Making & marketing U.S. clothing

We’ve got the quality; we just need the cool.

The recent Chapter 11 filings of two of America’s iconic clothing companies (ironically, brands worn by both presidential candidates this past election) makes one wonder: can American-made tailored clothing compete in today’s market? With growing interest from consumers (especially a new generation seeking heritage and homegrown), domestic production should be gaining momentum. So why haven’t more retailers embraced it and what can manufacturers do to increase sales?

“We are definitely starting to look at made in America as a marketing and merchandising handle,” asserts Shawn Howell at Saks Fifth Avenue. “We’re believing in it more and more.” Dan Farrington at Mitchells is somewhat more ambivalent (and candid). “I definitely believe in it but the problem is we’ve spent the past two decades building brands that are mostly Italian. We’ve been hyping the whole made in Italy thing for so long that it seems inconsistent to suddenly push American made.

“More importantly,” Farrington continues, “American manufacturers need to work on upgrading their profile and creating a mystique comparable to the Italians. Many can compete price-wise but they lack the cachet, and often the aesthetic. Our customers are truly infatuated with not just the Italian brands we carry, but also the whole Italian lifestyle.

“That said, we do have customers who ask about American made, so I’ve been considering a trunk show and will probably do something next year. But I don’t want to make it a guilt trip, to force people to feel that they’re not patriotic if they don’t buy American. I’d rather just present beautiful clothing that we’re proud of that happens to be made in America.”

Growing Interest?

Joe Blair at Individualized Apparel Group (domestic manufacturers of Oxxford, H. Freeman and others) has seen a notable resurgence of interest in American-made tailored clothing in recent seasons. “Five years ago, retailers were touting Italian; it was all about Kiton, Isaia, Brioni, Canali. Recently, several stores have come back to American made (best positioned as value-priced luxury rather than expensive moderate) but ironically, domestic production still seems more important to consumers than to merchants. Most retailers are not quite in tune with their customers, and are therefore missing a great opportunity.

“In our view, the number one asset of made in America is the craftsmanship,” he continues. “Plus it hits all of today’s buzzwords: it’s local, it’s green, it’s quick turn, it’s not dependent on currency fluctuations. Bottom line: it’s an easier way to do business. If more retailers would understand this, they’d be more receptive.”

So why aren’t they? Blair theorizes that with a cloudy economy and so much recent talk about fiscal cliffs, consumers become reluctant to spend. “And obviously, many companies have invested in China and are translating that to luxury, which makes little sense but as is often the case in this business, it’s all about margin.”

At HMX, Hickey Freeman president Mike Cohen has spent much time in the stores this fall, doing lots of trunk shows and by-appointment selling. “There’s clearly greater interest in MIA, and it’s not a price issue for upscale guys. I’m finding not only a greater awareness but a definite emotional reaction from consumers: they are truly touched to discover such a high-quality product made in the States.

“What’s needed is a better way to communicate the message. A made in USA label is not enough to resonate; it needs to be more localized. Where it’s made, how it’s made; the history of Rochester, N.Y. and what the factory has meant to the city since 1899. We’re finding our way to get this message across organically.”

Notes Tony Sapienza at JA Apparel, “Although some retailers are seeking out American-made clothing, considering the current political/economic climate, I’m surprised more of them aren’t looking to do more, especially in private label.”

Getting Bigger, Going Younger

While certain U.S. factories are struggling, others are growing capacity and attracting new retail customers who are willing to sacrifice a bit of margin in order to market American made. H. Freeman is perhaps America’s oldest tailored clothing facility, based in Maryland, dating back to 1885. According to Ralph Brummett, they just hired 75 new workers and the factory is running at capacity (500 workers). “We have a strong training program and we’ve set up a school. Our business is growing with stores that want an American-made product to sell at $595, rather than $1,000.

