LOS ANGELES — A comeback of denim manufacturing in the City of Angels? It’s complicated. And turns out, just because someone says something to that effect will occur — even if it comes from the lips of a president — doesn’t mean change occurs overnight.
President Trump’s push to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and grow jobs domestically, along with a broader interest in the revival of U.S.-made goods, have converged into a swell of talk. Whether denim manufacturing locally — which has trickled outside of the city’s borders over the past few years as companies look to cut costs — returns hinges on a confluence of factors, the least of which is policy and trade talk.
“I don’t see manufacturing coming back any time soon,” said denim consultant and brand strategist Mark Tourgeman. “The majority of consumers now in the United States are paying for inexpensive goods and major retailers are playing the off-price game.”
A sizable shift would have to take place, beginning with the dance between consumers and retailers, if denim manufacturing were to bounce back in L.A., said Tourgeman, who launched the Strom denim brand, was the first buyer of American Rag, clocked time at Hudson and was vice president of Rock & Republic before opening his current firm.
“The consumers are just used to paying inexpensive prices and, unfortunately, big U.S. retailers have taught the consumer to get things at a discount,” Tourgeman said. “I’m not going to name names but there are retailers that have regular priced goods and now they’re opening up off-price outlets and they’re tricking the consumer because they’re manufacturing goods overseas, bringing it in here still making margin and putting a domestic MSRP on it and slashing it by 50 percent. What would it take [to bring denim production back]? It’s going to be two different sets of consumers: the really high end with denim prices from $200 that would still be U.S. production and then the cheap [brands].”
It’s a chase based on price.
“There are some companies who take things down to Mexico and might wash it here. It’s been pretty steady so people will say they’re moving everything to Mexico and a year later, it’s not working because it’s not happening quick enough,” pointed out David Horn, owner of consulting, development and production services firm Horn Los Angeles.
Horn works with denim brands that manufacture in California, but said that reality has nothing to do with Trump. The one truth that will drive business and motivate production decisions has to do with following the movement of the consumer, he pointed out.
“It’s about reaching consumers and it’s usually online nowadays because retail for the most part is not doing the greatest,” Horn said. “People talk about how people are looking for experiences and not so much material goods, but I don’t know. I do see people wearing clothing at these experiences.”
Any interest in domestic manufacturing is based on other factors, some say.
“Overall, definitely, we’ve seen a surge in interest in terms of manufacturing domestically and there are two categories [driving] that,” said Art Rahbar, whose company 9b Apparel has five Los Angeles factories handling knits, wovens, denim, heavyweights and outerwear. “One are the new brands, direct to consumer. Those people definitely want to manufacture locally. That’s their preference usually because they’re fast fashion and the quantities are a bit lower but they produce more often.”
Others, Rahbar said, have expressed an interest in paying the higher cost — sometimes 15 to 20 percent higher — to be able to produce in L.A. rather than be beholden to the shifting labor costs overseas where they are rising in places such as China. Larger brands will ultimately do what they need to do to keep costs at bay.
“Those people that have the income, if they can go to Mexico they are going to go to Mexico,” Rahbar said. “The bottom line still matters to the big players and I don’t think all of this ‘Buy American and Trump’ is that much of a factor. [Trump’s] riding a wave that already existed.”
Brands shied away from weighing in on the question of producing in the U.S. Levi Strauss & Co. declined comment, as did Gap Inc. Citizens of Humanity and Agolde, which was launched by Citizens founder Jerome Dahan, also declined comment.
Over in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, about 10 minutes east of downtown, Enc Fashion Inc. continues to chug along after 27 years in the business. It currently works with five to eight brands at a time — a mix of larger companies and up-and-comers. The business has weathered denim manufacturing’s cycles. It currently employs about 250 people, down from the height of some 900 three or four years ago when brands began their movement first to Mexico and then to China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
Claudia and Elizabeth Bae, whose parents own Enc, grew up around the denim business and more recently launched their own premium line called 1Denim. It’s produced in their parents’ factory and sold online and via their store at the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale, Calif.
“We try to make an ecosystem within the factory,” explained Claudia. “It’s A to Z and we’re taking advantage of the factory being here and the experience our parents have and incorporating that into the brand. The secondary reason [for local production] is, of course, to keep our factory busy.”
It’s more difficult to predict or control the steps made by other denim brands, she went on to say.
The sisters hope the Made in America revival will lead to a comeback in denim manufacturing locally, with Elizabeth pointing out she’s heard from customers expressing more interest in Los Angeles manufacturing.
“I hope that it does bring garment manufacturing back to Los Angeles but we won’t know until we get there,” she said. “We definitely see a lot of interest in our existing customers in creating Made in America programs again.”
But Los Angeles’ manufacturing landscape isn’t comprised of large, corporate factories; they’re largely boutique firms. So any movement of denim production back to Los Angeles will benefit those factories who are able to stick around.
“Whoever stays alive the longest will get the new business,” Elizabeth pointed out. “I think it’ll be a while before we see an effect….I don’t know what the new administration’s plans are, but it’s probably not going to be overnight.”
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