The city and surrounding areas are still in demand for those requiring the expertise and hands-on, high-touch approach — a balance other markets have yet to unseat — despite activewear’s continued growth, rising costs and continued regulatory pressures that have led to the local industry’s contraction. Los Angeles still retains the skill level many start-ups and premium denim brands covet, helping prop up local production.
“I don’t come from the fashion world. I came from the entertainment world so I kind of had to learn the business from the ground up. I was having to contact all the people I could to give me an education and all those people exist in L.A.,” said Kathryn Brolin, founder of the recently launched Midheaven Denim. “I met different production managers, met different wash houses, met different fabric suppliers. Everybody was in Los Angeles.”
It took Brolin, who comes from the modeling industry and is the wife of actor Josh Brolin, a solid year before she was able to assemble the right team to help her bring Midheaven Denim to life.
The brand, which specializes in longer inseams, recently launched with four styles retailing for $230 and is sold direct to consumer. Brolin said she’s been approached by a few boutiques and is weighing her options in expanding at wholesale. The first week of May Midheaven is set to release its next five styles for summer and fall, which will be priced from $198 to $280.
From the outset, Brolin said she was open minded about where her line would be manufactured. It wasn’t until exhaustive research and pounding the pavement that she decided to stay in Los Angeles.
“I really was not going in with a hard intention of producing in the States because I had so many different opinions from various business owners that I sought counsel from on how to do this right and how to make money from this,” she said. “The more I got into it and the fact that I wasn’t going to budge on the fact that I wanted to use Italian fabric, it just led itself back here to home. I really wasn’t willing to risk going overseas in order to make a little more money and get the product back and it might not be what I envisioned or ordered.”
It was a similar idea that kept Ayr’s denim production in Los Angeles, although its executive team is also well versed in the industry having worked with denim for years.
“From the get go, when we were connecting the brand, we knew denim was going to be a huge focus and our first intention was always to produce it in L.A. My background has been in denim for the past 14 years,” said Ayr cofounder and creative director Jac Cameron. “So [Los Angeles] was always the first choice, especially because we wanted them to be of premium make, authentic and made in the U.S.A.”
“Premium denim was born out of L.A. and there’s a history of technical know-how from the sewing all the way to the washing of our product,” said Lydia Choy, Ayr vice president of product development and supply chain. “We really wanted to produce in L.A. and be able to be very hands-on and work with the laundry masters and sewers directly.”
Yes, it’s cheaper to produce overseas, Choy said, but there are other trade-offs that have to be factored into the overall consideration, such as the ability to easily board a plane in New York and be in L.A. to visit a sewer or wash house the same day.
“Ultimately, for us as a brand it’s very important to be premium and partner with some of the best facilities to make the product and it’s incredibly important to have the communication in a really close relationship with our facilities,” Cameron said. “That really speaks to how people are buying these days. They want to know exactly where it’s made, how it’s made and whose making it. That’s a huge piece of the product. The consumer holds a lot of the cards there in terms of understanding where things are made.”
Ultimately, the question of what’s better is an intricate dance around the supply chain and market realities that have to be weighed.
Direct-to-consumer premium denim and basics brand DSTLD recently closed on a $3.1 million equity crowdfunding campaign and nabbed J. Hilburn founder and former chief executive officer Hil Davis to be chief operating officer. Davis is now carefully evaluating DSTLD’s supply chain.
Much of the company’s production is done in L.A., such as the cut-and-sew, with the remainder done in Asia. The company’s now looking into Turkey, Davis said.
“It’s hard to scale. In L.A., there are a lot of factories but not a lot of large ones,” Davis said. “It’s really divided between cut-and-sew here and washes in Turkey.”
As Davis and his team continue to weigh the company’s options, the executive guesses what DSTLD could end up with as it relates to its supply chain is a mix not reliant on any one market.
“It could be a little bit of both,” he said. “I think what you could do is find your core products maybe more out of Europe. You really need distinct washes and there’s a couple places over in Europe that do some really awesome stuff. Then, maybe cut-and-sew in L.A. I think you could see us keeping washes and fabric in L.A. If we run low on bestsellers, we can make it in L.A. and replenish so much faster. There’s a strategic shrinking of the supply chain with just in time. If you know things are selling, you don’t always want to be waiting for things to be made overseas.”
Davis added small run, boutique-like product that would really help support the brand story as DSTLD looks to ramp up marketing and scale the business would certainly come in handy if the manufacturing could be done locally.
“It’s a small batch,” Davis said. “What it really says is this is how seriously we take product.”
Even with the rise of a more discerning customer wanting transparency of the supply chain and to know the workers’ stories of those who stitched their jeans or shirts together, the ability to say “Made in” and fill in the blank of whatever city, ultimately boils down to a marketing move that hasn’t necessarily translated into the regrowth of denim manufacturers locally.
“Marketing doesn’t bring back anything,” said California Fashion Association president Ilse Metchek. “Reality brings back something.”
Legal and legislative issues combined have affected the industry over the past three years, Metchek said, pointing to tariffs on U.S. made product that forced some manufacturers to relocate to Mexico, the minimum wage increase, environmental regulations, immigration issues and California law regulating use of the “Made in U.S.A.” label. All of those factors have led to a steady trickle of denim manufacturers even as many denim brands retain headquarters in the city.
“All of these things combined have chased a lot of the manufacturing out,” Metchek said. “So there are all kinds of ramifications to all these little drips and drabs.”
Contraction within the market has also happened on the brand side, which has also shrunk the existing manufacturing base to accommodate less work.
“If you go back 15 years ago, if you were a new brand and you wanted to get into a laundry or a sewing factory, you couldn’t because they had so much work, they couldn’t fit you in,” said Mother Denim cofounder Tim Kaeding. “Nowadays, they can’t fit you in because they’ve had to downsize and they’re not big enough to accommodate more brands. If you think about it, there was too much work 15 years ago and now there’s not enough work.”
Even with all the change, Los Angeles remains a city with a sizable manufacturing base and that matters, Kaeding pointed out, adding that despite all of this he ultimately remains hopeful about the future of Los Angeles denim manufacturing.
“I do think things are going to pick up now,” he said pointing to new initiatives by the city to support local design and production, such as Mayor Eric Garcetti’s L.A. Original program. “I’m really hoping that it does get bigger and better as it becomes more difficult to go offshore. People are realizing maybe it costs a little bit more here but the benefits are clearly there. The level of expertise that we have here in Los Angeles is unlike anywhere else in the world, and I think that also is a reason for brands to really stay here and even starting brands here because what people can do here in Los Angeles. Some of these people have been here for generations doing the same thing. We’ve been making jeans here for 25 years and you can’t find that anywhere else.”