Made in America: Yes we can

It’s a tough call. We all want to buy well-made clothes at a good price, whether we’re buying for a store and trying to achieve a good markup, or just replenishing our closets. In order to get that balance between quality and price, we’ve had to give up most manufacturing to nations whose work forces don’t have our standard of living. Despite that flight (from all sectors) across our borders, a stalwart group of makers is staying here and actually thriving.

“We’ve been making in the United States for 50 years,” says IAG’s Joe Blair. “It’s our lives. We have seven domestic factories and 3,000 employees. Yes, we do have one factory in Santiago, Chile, but make 95 percent in the U.S. It makes sense to produce here and have better control over production, creativity and sales. We save on transportation costs and on a lot of back and forth, so it’s a much more green approach. And there’s a proximity, a relationship established—retailers can come to our factories. There’s no connection to factories in China. We’ll be doubling the size of our Individualized Shirt plant in Perth Amboy, N.J.”

Echoing that sentiment is J.A. Apparel’s Tony Sapienza. “Joseph Abboud is an iconic American brand,” says Sapienza, “so making here reinforces the heritage of the brand. [JA Apparel licensed product is produced offshore.] More importantly we own a great factory, originally owned by GFT. We’re not just going to give up a place where we can produce with that kind of consistency and quality level. Our customer appreciates that. We can experiment with new models and detailing and know exactly how much it costs. Plus there’s our ability to deliver without minimums, and a made-to-measure turnaround in just over eight days.”

In fact, Joseph Abboud is getting behind the concept with its fall advertising campaign, “Made in the New America.” “We are targeting a man who is American, but who has an international flair,” says creative director Bernardo Rojo. “The new American is not the stereotypical blonde hair, blue-eyed man, but one who comes from different cultures and backgrounds.”

Jeff Shafer at Agave Denim makes about 90 percent of his collection in California. “We make all the jeans and cut and sew knits here because it gives us complete control over fit and laundry,” says Shafer.

IAG’s Blair says, “There is a lot of pride in small towns. We have factories in Perth Amboy, N.J., Westminster, Md., Ashland and Chambersburg, Pa., Pilot Mountain, N.C., Lafayette, Tenn. and, of course, Chicago. The United States has gotten away from making anything that’s meaningful, but these towns are the last vestiges of a proud tradition of apparel manufacturing. It’s important to sell and grow profits, but you have to focus on something greater than what you’re doing.”

“All of our shops are union shops and we have a good relationship with the union,” says Blair. “Yes, a large group of our employee’s children have gone on to other professions, but we’ve actually seen a second generation of people joining our factories in the last five years. That may be because of the economy. But there’s certainly no labor shortage. In fact there’s a glut. There is a large Indian community in Iselin, N.J., near our Perth Amboy plant, and many of them are recent immigrants who are excellent hand sewers.”
Warren Pepicelli, EVP of Unite Here, the union that organizes textile, laundry, manufacturing and distribution, says, “Compared to other apparel production areas, men’s suits are actually somewhat stable.”

“If you can make it here, at least try to first,” says Gary Wassner of Hilldun Corporation, a factor. “At least compare prices and quality. We’re to a point where we can either slide into being a second class nation, or get back into manufacturing. The garment industry is made up of small business, staffed by people who want a steady paycheck to make a quality garment. We don’t have lobbyists. And let’s face it—apparel isn’t going away!”

Pendleton Woolen Mills’ fabric mills are two of only a handful left in the United States. While they moved much of their actual garment production overseas after NAFTA, all the brand’s blankets are still made and finished here, and, in response to the contemporary market’s demand for iconic merchandise, Pendleton’s Portland Collection is made in Portland, Ore. (other than a knitwear group, which is sourced elsewhere in the U.S.). “Contemporary boutiques and specialty stores appreciate the cachet and the aesthetic…there’s a reason for being in this special environment as opposed to being mass-produced in some foreign country,” says Pendleton’s president, Mort Bishop III. “I don’t think, for this customer, that made in the U.S. is driving the sale, but it is a confirmation point. It may be even more important in Europe and Japan because it’s so rare that they ever see anything made in America. It’s more collectable and a shows a special craft and workmanship.”

HMX’s Doug Williams says, “Today’s luxury customer, whether he’s buying a suit made in the U.S., Italy or Canada and paying $1,500 to $3,000 dollars, is not going to be interested in anything coming out of Asia. They just don’t have the perception of quality.”

Earlier this year, HBO premiered a documentary called Schmatta: Rags to Riches, which chronicled the near collapse of the domestic apparel industry. Fact: 95 percent of American clothing was made in the USA in 1965. In 2009, a mere 5 percent remained produced here. Don Rongione, of Bollman Hat Company and American Made Matters (see sidebar), says, “Four to five residual jobs are created for every single one in manufacturing. Service industry positions only create two or three. We lost 5.5 million manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2010 [based on Department of Labor statistics], so that means 30 million jobs have disappeared!”

