Retail has quieted in recent months as the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep shoppers indoors and away from the birthday dinners and brunches that once occasioned new duds and accessories.
The industry is using this pause in business to reflect on everything from marketing to supply chain strategy.
For many brands, bringing operations closer to home has been a long-term goal to be pursued slowly, deliberately and incrementally. But as trade relations with China have soured to an unprecedented degree, many are beginning to wonder if the time to exit those sourcing agreements has arrived.
Los Angeles-based footwear factory Clover & Cobbler, the brainchild of shoe designer Jaclyn Jones, has seen increased interest from brands small and large in recent months. The idea of manufacturing stateside, once a romantic notion reserved for expensive fringe brands, has begun to take hold as a real possibility for the mainstream.
Jones inherited the factory and its staff from friends and mentors Salpy and Kevork Kalaidijan, who manufactured their own brand, Salpy, and a handful of others, out of a Sun Valley warehouse. When the veteran shoe designers decided to retire in 2018, they handed the reins to Jones.
The Kalaidijans initially saw interest from large American brands and Chinese factory owners who wanted to plant a stake in L.A.’s hip manufacturing scene. “They said, ‘Those are big corporations and they’ll tear this place apart,’” Jones said.
After moving the factory to Van Nuys and giving the new space an Instagram-worthy facelift, Jones endeavored to make improvements to the operations that would entice artisan brands.
“There were inefficiencies that I saw and things that I wanted to improve,” she said. “Health and safety were major concerns, but so was the environment,” she added. “I saw a lot of waste in the production lines and things that could be done better—seemingly easily.”
One of the first issues that Jones tackled was the shift away from fume-emitting solvent-based glues. The factory switched over to water-based formulas to protect workers from inhaling dangerous chemicals.
Jones also made it her mission to find a home for factory waste—specifically leather scraps. She began selling or donating Clover & Cobblers’ discarded pieces to local artisans. “If we don’t have a need for it, we try to work with people and give it a second life somewhere else,” she said.
Jones is looking into making the factory’s operations solar powered—an effort that was put on hold by the coronavirus shutdown.
Many of the artisans that make up the 21-person production crew are cobblers with decades of experience in footwear, Jones said. Others have been pulled from other industries.
“We carve all of our heels out of wood, so we’ve found some people to help out in the wood department who are carpenters, construction workers and prop people—because we’re in L.A.,” she added.
A showroom adjacent to the factory space resembles a stylish millennial’s apartment, and serves as a workroom for designers and pattern makers.
“Part of our goal is to go against the grain of the industry and be more community oriented and collaborative,” Jones said. A swatch wall showcases leathers from eight American leather distributors, four of which are based in the L.A. area.
The team helps connect designers with local sales reps for leathers and materials, hoping to keep the business in the community—or at least in the U.S.
“Although the leathers might not be American-tanned, they’re supporting American companies,” she said. “For the most part, that’s where we get our leathers for our brands and that’s where we send our customers.”
The company is also actively pursuing relationships with the world’s cutting-edge vegan leather suppliers, from pineapple to cactus-based formulations.
From global to local
While Clover & Cobbler boasts a roster of 10 consistent L.A.-based brand clients, Jones said its strength is in helping first-time designers find their footing. Early on, she instituted a no-minimums policy to give emerging brands a chance to explore their options without being weighed down by massive MOQs.
Established brands are also looking to make the switch from international to local manufacturing. “Some brands are really hard to convince—they’re set in their ways,” she said. “Others are saying, ‘great, what I was doing overseas wasn’t working for me.’”
Local manufacturing allows brand owners a physical access to production that would otherwise be impossible. “They get to come in and check on their product, to see it on the product line,” Jones said. “It’s more of a hands-on process here.”
There are, however, some growing pains for established brands that have been maintaining an industry status quo.
“The biggest barriers are that they just want a fully packaged product,” she said. Large factories in China and Vietnam often function as full-service sourcing destinations because of their established relationships with an array of downstream suppliers.
“That’s a different concept,” Jones said. “Some brands are used to just saying, ‘purple stiletto,’ and it appears.”
Instead, Clover & Cobbler helps nurture relationships with friendly local vendors, but it’s up to brands and their designers to facilitate their own materials sourcing. “Instead of spending half our time doing that, we decided that brands and designers should bring us the products they want to use,” she said.
Smaller brands are often willing and eager to take a more hands-on approach to the work, but larger brands who want to move operations or supplement their existing assortment with Made in the U.S.A. product can run into issues.
“For most of them, it’s a time-to-market situation,” Jones said of the established brands that express interest in her factory. “They want to get things faster, and they want the flexibility of adding a new color last minute.”
While those benefits are certainly inherent to local manufacturing, price can be a sticking point, Jones said. “The problem is that they want it to sit alongside the international product at the same price,” she added. “I try to convince them to do capsule collections, or have specialty products that stand out as unique and different from the rest of their lines.”
As Jones contemplates her strategy for bringing new brands on board, her factory stands empty as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Clover & Cobbler shuttered its doors just days before California’s Safer at Home order—which mandated that non-essential businesses close down—took effect. Jones said the decision was her own.
“I thought about how quickly the virus could spread in our facility, on a production line where everyone is touching the product,” she said.
“Hand in hand with that, the industry outside of manufacturing was also freaking out,” she said. “We had retailers canceling orders.”
Rather than try to eke out a profit by attempting to salvage already placed orders, Jones sent out correspondence to all of her brands putting the orders on hold. “Once we and the rest of the world reopen, we’ll talk about what’s next,” she said, adding that she hoped the decision lessened their stress.
“We had product done and sitting at the door ready to go, but even if we had sent it, they wouldn’t be able to accept or pay for it,” she said.
As for her own workforce, Jones said Clover & Cobbler’s HR team worked quickly with her furloughed staff to help them apply for unemployment benefits. “Because we jumped on it so quickly, I think we were able to see faster results than others,” she said. Jones plans on hiring back all of her workers as soon as she feels operations can resume safely.
In the meantime, though, Clover & Cobbler has joined up with Brands x Better, a coalition of over 100 brands that have agreed to donate 10 percent of profits to COVID-19-related charity efforts.
“On the brand side, we’ve done what we can to continue selling our online product,” said Jones. “We are trying not to be obnoxious with marketing, because we know this time has been bad for people.”
Despite the pervasive anxieties caused by the shutdown, Clover & Cobbler has seen an uptick in interest from prospective designers looking to start their own brands with the factory’s help.
“Even during this time where small businesses are struggling, people have time on their hands and they’re sitting at home thinking about what they want,” said Jones.
“I think they’re wanting to be creative, and they’re reaching out and getting the information together,” she added. “That whole side of the business has been booming.”