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Made in America is Back and Finding a New Path

While U.S. apparel and textile manufacturing will never be what it was in its heyday half a century ago before the advent of the import era, many believe it’s back from the abyss and here to stay.

In the last five years or so, Made in America has grown from a grass roots dream into a niche-based reality. Factors came together such as a shift in consumer buying patterns following the Great Recession, the stunning growth of e-commerce, rising costs in China and overall Asian sourcing woes.

There are numbers to back up the uptick, especially in the textile sector.

The value of shipments for U.S. textiles and apparel was $74.4 billion last year, a nearly 11 percent increase since 2009, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations. U.S. exports of fiber, textiles and apparel were $26.3 billion in 2016. Investment in fiber, yarn, fabric and other non-apparel textile product manufacturing climbed 75 percent to $1.7 billion in 2015 from $960 million in 2009.

“Thanks to a laser-like focus on boosting productivity, flexibility and innovation, the U.S. textile industry has cemented its position in the global market,” NCTO said in its annual report, noting that the U.S. was the third-largest exporter of fiber, yarn, fabric and non-apparel sewn products markets in the world in 2015. “The U.S. textile industry’s commitment to capital re-investment and a continued emphasis on quality and innovation make it well-positioned to adapt to market changes and take advantage of opportunities as 2017 moves along.”

Anecdotal evidence

One of the quintessential Made in America success stories has been of five-year-old American Giant, which built its direct-to-consumer business on the back of what became known as the “greatest American sweatshirt” and a belief in U.S. manufacturing.

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Bayard Winthrop, the company’s founder and chief executive officer said, “The business has gone so much farther and grown so much faster and bigger than I’ve ever imagined. Financially, things are working better than we expected and I think that’s a very encouraging thing in the context that many industry people were saying American made was no longer viable in scale. I instinctively didn’t believe that…but to see it perform that way it has is really gratifying.”

Made America is Back and Finding New Path
Photo credit: American Giant

“What we’ve been successful at is taking the catalyst of e-commerce, which I think is one of those moments in capitalism where everyone has had to stop and say ‘wow,’” Winthrop said. “E-commerce provides a particularly elegant solution to the problem, but more importantly it says if you build a business that commits to American-made in scale, stays direct to consumer, and drives home great product and great quality that does provide a viable business that can reach a big scale.”

American Giant has two company-owned cut-and-sew facilities around Raleigh, N.C., that are supported by a Carolinas-based supply chain that primarily produce the brand’s sweatshirts and T-shirts for men and women. It also has two contract facilities in the Los Angeles area, and one each in Oakland, Calif., and in Philadelphia that are making a variety of items, such as shirting, jackets and T-shirts.

He said one of the biggest challenges to the business is trying to get the supply chain to rethink its model.

“There is a higher cost structure here because you’re paying more for lots of good things–local labor, strong environmental laws,” Winthrop said. “The other hurdle is a muscle memory built into the supply chain of worrying about cost and not quality, and we work just the opposite, we worry little about cost and worry obsessively about quality. We believe the cost, that value, will be easily digested by the brand paradigm and the customer desire for the product. On the positive side, we’re able to stay so much closer to the manufacturing of our products that it allows us to be obsessive about the quality in a way that distance precludes.”

American Giant has also invested in modernizing its factory equipment and approach to sewing and work in process. This has allowed the introduction this fall and holiday in its first wovens program with twill shirts, ranch jackets and tote and duffle bags.

Pursuing a similar domestic production and distribution model is Poste Premier. The startup unisex fashion brand, based in New York, is tapping into the styling needs of its core demographic: traveling consumers.

“The Made-In-America element to our supply chain was a key decision for the development of Poste Premier. We aim to provide limited edition unisex styles with short turnaround at the highest quality,” said Poste Premier creative director Emma Postal.  “By producing our garments in New York, we are able to work closely with our factory to ensure top level finishing and fit.”

With manufacturing facilities nearby, Poste Premier can operate on shorter quantities and quickly produce its high-quality garments. The collection, sold only through e-commerce, offers wardrobe staples including raw cut hoodies and long button-down shirts that are multi-seasonal and retail from $85 to $225. Poste Premier’s apparel items, divided into warm and cold weather collections, are lightweight and don’t require much room in carry-ons and luggage.

Each piece also stems from a special fabric sourcing process. Poste Premier travels around the world to places such as the Middle East and South America, to find vintage fabrics that fit with its functional needs. Poste Premier then works with its supplier partners in Asia to create fabrics with the same breathability and hand feel.

From this process, Poste Premier developed its signature wrinkle-resistant linen blend that withstands the wear and tear of travel. The company’s garments are also embroidered with special postal codes that relate to the region where the garment’s fabrics were sourced.

A robust digital presence also fortifies Poste Premier’s identity. The company uses blogging and social media to engage with consumers, getting feedback on their fashion preferences and how their garments play a crucial role in their worldly adventures.

“The core of Poste Premier’s identity is based around how and where our customers are traveling in their clothes,” Postal said. “PST PRM provides our customers, as well as the travel community at large, the opportunity to learn where our favorite influencers post up around the world, as well as to feature new exciting destinations. We encourage our customers to engage with us on social media, as well as online, in order to show us where they are going, how they are getting there, and what they are wearing while they explore.”

A little government help

Set to open in 2020, the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s Made in NY Campus in Brooklyn is aimed at synergizing creative manufacturing uses and providing affordable, best-in-class industrial facilities for garment manufacturing, film and media production, and related services and industries.

The city is investing $136 million toward major renovations to existing assets to create a 200,000-sqaure-foot garment manufacturing hub. The NYCEDC notes garment manufacturing still comprises 30 percent of the city’s manufacturing jobs.

The Made in NY garment manufacturing hub will provide small white-box spaces to companies working in pattern making, marking and grading, cutting and sewing, and sample making. The hub will also include shared services and related uses to support the success of these garment firms and the larger Sunset Park garment cluster.

[Read more on Made in USA efforts: Senate Committee Advances American-Made Products Act]

Nearby is the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator at Pratt Institute, which provides designers with the resources they need as they begin their businesses. With more than $2 million in initial funding by Pratt, the State of New York, New York City and the borough of Brooklyn, the BF+DA brings high-potential fashion designers, industrial designers and technologists together under one roof.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America and the NYCEDC have several other initiatives that provide seed funding and other services to assist local manufacturing.

The comeback is being seen in the South, as well.

Alabama is attracting investment in its textile sector. Frontier Spinning Mills plans to invest $6 million to add new, state-of-the-art fiber preparation and open-end spinning equipment at its plant in Elmore County. The expansion project will add 18 jobs to the Alabama plant’s workforce of 120 based in Sanford, North Carolina.

Also in the state, Mohawk Industries has acquired the former Beaulieu fiber facility in Bridgeport in a transaction that includes a commitment to preserve current jobs and grow employment in the community.

Fiber giant Lenzing is in the midst of building a Tencel plant in Mobile, Alabama, investing $293 million to add to its U.S. capacity.

HP Fabrics Inc., a subsidiary of Tukek Holdings, headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey, plans to invest $1.1 million over the next two years and create 260 jobs over three years in a plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The company expects to create additional jobs and investment at the facility over a five-year period. The new positions in Forsyth County will provide a payroll impact of more than $8.2 million annually to the local economy.

Additional reporting by Genevieve Scarano