It’s starting to matter again.
While the vast majority of apparel sold in the U.S. continues to be produced overseas, the fashion industry is a key part of the growing Made in the USA movement, joining everything from auto manufacturers to refrigerator makers in the push to boost domestic production. While industry executives say the apparel industry is unlikely to ever get to the scale it was in its heyday of the Fifties and Sixties, in July, U.S. apparel employment fell 800 to 140,700 jobs compared with about 900,000 jobs 20 years ago, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the increase in wages in China, controversy surrounding producing in Bangladesh and a host of other factors are all contributing to some production moving back to these shores.
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While they acknowledge that the production costs are higher than they would be overseas, many designers and stores believe that when transportation costs and turnaround time are factored in, there’s less of a cost differential. Retailers and brands producing or buying in the U.S. said they rely on the convenience, speed to market, high quality and ability to keep a close eye on their production as important aspects of their business. The stumbling block is the inability to buy high-quality fabrics in the U.S.
The Made in USA movement got a major boost earlier this year when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pledged to source an additional $50 billion worth of goods in the U.S. over the next 10 years. Made in the USA accounts for two-thirds of all products Wal-Mart sells, including food.
Michelle Gloeckler, senior vice president of home, who’s been tasked with spearheading Wal-Mart’s Made in America initiative, conceded that much of the $50 billion pledged will come from food, “but we won’t get to the $50 billion commitment without doing new and different things,” she said. The retailer has said it will source apparel, home, games, pet supplies and high-end electronics to start.
“There becomes a volatility in producing overseas: minimum wage, freight, reliability, dependability, cost of holding the inventory and Customs,” Gloeckler said. “One of the benefits of having production closer to the point of sale is it allows you to chase something that’s hot and trendy in fashion.” Also, “research shows that customers have a strong affinity for products made in the U.S.,” she added. “We don’t believe they should cost more. Our goal is high-quality products at everyday low prices.”
No nonsense, a division of Kayser-Roth Corp. said last week it will expand its Made in America “sock initiative” at Wal-Mart in early 2014. A $28 million cash infusion will be implemented by Kayser-Roth to increase production by 30 to 40 percent for the women’s sock program at Wal-Mart, as well as bolster technology and machinery at manufacturing facilities, said Kevin Toomey, president and chief executive officer of Kayser-Roth.
Toomey said the move should create at least 100 jobs, adding that 90 percent of the 120-year-old company’s products are produced in the U.S. The company, which has invested more than $100 million in domestic production over the years, operates plants in Dayton, Tenn., and maintains three facilities in North Carolina: Burlington, Lumberton and Asheboro.
THE NEW YORK SET
The Garment District is currently home to roughly 21,500 fashion-related jobs, according to the Fashion Center Business Improvement District.
“It’s incredibly important to my business to keep the garment production in the U.S., especially in New York’s Garment District, where the majority [95 percent] of my manufacturing takes place,” said designer Jason Wu, noting that the only categories he doesn’t manufacture in New York are knitwear and leather accessories. “It is all about having total control over the quality of my collection. Having all of my factories within a three-block radius of my studio is invaluable in maintaining these high standards.”
Wu sources 90 percent of his raw materials overseas. “However, import duties and often-delayed shipments provide a challenge from time to time,” he said.
Nanette Lepore, designer of her own contemporary sportswear collection, is a big proponent of Made in America and is actively involved in trying to preserve the city’s Garment Center, which employed 400,000 people in apparel production at it peak in 1973 before the onset of the import era saw it dramatically erode to a small fraction of that today.
“I highly recommend [domestic production] for the quality control, the inventory control and the turnaround time, and the fact that we can use more expensive, European fabrics,” said Lepore. “We get to jump in and make fixes or corrections. We can fill reorders within three weeks. We can import fabric from anywhere, and it doesn’t become a restriction with import duties and problems getting fabrics to places.”
She added that there are also ethical aspects, such as that “you have less of a carbon footprint. You know what conditions your employees are working under.”
Lepore, who is active in the Save the Garment Center initiative, which encourages and promotes Made in NYC and Made in America, said, “I think it’s a movement that’s gaining momentum. More and more people are having issues with manufacturing overseas. I think they see the opportunity here.”
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Maria Cornejo, designer and owner of Zero + Maria Cornejo, said 70 percent of her collection is manufactured in New York.
