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Made in New York. It’s a simple, elegant phrase that’s becoming a loaded fashion statement as you read this. There’s marketing. There’s co-branding. There’s money, and politics. There are good intentions. But, first, there are clothes.

This story first appeared in the August 19, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The hook for this story is a new Barneys New York capsule collection titled Made in New York for which the retailer asked seven of its top designers to produce items completely in New York City to support the beleaguered local manufacturing community. The collection goes in stores next week — all nine flagships and five of the smaller stores — with the full flex of Barneys’ display muscle behind it: It will get all of the Madison Avenue windows during New York Fashion Week, a grand gesture. To illustrate the concept, each window will house a sculptural dis- play of 200 two-foot needles made by the Barneys creative team.

Altuzarra, Thom Browne, The Row, Proenza Schouler, R13, Rag & Bone and Narciso Rodriguez made pieces for the collection, an assembly of reimagined greatest hits from each label. A seductive black Chantilly lace and chiffon dress from Altuzarra; a fitted dress from Proenza Schouler; a lean scuba dress from Rodriguez; a mannish tailored coat from Rag & Bone; an oversize flannel shirt and biker jeans from R13; a cashmere Melton coat from The Row, and a Mackintosh from Thom Browne. The lineup includes women’s, men’s and accessories. With the exception of Altuzarra, all of the designers actively produce portions of their collections locally.

The project is the result of a brainstorming session last year between Daniella Vitale, Barneys’ chief operating officer, and Steven Kolb, the CFDA’s ceo, who struck a partnership: Ten percent of the sales of Barneys’ Made in New York collection benefits the CFDA’s Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, the three-year-old grant program that invests in local manufacturing facilities. Factories applying this year are eligible to receive up to $300,000 (up from $150,000) each and are required to match a third of the money received. There is no cap on the number of grants that can be given. Andrew Rosen of Theory is the principal underwriter of the program, followed by Ralph Lauren and The Coach Foundation.

Vitale wanted Barneys to be involved with the CFDA in a way that “was a little more ours and was more New York-centric,” she says.

“The whole manufacturing industry has struggled,” notes Vitale. “More and more jobs were being taken away. We thought it would be a great initiative to support. We also knew there were many Barneys designers who made stuff in New York and made stuff in America. There were others who don’t. Wouldn’t that be a great way to educate people and show people what’s possible?”

What is possible when it comes to New York manufacturing? It depends on the goal. Making clothes in New York is a multipronged issue, a serious one, with a deep history in and economic impact on the city. According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the city generates $8 billion in annual fashion manufacturing sales. But it’s a struggle. Constant rent, real estate, wage and labor issues, as well as limitations to scale, plague New York manufacturing, particularly its historic epicenter, the Garment District. It has been eight years since the grassroots Save the Garment Center campaign was started, and to some extent, the very existence of a Made in New York campaign suggests that local manufacturing remains the global underdog.

Will New York ever be about mass production again, as it was in the Garment District glory days a half-century ago? “No, it’s not about that,” says Rosen. Rather, it’s about the need to invest in state-of-the-art machinery to keep up with the competition and invest in labor-training programs. “Manufacturers them- selves haven’t been investing in their facilities because they don’t know if they’re going to have a lease tomorrow and what price they’ll pay for the lease. There’s an instability in the ecosystem right now. Part is real estate. Part is workers.”

Asked for clinical steps to fix this instability, Rosen says, “The most important one is first to bring a lot of awareness to it.”

Tim Chan runs the business side of Design Incubator, a full-service product-development and production factory located on 38th Street (not to be confused with the CFDA Design Incubator), which produced Altuzarra’s contribution to the Barneys capsule. His list of challenges to working in New York starts with real estate. “A lot of us are being priced out of Mid- town because landlords are kicking tenants out and converting factories into condos or hotels,” he says, noting that a factory needs at least 2,500 square feet of space (Design Incubator has 5,000). But he also talks about the dwindling pool of skilled laborers. “It’s not glamorous — no one wants to sew,” says Chan, noting that garment production is a craft that requires an intense level of training. He says American skills are on par with European. “It’s a branding issue,” says Chan. “The U.S. hasn’t really promoted Made in the USA clothing. American Apparel tried, but they’re mass market. If higher luxury fashion houses did it, it would help.”

Obviously, the Barneys collection is a proactive way for the store to get behind a good cause with a shot of savvy marketing and, interestingly, turn what has essentially been a trade issue into a consumer issue.

“Who cares about Made in New York?” asks Kolb rhetorically, putting the consumer-facing concept into perspective. “Do people begin to recognize Made in New York [as associated] with a certain level of quality? That’s really the idea behind the Barneys and CFDA collection.”

A capsule collection from a single retailer alone won’t make a huge impact. Asked what kind of commitment Barneys is making to the collection in terms of a buy, Vitale estimates $500,000 has been invested. But the project gets the ball rolling. Originally, Barneys thought of doing its private label as a Made in New York initiative. Logistically, that couldn’t be accomplished within the timeline for this project, as Barneys’ private label is currently produced in Europe and Asia “just because that’s always the way we’ve done it, and again, not really having the exposure in New York, to what New York is capable of doing,” says Vitale, wincing a bit at her own words. “It never really crossed our minds, horribly, never crossed our minds.”

Going forward, the store is looking into moving some pri- vate-label production to New York.

