For Good Clothing Company founder Kathryn Hilderbrand, when it comes to American manufacturing — it’s all good.
The master tailor, designer and entrepreneur just landed a partnership with AKR Textile, a nearly $1 billion operation in India. In addition to taking a significant minority stake in the company, AKR plans to bring 20 percent of its production to the U.S. That is welcome news for Hilderbrand, who started her company three years ago after being irked by how the human aspect of fashion manufacturing was being forgotten.
Determined to change that and improve the lives of workers at the lowest levels of production, she set out to create better-paying jobs. The partnership deal with AKR will bolster that, due in part to the use of semi-automated machinery. There are plans for a new LEED-certified facility in Fall River, Mass., with the goal of creating 500 jobs in the next three to five years. GCC expects to open that on a 26-acre site in the city’s biopark where Amazon has a distribution center. The company aims to generate $500 million in cut-and-sewn sales within five years, Hilderbrand said.
GCC will also open a textiles manufacturing facility in Arkansas’ Delta region in late 2018 or early 2019. GCC already has expansion plans under way in the turn-of-the-century textiles mill in Fall River, where it leases space. The first phase of the Fall River and Arkansas expansion is a $100 million investment. Hilderbrand is also in talks with city officials in Fall River about opening a textiles mill in the next two to five years. “We really want to begin the process of manufacturing hemp because the state of Massachusetts just opened up applications to apply for that.
At GCC, entry-level jobs start at $12 an hour and go up to $25 an hour for non-managerial jobs. “We have people earning just under $20 an hour for traditional cut and sew. That is not even heard of. Nobody pays anybody that much. We’re able to do that with our small-batch model and we will never be abandoning that. That will always be the core and the heart of Good Clothing Company.”
Working with 200 emerging designers and small companies on production, she will maintain that side of her business. On average, GCC handles various aspects of development for 10 to 20 labels in one of the many historic factories in Fall River, which have been renovated since the textiles industry shipped out.
In its heyday between 1890 and 1900, Fall River was one of the leading textile capitals of the world, along with Lancaster, England and Lowell, Mass. At that time, 100 corporations, including several that operated multiple mills in the city, kept workers busy. The American Printing Company produced 85,000 miles of cotton annually, according to Dennis Binette, assistant curator of the Fall River Historical Society. The industry rapidly declined around 1911 when companies started counting on southern states for production. That move spared them the shipping costs for cotton, he said. In addition, southern mills had mastered controlling humidity in their facilities so northern production was no longer needed.
“We’re really, really excited about bringing things home, reshoring so much of this, reducing the [carbon] footprint and creating really amazing opportunities for people here,” she said. “This is the future of modern manufacturing. We don’t want to eliminate the trades. We want to keep them alive, but we want to create better opportunities for those in our industry who are motivated to do something more intriguing or do things that can better their quality of life.
Hilderbrand’s varied skills and her 30 years of experience appealed to AKR, according to director of North America Lakshman Devarajan. The increasing value of “Made in America” labels with consumers was another motivator. AKR has seen its own rapid growth. Founded in 1994 with 25 employees, the company has 14,000 working in 14 vertical manufacturing facilities. The company’s maximum production capacity is three million pieces a month and 50 percent of its production is powered by wind and solar. AKR’s free bus transportation, child care and training for employees in India was a plus for Hilderbrand. “I just love this about them. They don’t have to do it but they do it because it’s who they are,” she said. “Making sure our companies were aligned was most important to me. It’s a beautiful fit.”
“We learned that America is growing in the field of textiles and American is in the process of bringing textiles back. More than 10 decades back, Fall River was one of the major hubs for textiles and now we want to rebuild that city,” he said. “We’ve had very detailed talks with the mayor of Fall River [Jasiel Correia] and the economic development director. They are ready to extend their arms to give us full, complete support. We found Good Clothing as our perfect partner.”
AKR is the only company in India to use zero effluent water discharge for dyeing processes, “even though it’s an expensive process, we want to care for our environment and people,” Devarajan said. Not solely focused on apparel textiles, future growth through the GCC partnership will include aerospace and automotive textiles, he said. With Babson College and Harvard University committed to providing technical support, the plan is to form an incubator for students from those schools in the coming years. “We want to create a new generation in the field of textiles. Textiles is more than just clothing. There are so many things we can do,” he said.
“The reality is we took $7.35 from recycled bottles and this is where we are three years later with a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication. That’s how we opened Good Clothing’s banking account,” Hilderbrand said. “The entire motivation behind Good Clothing Company was to change what was going on in the industry. The people, the hands that touch all of our clothes on foreign soil or here, were being completely devalued.”