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Bringing It All Back Home

February 23, 2012

Catherine Salfino

Job loss during the Great Recession has Americans — and 2012 presidential contenders — thinking a lot more about job creation.  In the apparel sector, some consider it a duty to state and country to bring jobs back home.

Today, just 3% of apparel in U.S. stores is made in the country, according to the Cotton Incorporated Retail Monitor™ survey.  Compare that to 1960, when American manufacturers produced 95% of all apparel sold here, according to the trade group Save The Garment Center.


Nanette Lepore, a primary supporter of STGC, started making her collections in New York’s Garment District in 1992 because “they were and still are — the best and only resources available to a young designer with limited funds.”  These days, 85% of Lepore’s line is made in New York, including all of her high-quality tailored clothing.

Among the more than half of consumers who say it is “very or somewhat important” that the apparel they buy is made in the U.S., 87% say it is because they “prefer to support the U.S. economy,” according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey.

While the U.S. added 50,000 manufacturing positions in January, jobs in the apparel manufacturing sector fell from 148,500 in December 2011 to 146,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Those numbers belie the fact that hundreds of start-ups and veteran apparel firms continue to manufacture here in the U.S.

Imogene + Willie was started in 2009 by husband-and-wife team Carrie and Matt Eddmenson, who understand the stress off-shoring can bring.

“We don’t talk about the importance of our clothing being ‘Made in America’ because it’s a trend,” says Carrie Eddmenson.  “We watched people — family members and friends, and then, eventually, ourselves — lose jobs over the years because of production not being kept in America.  It’s a challenge every day to run a business this way, but it’s worth every bit of the struggle to figure out how to support and be a part of the movement that rebuilds the manufacturing workforce in the United States.”

Although labor costs are repeatedly cited by companies for moving off shore, Eddmenson says she and her husband began manufacturing in Nashville because “we wanted to plant our company’s roots in a southern town where we could help support the region.”

Elizabeth Allen says pride in locally made product trumps costs with her Elizabeth Cotton collection of men’s and women’s sleepwear and home products.

“The quality of the fabrics we use and the construction of our finished products are a large part of what defines our brand,” Allen says. “That is where we are competing — rather than price.” She began producing her garments in New York in 2005, working consistently with one factory and never manufacturing outside the city.  “We are a small company. And as the owner, I could stand to profit by shifting production somewhere less expensive.  But it is really a point of pride for me that our collection is manufactured in the U.S., in the Garment District specifically.  We won’t be leaving.”

Most Americans share the feeling; the Monitor survey finds 56% of consumers say whether an item is made in the U.S. is an important factor in their apparel purchase.  Additionally, 60% say apparel made in the U.S. is higher quality than clothes imported from other countries.  This may be especially important to the 73% who say they expect to wear new apparel longer than they used to.

Lepore says the close proximity of the Garment District, which is clustered within five New York City blocks, is crucial to maintaining high quality.

“Having the factories so close together allows me to watch my production every step of the way,” Lepore says.  “From the marker and grader, to the cutter, the pleater, the sewer and back to my warehouse to be shipped. The pros of manufacturing in New York include higher quality control, better inventory control and faster turn around time to quickly fill re-orders when a department store has a best seller.”

Allen agrees: “Manufacturing in the U.S. isn’t going to work for everyone, but in my opinion, if you are retailing your pieces for roughly $150 and up, you ought to do the right thing and give domestic manufacturing a shot for at least some portion of your collection.   Above a certain price point, spending a few extra dollars won’t kill your margins and it keeps people working here.”

The STGC group maintains 200,000 jobs would be created if consumers spent an extra 1% on U.S. goods.

“The Garment District is a very special place,” Allen says. “And everything possible should be done to support its continued existence.”