“There’s a lot of craftsmanship in America,” she said. “When you source locally, you’re supporting your local economy as well. People are trying to keep their production here, especially the smaller runs and things that are easier. By doing things locally, you can get things done a lot faster.”
To compete with apparel manufactured overseas, “sometimes we have to price certain things [lower],” because it costs less to manufacture overseas,” Cornejo said.
She said the more educated, socially aware consumer cares about where the clothes are made. She said while it can cost about 30 to 40 percent more to manufacture in New York versus Asia, “The minimums are very flexible here.”
Katherine McMillan, founder and creative director of Northern Grade, a traveling trade show, said, “The consumer is more cognizant of labels and is checking the labels. Men are more inclined, if they’re paying $300 for a jacket, to buy something they’re going to keep for the rest of their lives.”
When McMillan launched her own tie company in 2009, “it never occurred to me that I would not want to visit my factory frequently,” she said. “It’s about hands-on quality assurance and convenience. I like the people at my factory and like to think that I’m giving people jobs. I know I’m not going to be able to visit a factory in China.” McMillan uses factories in Queens, N.Y., for ties, and Maine and Minnesota for shoes. E-commerce is launching this month.
Michelle Smith noted that when she and her husband, Andrew Oshrin, launched Milly in 2001, it was as a domestic business with everything made in New York.
“Actually, it suited our needs,” Smith said. “As a start-up company, the quantities were small, we wanted to have a really good handle on the quality and fit. With a budding collection, it was a lot easier than dealing with an overseas team.”
Milly makes 90 percent of its collection in New York, and uses mostly European fabrics. “I import really high-quality French, Italian fabrics, and manufacture the garments here and export them back to Europe. I also sell my collection in Europe,” she said.
Shima Seiki USA, which specializes in whole-garment technology for knitwear, has a manufacturing facility in Monroe Township, N.J., where it produces its proprietary brand, Kotoba. The label was created to show off Shima Seiki’s technology, but the factory also handles production runs for designers such as Duckie Brown, The Row, Zac Posen and Oscar de la Renta.
Melina Danko and Lindsay Mann, Fashion Institute of Technology graduates, design Kotoba using Shima Seiki’s whole-garment machinery.
“Whole-garment technology is eco-friendly because there’s less waste and it’s less labor-intensive,” said Mann.
Kotoba is produced in a “most unfactorylike factory,” Mann said. “There’s floor-to-ceiling windows and plants everywhere.” One of the advantages of whole-garment technology is the absence of seams. Pieces are less likely to fall apart, as seams are the weakest point of a garment, she added.
Susan Young, vice president of manufacturing at Eileen Fisher, said that the company produces about 18 percent in the U.S., with 800,000 units produced in the U.S., primarily in New York City for cut-and-sew jersey and novelty knits, with denim and sweaters made in Los Angeles.
“We have a strong commitment to Made in the USA,” Young said.
Making denim in Los Angeles is more expensive, but Eileen Fisher designers were interested in the local denim scene.
“We can cope with the prices and the quality is excellent,” Young said. “We’re looking to bring more into the U.S. and diminish some of our production in China.”
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On the West Coast, Monique Lhuillier, the high-end bridal and ready-to-wear designer, owns her own factory in downtown Los Angeles, where she employs 165 artisans. Lhuillier does about 70 to 80 percent of her production there. She built the 360,000-square-foot factory seven years ago.
“One of the benefits is you’re constantly touching the product, seeing how it’s progressing,” she said. “I can actually see it in stages, so I can change my mind, and it can morph into other things. It’s really a luxury to have. I feel like the only way to do it right is in-house. It is an expensive proposition. I understand why less people do it, but for my product and my brand, it’s the only way [at the collection level]. I love keeping jobs here in this country.”
David Meister has been producing his line, David Meister Collection, in the U.S. for the past 15 years, with 90 percent made in Los Angeles. The Signature collection, which is four-and-a-half years old, is also entirely produced there.
“The sewers I have do beautiful work,” he said. “Where you need the Orient and India is when you’re doing intricate beading and embroidery. As far as the quality of the construction of the garment [here], it’s amazing. I’m a control freak, and you can control the quality so much better when the factories are a few miles away — our QC is in there every day.…I don’t see any downside to producing here. People do appreciate Made in the USA. I’m out at a lot of stores, at trunk shows and events, and when you tell people that, you really get a reaction. They’ll clap.”
