By Stephen Saft
I am a third-generation men’s and boy’s tailored clothing manufacturer. Our family story is typical of others in the business. The family patriarch, speaking no English, immigrated to America, found a job as a sewing machine operator, saved to start his own business, thriving and expanding through the years to four companies and more than 1,000 employees at its peak.
I grew up in the factory and have cherished memories of Saturdays spent working next to my father, growing and learning every job in the factory. I loved the whole thing! The sights and sounds of “the place,” as we referred to it, a wonderful collaboration of a myriad of co-workers, creating beautiful garments we were all proud to have produced.
Years passed, business, family, and the marketplace evolved; by the mid-’80s, I found myself leading the third generation as we tried to figure out why we were no longer competitive with goods being manufactured in other parts of the world. How was it possible that clothing was being sold at retail prices lower than just the labor cost of our garments?
At the time, as an American manufacturer, I proudly bought only “Made in America” products while trying to comprehend why my friends, neighbors, and industry associates did not feel the same—and why our customer base was shrinking rapidly. Traveling the world, I learned about as many possible sources of competition as I could.
I saw that what earlier generations had done successfully here was now being replicated perfectly and cheaply in other parts of the world. As it had in America 100 years earlier, the needle trades now provided business opportunities to both entrepreneurs and their workforce in developing economies; foreign manufacturers with resources easily accumulated enough machines and inexpensive labor, first making simple garments, and then producing more complicated variations quite well. At the same time, in America of the ’80s, it became increasingly difficult to find those who wanted to work in a sewing plant; other arenas provided more attractive prospects for newcomers to the work force.
Reality set in, labor, production, and health care costs began to rise. We sought alternatives. First to Korea, then venturing to the Dominican Republic, and ultimately to China, as well as Vietnam, India, and other exotic-sounding places.
Fast-forward to 2014. No longer a manufacturer, I have become a boutique recruiter for the apparel and textile industries (everything from CEOs to mechanics), pleased and surprised at the number of newly-created industry jobs right here in America.
Much has been written on the topic. Has the pendulum truly begun to swing back? The honest answer is both yes and no. Worldwide attention was thrown on the subject when Ralph Lauren dressed Team USA in garb made overseas for the opening Olympic ceremonies in London in 2012. Many apologies later, Lauren dressed the USA team in 100% “Made in America” in Sochi last winter. The beautiful red, white and blue sweaters were made of yarn from a farm in Oregon, spun in Pennsylvania, dyed in North Carolina, and assembled in a plant outside of Los Angeles. Lauren has an entire “Made in America” collection on his retail website, one of the most popular on the site.
Jeannie and Dan Carver, own the Imperial Stock Ranch in north central Oregon, one of Lauren’s key resources. Reminiscing about the day that would indelibly alter their lives, Jeannie remarked: “It was a summer afternoon, the sun was setting over the ranch, and a call came from someone on the Ralph Lauren design team, wanting to know about our yarns. I just couldn’t believe it! That call doubled our yarn sales. It changed our lives, and the lives of those in 40 other American businesses connected with Ralph Lauren.”
A trend? Perhaps. Like Lauren, many designers and manufacturers are discovering superb American resources. Higher-priced items easily absorb higher labor costs, while giving customers the added benefit of fine workmanship, quick turnaround, customizing and the “USA cachet.” Yet motivation for the beginning of migration back to the United States has many more elements than the absorption of labor costs.
Many low-wage markets are seeing costs rise dramatically and incessantly. Not only labor, but also transportation and energy costs are ascending at a steeper rate in Asia than elsewhere. Complications from time differences, language barriers and increased need for rapid response in our technologically advanced consumer base provide new opportunities for savvy, nimble American entrepreneurs.
Additionally, American manufacturers are seeking geographically convenient means for their creative teams’ product development and prototype production. The trade-off for lower costs versus lost efficiency has begun to seesaw, favoring accuracy and speed to market.
Studies from MIT as well as industry sources concur. Non-labor-intense textiles like bedding, sheets, towels, and socks are also perfect for a return to the USA. Like cars or televisions made in America, much is done by machine, with few precise, manual skills needed in production.
Conversely, mass-market clothing needs to hit too low of a price point to ever realistically bring manufacturing home. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing— our economy would be hurt by rapidly escalating prices for basic soft goods. We no longer have the workers to do these jobs now in the USA. We have not been training and developing them for at least a generation. Much has been made in the media about jobs existing without skilled applicants. I make no judgment about the general veracity of those claims but I can attest personally that is the case for the needle trades. It makes our database and networks more valuable by the day.
Journalist Adriana Lopez summed it up best in Forbes magazine: “An American entrepreneur… should understand the value of U.S. manufacturing. It is about creating jobs, keeping money circulating in our own country, and decreasing our dependency on other countries.”
Trendsetters and tastemakers tell the tale. From Seventh Avenue to Oregon to design studios, sewing shops and manufacturing plants across the country, if your niche is quality and fashion, nothing says it better than “Made in America.” Let’s keep the momentum going and bring the work home!