Robin Sewell Worley, CEO of The Sewell companies, says, “Our country’s leaders decided with NAFTA that they no longer wanted to keep manufacturing in the United States. If it wasn’t for our military manufacturing of officer’s uniforms, we probably would not have enough civilian production to keep the factories going.”

“The protective tariffs aren’t good for anyone,” says Williams. “NAFTA devastated tailored clothing in the United States—we lost roughly half the sewing jobs for tailored clothing. Canadian manufacturers had a competitive advantage, undercutting prices by as much as 30 to 40 percent.”

“We’re practically being held hostage by Chinese factories,” says Wassner. “Companies send fabric to Chinese mills, and then, once they have the fabric in hand, they raise minimums and delay deliveries. Then, of course, cotton prices have jumped 38 percent in one year. The United States is the third largest grower of cotton, but people don’t even ask where their cotton is sourced. We’ve given up so much of our capacity to produce here and other countries just aren’t up to speed. As interest rates go up, the value of the dollar drops and there’s no credit—it behooves us to source here.”

“We have to emphasize that making in the United States and in New York means quality. Japan had this problem after the war: there was a perception that they only produced cheaply made goods. Now that’s changed,” says Wassner. “There’s a perception that goods made here are lesser quality—particularly with the auto industry—but they’ve learned a lesson and that’s changing. We’ve got to make it clear that it’s not the case with apparel. And with social media we can change perceptions quickly.”

“The United States, the largest consumer nation, needs to use its economic clout to help encourage startups and enliven older companies to bring jobs back,” says Rongione. “Eighty-one percent of Americans, in a recent survey by Deloitte and Touche, believe that manufacturing here has an impact on national security.”

Compile the concerns of NAFTA, China, our own government’s debt and credit concerns, the rising cost of fuel and a precarious infrastructure in other developing nations, and suddenly making here at home has the potential to become not only a patriotic or moral choice…but a smart financial one, as well.

Promoting the cause: Hats off to made in the US of A.

Don Rongione is president and CEO of Bollman Hat Company, based in Adamstown, Pa., and founded in 1868. “About five years ago we did a painful downsizing because we lost a lot of business to China. Some of that business did come back because they recognized the loss in quality, but we had to cut staff dramatically—nearly one-third in one shot. In the 1980s, we had 1,000 people manufacturing hats and components. Now we employ less than 100.” Rongione’s response has been to fight back, forming American Made Matters, an organization of 34 members and sponsors from companies that make things as disparate as vacuum cleaners and organic pet toys to fashion brands like Todd Shelton, Billy Kirk and Tellason. “To be a member, at least half of the product must be of U.S. origin and final assembly of the product must take place here. The FTC has a standard for labeling ‘Made in U.S.A.’ which states that 90 percent of a product’s component parts must be made in the United States. That’s virtually impossible now that so much of our industry has moved offshore. Our mission is to educate consumers, not to work through government lobbying. We reach out via the web (which includes a ‘where to buy’ section), social networking and the press.”

The good news is that Bollman’s business picked up 10 percent last year; they are working with fashion brands, such as Rag & Bone, that understand the importance of making here and appreciate the shorter lead times, innovation and lack of minimums that a domestic manufacturer can offer. AMM is not alone: a growing number of regional and trade associations are working to raise awareness about job creation, economic stimulation and quality issues.

Hooray for Hollywood

While Hollywood and Seventh Avenue have always had a mutual attraction, lately documentaries have dominated the category. Two new productions chronicling our industry are slated for release later this year.

Former DNR men’s editor Vicki Vasilopoulos’ film Men Of The Cloth follows three Italian master tailors whose devotion to their disappearing craft sustains them in the face of mass production and the decline of the apprentice system. Vasilopoulos needs funds to finish editing the film and is employing a “crowdfunding” approach, running a campaign on IndieGoGo.com and partnering with like-minded sponsors: individuals who contribute to her campaign will be rewarded by Carrot & Gibbs, Mel Gambert, Ike Behar, Adrian Jules, Holland & Sherry, Isles Textile Group or Gladson Ltd. Master tailors Nino Corvato and Joe Centofanti (subjects of the film) are both offering a custom-made sportcoat. See menoftheclothfilm.com for more details.

James Belzer is already screening The Tents, a film about the history of New York fashion week. He has also cofounded Make it in Manhattan with handbag designer Michelle Vale: the initiative, incorporating a film, website and seminars, promotes New York as a fashion capital and reinforces the importance of domestic manufacturing. “People need to be told to care,” says Belzer. “Documentaries raise a different level of consciousness. I wanted to be upbeat about what we can do and show the consumer that we all need to buy American and show a level of social responsibility. But it has to be about the laws of attraction, not finger pointing.” Belzer makes his point by interviewing garment center champions Steven Cox and Daniel Silver of Duckie Brown and Jeff Rudes of J. Brand. See makeitinmanhattan.com for more information.

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