Re-Made in the U.S.A.

BY and

Fabric Spools

Spools of fabric in New York's Garment District, the historic hub of apparel manufacturing. Photo: AP

Dan Lachman and his best friend sat on the ground at a sweltering U.S. Customs warehouse area at Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport, rigorously sticking 4000 “Made in China” labels onto the plastic wrappers of a botched order of T-shirts.

The order had arrived after months of spotty communication and battles over design with a Chinese husband-and-wife team who were not, Lachman later found out, manufacturers, but rather the middlemen in the design and printing process. The heavy boxes at the airport came without the necessary import tags, with an incorrect order form, and with the wrong amount of pieces for each different style.

As the owner of Sharp Shirter, a six-year-old independent apparel company known for its quirky animal graphics, Lachman has experimented with both domestic and international manufacturing companies to create good quality T-shirts within a profitable margin.

But after the printing and shipping debacle with China last year, he decided that using U.S.-based companies was the only way he could ensure the timeliness and consistency of his products despite a slightly lower profit margin.

Some fashion manufacturers and production experts believe that the American fashion and manufacturing industries are slowly trickling back onshore. Companies committed to making clothes in the U.S., such as American Apparel, Rag & Bone and the Olsen twins’ The Row, are on the rise. Other retailers like Club Monaco and Bergdorf Goodman have incorporated domestically made clothing into their stores, with exclusive lines made in the country.

New York City’s Garment District, which used to be the country’s apparel manufacturing hub, produced 78 percent of US clothing at its peak. Now it is estimated that only five percent of clothing sold in the U.S. is manufactured here, according to the Garment District Development Corporation.

T-shirt breakdown 

Where your money goes when you buy a $20 cotton T-shirt. Graphic: Laura Fosmire

While clothing production and labor costs are cheaper abroad, many designers have found that manufacturing overseas comes at the great cost of compromised quality, a slow supply rate, and a lack of communication.

From the absent labels on Lachman’s T-shirts to a batch of unraveling sweaters that designer Nanette Lepore received, quality issues have become so common that entire companies such as Oops, based in New Jersey, exist solely to fix mistakes made by overseas manufacturers.

“Many people fail at offshore manufacturing. Locally, you have engineers, mechanics. But offshore, there are many more difficulties – you can have hurricanes, typhoons. So many big, so much severe stuff can go wrong abroad – you can lose months,” said Dr. Roger Warburton, a professor at Boston University and an expert in the tension between offshore and domestic manufacturing.

Warburton said that there are financial benefits to having at least a portion of a company’s clothing manufactured in the United States.

Nanette Lepore, a New York-based high-end fashion designer, follows this model, manufacturing about 85% of her line in New York, and the rest overseas. She is also a spokesperson for Save the Garment Center, an initiative to revive the community of production and design in the former hub of manufacturing.

Erica Wolf, Lepore’s assistant, said that the line uses about 10 to 15 factories in the city to ensure quick design, innovation and good communication with pattern makers. Lepore outsources the production of sweaters and knitted garments because knitting factories have disappeared in the U.S.

“She would not exist without this local process — she can’t lose the resources,” Wolf said.

Designers like Lepore, Calvin Klein, Nicole Miller and Ralph Lauren also use the local manufacturing process for testing out designs, creating samples, and ensuring a quick turnaround that isn’t possible when waiting for shipments to come in from overseas.

“Ultimately you want to react to your market,” Lachman said. “When you do these products overseas the turnaround time is forever, the quality is questionable.”

Paul Cavazza, owner of the grading and marking factory Create-A-Marker in the Garment District, who comes from generations of fashion factory workers, agrees that the U.S. turnaround rate from design to production is much faster than it is overseas.

While on the phone on a Friday afternoon, Cavazza received an order from a high-end women’s designer, saying that China couldn’t turn around several hundred items the company needed. Cavazza said he could have the item cut by the following day, so that it could be shipped by the following Friday.

“In China it’s six to eight weeks, start to finish,” Cavazza said.

Garment Process

The creative process for a garment, from spool to sale. Click to enlarge. Graphic: Carly MacLeod

Cavazza designs for many well-known designers, and says that 70 percent of the work that he does goes right back into the ten blocks of the Garment District around him. Even so, the dwindling number of factories in the district struggle to make a profit.

“We thrive on large orders,” said Rodger Cohen, owner of Regal Originals, a trimming factory in the Garment District.

Like Cavazza, Cohen comes from a family background of manufacturers. He inherited the factory from his father-in-law, and said he has observed the Garment District lose its status as a thriving hub since outsourcing started to flourish in the 1980s.

He and his daughter, Dalia Sabari, have tried to find additional profit sources since they no longer receive the large orders for garment embellishments, and have downsized from 250 workers to about 30 workers, depending on the workload.

To supplement the revenue, they started Scrub/ink., a New York-based company that manufactures uniforms for nurses and health care practitioners. He said the factory has also increased its online visibility to attract customers, a common strategy for businesses that could formerly rely on word of mouth and foot traffic in the area.

While buying American gives many a sense of pride, Warburton dismisses suggestions that there is a patriotic element to the resurgence in U.S. manufacturing.

“This is one hundred percent business,” he said. “There is no such thing as patriotism in this business.”

A report from the Boston Consulting Group titled “Made in the U.S.A., Again,” supports the idea, saying that that rising labor costs in China, coupled with government incentives and the need for jobs, may slowly increase domestic manufacturing of goods.

While it might come down to profit, Cavazza and Wolf see more designers coming forward with the hope of contributing to the local economy as well.

“I can’t tell you how many designers come in here and want to produce in the U.S.A. They want to put ‘Made in New York City’ on their tags. They want to help the economy, and they take pride in New York,” Cavazza said.

Cohen disagrees. He said that while awareness of buying products in the country has increased in the last few years, most customers still end up at retail stores where prices are cheaper, and clothes have labels from India, Bangladesh and China.

For Lachman’s Sharp Shirter, run almost exclusively through craft show tents and shows, the grassroots approach lends itself to more consumer questions about where the shirts are made and printed — and therefore, supports locally made goods. While he experimented with manufacturing through boutiques and retail outlets, he said his stall in Eastern Market, D.C. and shows in other cities are more profitable.

“Honestly, things have changed with the recession. Real money is actually just doing it yourself,” he said.

No matter the motivation, when asked how much it costs to support the American economy, Warburton was firm in his answer.

“Nothing. If you have the right strategy, you can make money. Just because manufacturing offshore is cheaper, it does not mean that the bottom line is better.”