All of the designers who participated in the capsule were interviewed about their experience and position on producing in New York. Unsurprisingly, all of them think Made in New York is positive, a great idea that they fully support — although with varying degrees of practicality. Says Mary-Kate Olsen of The Row’s operation: “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the collection is made in New York. That other [tenth of a] percent, we have two sweaters that we make out of Italy,” because the required machines are unavailable locally. About six months ago, Thom Browne acquired his hand-tailoring factory in Long Island City, run by Rocco Ciccarelli, with the intention of even- tually hiring and training new tailors. All of Browne’s hand-tai- loring is done locally and he estimates that about 50 percent of his men’s and women’s collections are produced in New York.

One of the clear virtues of New York production is its proximity to local designers, something that Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler points out is crucial for “things that are a little more labor-intensive, for the things that could go wrong really quickly.” Being able to make a quick run to a factory ensures a level of control invaluable to designers launching a brand. “When we started our company, before we had an in-house ate- lier, we made 100 percent of our samples in New York factories,” says Hernandez. “We had these funny memories and stories of spending all night with people in Midtown making the samples and treated them as our atelier in the way that we were there all the time before the show.”

Adds Kazuo Yamada, sales and public relations manager at R13, which produces minimally in New York, “Everything is at your fingertips. That’s a huge advantage. The price that you pay for that is the labor cost. It’s high.”

Established designers appreciate the ability to be hands-on, too. “We have an atelier, so we make all of our protos and first samples and runway samples in-house,” says Ashley Olsen. “But at the same time we’re working with production and going to walk the factories through what finishing we want — how we want this fit to be, can they cut thread, what kind of stitching, what’s going to work best with the kind of fabric we’re working with. Of course, [for production] you’ll always come up against feeling like you just can’t accomplish everything you’re trying to accomplish. But if you can’t do it for that season, you can keep trying and accomplish it the following season.”

As much as the designers value the work of local manufacturing facilities, they also value their freedom when it comes to where to produce, whether that’s Italy, France, China or New York. And accurate or otherwise, some designers view production in Italy and France as more suited to at least some of their work. Proenza Schouler does its tailoring in Italy “just because the Italian culture of tailoring is so much more developed,” says Hernandez. “There’s machinery and know-how there and just a culture of tailoring really doesn’t exist in New York or America.”

Joseph Altuzarra, who is based in New York but produces his collection mainly in France and Italy (Kering has a minority stake in his company), didn’t hesitate to be a part of the Barneys capsule. The CFDA gave him a list of recommended factories, something they offer to any member, and he did his due diligence, ultimately working with Design Incubator.

“I think each country has a different hand. I think that’s unde- niable,” says Altuzarra, noting that when he started his business, he went with what he knew, based on his experience working at Givenchy. “In New York, they have a very beautiful sportswear hand, but you can’t expect to give New York a jacket that you would want to have a very Italian tailored feel. It wouldn’t be the same because it’s a different country. And vice versa, you can’t expect to give a pair of denim jeans to an Italian manufacturer and expect it to look like American-made jeans. I do think it’s very different cultures, very different hands and what’s been interesting about it is really figuring out what would we do in America and what can we do successfully in a way that feels very Altuzarra.”

“It’s a choice,” says Browne, noting decisions are made on quality, aesthetic and production facilities.

The U.S. has the potential to build on a solid niche, but there’s the issue of scale and basic cost, where China still has the advantage, especially with the recently devalued yuan. Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone has been an active advocate of local production, appreciative of the niche abilities of New York manufacturing since he was trolling the streets of the Garment Center as an emerging designer 12 years ago. Rag & Bone still produces 50 percent of its line in New York, but Wainwright notes that volume is starting to become an issue as the business grows. “It’s difficult,” he says. “There’s not enough space for these modern factories, there’s not enough space for big production. That doesn’t mean that it’s not valid, though. We’re a lot bigger in terms of the amount of clothes we’re making and we’re making a lot of clothes relative to the younger designers. It’s an issue when you get to a certain size to maintain it.”

Wainwright puts it in perspective, noting the Garment District has been hammered from all ends for years. “The ones that couldn’t hack it or just couldn’t afford to stay in business are out. The ones that are really offering something that no else could do or the ones that really wanted it are the ones that stayed,” he says. “The manufacturing initiative basically offers to reinvest in those people. So that they stop thinking in survival mode and try and bring back some manufacturing to New York, not necessarily all in the Garment District, but to bring back some confidence in manufacturing in New York.”

Barneys aside, there are bigger plans to coin Made in New York as a proper fashion catchphrase — pending intellectual property issues that are being worked out in the mayor’s office. Back in February, at the outset of New York Fashion Week, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference to outline a roster of programs to bolster the fashion industry citywide. At the top of the list was a $5 million creative marketing campaign through the NYCEDC and the city’s creative firm, NYC & Co. Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen says, though not officially affiliated, “The launch of the [Barneys] capsule collection, in many respects, is the most visible milestone of the campaign.”

Glen also says that during New York Fashion Week next month, “the Made in New York campaign will be mounted throughout the city on buses, bus shelters.” She compares the campaign to the city’s Made in New York film initiatives, which have been going on for years. Perhaps a more understandable parallel would be the Italian Trade Commission’s successful Made in Italy efforts.

Arguably, no industry knows better than fashion the impact of good marketing. At the same time, as Deputy Mayor Glen put it, for local manufacturing, “At the end of the day it’s New York, right? New York is all about real estate.”

If there’s an ideal intersection of real estate and marketing, it’s the prime position of Barneys’ four Madison Avenue windows.

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