing and drapy cardigans.
Despite the attention on American-made goods, China displayed its manufacturing might with more than 830 booths out of the 1,200 exhibitors at last month’s event. There was such a surfeit of Chinese suppliers that many of them were grouped together by apparel specialties, including bottoms, knits, intimates and woven shirts, spread over half the show floor.
Other countries also advocated strength in numbers. Thirteen Taiwanese companies united under the slogan “Think Taiwan for Textiles,” while nine apparel vendors from Indonesia were sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Industry. Egypt promoted its duty-free status with the U.S., and Mongolia, represented by six apparel manufacturers, participated for the first time.
Coming from halfway around the world brings challenges. Mongolia’s Goyol Cashmere, which charges $24 for a pair of yak wool socks and $129 for a belted cashmere sweater vest, cited delivery as an obstacle for breaking into the U.S. market. “It’s really far from our country,” said sales representative Ariunaa Byambakhuu, noting that DHL can ship in seven days, but at a high price.
Especially in the wake of the factory disasters in Bangladesh, foreign manufacturers must adopt — and pay for — stringent compliance standards while managing shortening lead times and tighter pricing from customers. For India’s Viraj Exports, that means it has to lower its profit margins to cover its workers’ education, water, medical aid and other benefits required to stay socially compliant.
“It’s a huge cost,” said owner Viraj Bhargava. “The prices the buyers are paying us are not enough.”
At the same time, what gives a lift to Viraj Exports, a specialist in manual embroidery and beading for retailers including Zara and H&M, is its workforce. “The U.S. does not have the workforce to do this,” said Rohan Bhargava, a principal at Viraj Exports.
Still, as labor costs increase overseas, domestic companies can assume an advantageous position.
“The ace in the hole [for domestic production] is quick turn, speed to market [and] fashion while it’s in fashion,” said Two-One-Two’s Fumei-South.
Specializing in women’s sweaters that cost $7 to $14 apiece and bear the private label for retailers such as Belk and J.C. Penney, Two-One-Two has been in business for 16 years. The Made-in-USA buzz has translated to sales, with revenue growing 20 percent over the last three years.
To stay competitive, Fumei-South tries to convince customers not to pigeonhole the New York-based manufacturer as a quick-turn resource called at the last minute. She said, “In order to have a successful business, you need consistency and continuity. They need to support [their suppliers] throughout the year.”
A number of first-time exhibitors proved that pockets of production can thrive in the U.S.
A.W. Enterprises has been making crocodile-embossed clutches and other leather bags in Bedford Park, Ill., since 1962. Denim USA Inc., a Los Angeles-based jeans manufacturer owned by Fabric Avenue, said its strategy of requiring a low minimum order of 300 units, starting at $19 a pair, has helped boost sales by 10 percent over the past two years. Founded in 1968 near the Hollywood studios in Burbank, Calif., 1928 Jewelry Co. attributed a 20 percent jump in business over the last three years to demand for local production from companies such as American Apparel. What’s more, 1928 stepped in when Chinese factories closed for the Lunar New Year to fulfill special orders for beauty brand Urban Decay.
“The people who [stick] it out [in U.S. manufacturing], they’re the ones who win,” said Christina Lovejoy, 1928’s director of product development.
Another strategy to winning is improving infrastructure. Tristan, a Canadian producer of tailored suits, invested $3.5 million in renovating the factories it bought 12 years ago. “There’s no waste of fabric,” said Lili Fortin, business development director at Tristan. “You have to up your game and be very efficient.”
Across the globe, manufacturers are making adjustments to stay competitive. China’s Ningbo K. Garment Co. has altered its business practices to deal with changes such as rising costs and difficulties in finding skilled employees willing to move to Eastern China to work in a garment factory. For instance, it now relies on machines that fuse seams, rather than a person to hand-sew.
“Young people [in China] want to work in computers and where they have more free time,” said Patrizio Mao, a sales representative for Ningbo.
Choosing between domestic and foreign manufacturing isn’t easy. “Obviously, cost is a big factor,” said Alexandria Cowell, owner of Lila Rose in Surfside Beach, S.C., who sought resources to help make private-label sweatshirts and Ts that would retail for less than $60. “It’s a delicate balance. I have a customer base that would like to see [the production] stay domestic. At the same time, I have to keep pricing competitive so there’s an option to go overseas.”