At Hart Schaffner Marx, another company that dates to the 1880s and has invested in its brand (despite its financial problems), Brett Schenck says his two Chicago-area factories still support about 1,300 workers. “Made in America may have become cool and hip these past few years (witness all the blogs and websites for American-made gifts and artisanal stuff), but for us, it’s always been cool: it’s our entire culture.” Schenck maintains that going into spring 2013, they’ve reinvested in product (moving to full wing construction and upgraded piece goods) and for fall, they’re redefining fit. In terms of marketing, they’ve done three collaborations this fall: for a Nordstrom pop-up shop in SoHo; for seven Steven Alan stores (continuing through spring ‘13); and for Made Collection with Esquire magazine. “These (and a recently launched blog) get a younger generation looking at our American-made product with different eyes,” Schenck explains.

Perception /Production Issues

J.A. Apparel’s Tony Sapienza confides that there’s been a certain perception over the years that American-made clothing lacks sophistication. “This is why for the past three seasons our advertising campaign is not wrapped in red, white and blue, but instead focuses on the artistry of American-made clothing: the fine fabrics, artisanal craftsmanship and sophisticated tailoring. Our tagline says ‘Made in the New America’ and we purposely chose to highlight three sophisticated guys with creative careers.”
As for the challenges of producing domestically, Sapienza acknowledges that many of the 530 workers at his New Bedford facility are getting older, but says they have no trouble recruiting younger workers from immigrant populations nearby. They’ve established a training school in the factory to teach tailoring skills, and thus younger people are coming into the business. He also notes that other brands have recently requested production in their New Bedford facility based on the current political climate and increased retailer interest in American made.

At Southwick, John Martynec relates that there are 15 different languages spoken on his factory floor, and that they teach not only tailoring skills but also English as a second language. “It’s part of our Brooks Brothers culture,” he explains. “It’s about creating good citizens and promoting the American dream.”

Although not marketed as an American company, Hugo Boss is an interesting case study in that their tailored clothing is produced both here and abroad. Says Hugo Boss USA president Mark Brashear, “Our clothing business (sourced in four countries) is less driven by country of origin and more by fashion and quality. That said, we’ve produced in our Cleveland facility since 1989 and the quality there is definitely comparable to anywhere else we manufacture. Of course the production cost per garment is slightly higher, but when you factor in speed, it evens out. What’s more, we just introduced a customized clothing initiative which is a made-to-order business with a six-week turnaround. It’s now exclusively in our own stores but we’re rolling it out at Nordstrom for spring 2013, and of course it’s all made here.” Brashear adds that they’re making a $1 million capital investment to bring state-of-the-art machinery to the Cleveland facility. The company recently ratified a new three-year contract that will preserve and perhaps grow the 150-plus domestic manufacturing jobs.

Reality Check

Observes industry consultant Marty Staff, who’s managed several tailored clothing companies in the course of his career, “American-made clothing has a place in the marketplace, but only if it’s good and only if the new generation of customers can relate to it. Since 50 percent of American men never or rarely wear suits, what’s brought to market must be compelling, relevant and less traditional. If an American-made suit company actually embraces what modern guys want, it should be a homerun because no one’s really doing it.”

Former HMX creative director Joseph Abboud also weighs in on American made: “Working at HMX this time around, I learned how truly incredible the Hickey Freeman factory is: the make of the garment, the shoulder construction, the linings, the fit, the finesse. How they inspect fabrics, how they sew, how they combine old-world techniques with new technology: no one in North America does it to this level.

“That said, while domestic factories offer impressive speed-to-market capabilities and while there are surely patriotic customers who want to support American made, the big question is how much more will they spend? Especially since some overseas clothing is coming in with a refinement that didn’t exist before, the challenge for U.S. clothing makers is greater than ever.”

Industry insights

“Domestic production still seems more important to consumers than to merchants, who are missing a real opportunity.” —Joe Blair, IAG

“For our brand, domestic production is critical: the top retailers are consciously aligning the brand, the factory, the heritage…” —Tony Sapienza, Joseph Abboud

“A made in USA label is not enough to resonate; it needs to be more localized.” —Mike Cohen, Hickey Freeman

“We’ve produced in our Cleveland facility since 1989: the quality there is definitely comparable to anywhere else we manufacture.” —Mark Brashear, Hugo Boss

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