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Jeff Rudes, founder and ceo of J Brand, said the company produces all of its denim in Los Angeles.
“Premium denim is usually produced in L.A. It’s the stamp of quality,” Rudes said. “We’ve got the laundries, we’ve got workers, we’ve got the intelligence and the technicians and the development here.”
J Brand uses a combination of domestic (Cone Mills), European and Japanese fabrics. One of the factories is in J Brand’s building, which works exclusively for the company and makes 25,000 jeans a week. The firm also contracts its production to about five other factories. Speed to market is important.
“When you’re a leader and developing a new fabric or new product, we want it in the stores fast,” said Rudes, noting that can be as little as two weeks.
Rudes also feels he’s able to get a well-trained work force “because it’s Made in America — the label says Made in California, U.S.A. — and there’s a high minimum wage.…If you can afford the cost, it’s the place to make denim in America.”
American Apparel employs over 12,000 people worldwide, with most of those jobs in the U.S., the company said.
“Every garment we sell is manufactured in the U.S., the vast majority at our vertically integrated headquarters in downtown Los Angeles,” a spokesman said. “We feel that by doing our manufacturing in the United States, we can not only more effectively control the quality of our product, but we can actually know the faces of our workers and treat them right and fairly.”
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With eight factories in North America, Individualized Apparel Group bills itself as the largest manufacturer of high-end men’s apparel in the U.S. The plants, which range from Oxxford’s facility in Chicago to Gitman shirt’s plant in Ashland, Pa., and the Individualized Shirt factory in Perth Amboy, N.J., and has sales of $375 million annually.
Joe Blair, IAG’s president, believes the company has been able to continue to produce domestically since its founding in 1968 in large part because 85 percent of what it manufactures is either luxury or custom merchandise.
“And it’s our heritage,” he said. “It’s not in our mind-set to manufacture anywhere else.”
IAG employs 3,500 workers in its factories and maintains an excellent relationship with the unions. “That’s a real advantage to manufacturing in America,” he said, noting that the plants can turn a custom-made men’s suit in 10 days or less. “You can’t do that in China.”
He said that the recent trend among American consumers to embrace domestic manufacturing has also worked to the company’s advantage — “It’s really struck a chord with consumers.”
Blair said he doesn’t expect the Made in America phenomena to fade anytime soon, adding, “I hope it’s not a phase. There’s nothing more real than keeping jobs at home.”
Blair noted that he has also seen the rise of artisan domestic manufacturing for the first time in many years.
“We’re seeing start-ups in weaving and manufacturing in Brooklyn [N.Y.], the South and California,” Blair said. “I believe we’ve turned a corner and customers and competitors are moving in this direction. We continue to grow by double digits every year, and we’re not in a defensive posture. We’re in a growth mode, and we’d like to see more of it.”
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Sarah and Victor Lytvinenko, cofounders and designers of Raleigh Denim Workshop, produce everything in North Carolina, New York and Los Angeles. Victor Lytvinenko explained that he bought sewing machines on eBay and Craigslist from some factories that had closed in North Carolina.
“Two mechanics from a Levi’s mill taught me how to fix the machines,” he said.
The factories produce 300 pairs of men’s and women’s jeans a week that retail from $200 to $350. They employ 27 people in Raleigh who hand-stamp the edition number on every pair. The label reads, “Handcrafted by non-automated jeansmiths in Raleigh, N.C.” The pattern maker is a 79-year-old former Levi’s pattern maker. This year, Raleigh contracted to facilities in New York City and Los Angeles for their extra production. Raleigh sells to Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and about 50 to 60 smaller boutiques. The company also makes outerwear, shirts and dresses.
Sofibella Wear launched more than three years ago and is committed to producing entirely in the U.S. The family-owned company opened a 12,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pompano Beach, Fla., that uses state-of-the-art technology to produce fitness apparel. It also uses all performance fabrics that are made in the U.S.
According to Franco Forcella, founder and president, the company buys from California mills, with 92 percent of its fabrics made domestically. Most of the fabrics are Tactel nylon and Lycra spandex. The company’s factory has 75 machines, and the entire cutting room is automated. It employs 45 people.
The advantage of producing in the U.S. “is time,” Forcella said. “You get to market a lot faster, and your inventory levels are controlled. It’s a safe way to gain market share.” He acknowledged that he has to price his line 30 percent and 45 percent higher than if it was produced in Central America and Asia, respectively.