NEW YORK — With the threat of war looming, the Made in USA label stands to pack more of a punch with consumers, and a few activewear companies aren’t afraid to talk it up.

This story first appeared in the March 6, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

For sneaker giants it’s pretty much a moot point, since the majority of their product is made outside American borders. Few major brands manufacture in the U.S. exclusively or at all anymore, with estimates of 70 to 75 percent of all apparel sold at retail being imported.

But New Balance plans to shift some apparel production back to the U.S. later this year, and smaller firms such as ScoutPerformance, Bumi Sirotka and Bod are touting their domestic production.

“There is affordable manufacturing here, you just have to look around,” said Seth Bruno, who founded ScoutPerformance with his sister, Dori.

Retailers routinely inquire about where ScoutPerformance is produced and respond favorably when they learn 80 percent is made in New York and 20 percent in San Francisco, he said.

“Made in the USA is still meaningful. At a lot of the shows like MAGIC people ask where we manufacture,’” Bruno said. “When we tell them, they want to know, ‘How do you do that?’”

Having recently done some research about domestic production, Bruno said he was impressed by the burgeoning manufacturing in Los Angeles. For fall, ScoutPerformance will carry Made in the USA labels instead of Made in NYC, since the company is doing more production in California. The firms aspires to be regarded like New Balance, which is known for maintaining some domestic production, Bruno said.

Jim Tompkins, president and chief operating officer of New Balance, said the brand will contract 30 percent of its apparel production in Tennessee and North Carolina factories this fall. Even though all socks are made domestically and 25 percent of the brand’s athletic footwear is made in Maine and Massachusetts, New Balance doesn’t plan to play that up in coming months.

“We try to stay fairly low-key. It might be a little exploitive [to promote domestic production],” Tompkins said. “It’s part of who we are and has been since the Fifties. Retailers, consumers and our associates expect a certain portion of our merchandise to be made in the USA.”

New Balance decided to make some apparel in the U.S., since American factories can be quicker and more efficient than overseas ones, and prices are competitive, especially for T-shirts and Lycra spandex goods. Should the U.S. go to war with Iraq, Tompkins believes consumers will be too preoccupied with other things to look for domestic products.

Bumi Sirotka produces all of her collection in New York at Crown Productions and each garment has a Made in the USA label. Quality control was her main reason for manufacturing locally when she launched her company last year, but that has changed.

“With war pending, we’re trying to do as much as we can to boost the economy,” Sirotka said. “Yeah, we might be paying a couple of dollars more, but we’re supporting business in the Garment District. We’re helping everyone, in a way.”

Instead of faxing specs, Sirotka “actually looks at them” during her nearly daily trips to Crown. She said, “There are definitely pluses to doing it — it’s just at a higher cost. People are definitely more open to doing business with someone who manufactures in the U.S., instead of sourcing outside the U.S. I will make more of a point to mention everything is made domestically. From a delivery standpoint, it’s huge.”

Bod, a newcomer to the activewear scene this spring, also produces its line here. When the yoga-inspired collection debuts next month, items will carry hang tags plugging that fact.

“It’s a big deal,” said founder Pia Chon. “The Made in the USA label has more marketing cachet.”

But going local was more of a practical decision than a strategic one, since Bod sources all of its raw materials from American mills.

“Getting a definitive definition for activewear was difficult enough,” she said. “I doubt there are real market surveys about the effectiveness of Made in the USA labels.”

Danskin still owns a York, Pa., factory with 325 employees, but will not trumpet that in the coming months, said Carol Hochman, president and chief executive officer. About 55 percent of its apparel is made outside the country.

“Unless you do everything here, I don’t see how you can claim Made in the USA,” Hochman said. “To me, it looks two-faced to promote that.”

Isis, a Colchester, Vt.-based company that makes women’s outerwear and activewear, has no plans to promote the fact that 30 percent of its manufacturing is done in Boston and Hartford factories.

“When people ask, we talk about it, but it’s not something we’re going to tell a story about,” said co-founder Carolyn Cook. “It opens up a whole can of worms about why we don’t produce enough here.”

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