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Will Made in America Remain a Niche Sourcing Option?

Ever the topic of discussion, American manufacturing once again surfaced in a seminar where experts discussed whether the notion is solely for niche markets or if it holds greater potential for the industry.

At a Texworld USA talk Monday, Tricia Carey, business development manager at Lenzing USA, Michael Penner, CEO of the Richelieu Group, Tom Aubrey product development manager at Burlington Worldwide and Joann Kim director of Johnny’s Fashion Studio expounded on the idea of manufacturing coming back to America and shared some insight into the domestic doings of their respective companies.

Arthur Friedman, senior editor for textiles and trade at WWD, moderated the panel and opened with a general question about the Made in America resurgence and what is actually happening.

Carey said she always gets asked about what is happening with domestic manufacturing and that every season we chip away at this question a little bit more, but “Definitely there’s not the infrastructure within companies for people to source here.”

Aubrey added that the resurgence is still in its infancy and that North and South Carolina do have a lot of the infrastructure to accommodate it.

Burlington has been manufacturing textiles and related products since the 1920s, specializing in wovens. The company merged with Cone Denim in 2004 and has seven plants in the Carolinas.

“We too are seeing a slow global resurgence coming back to our U.S. platforms,” Aubrey said.

The Richelieu Group, now Peds Legwear, is based in Montreal and has established sourcing and production around the world, has made a commitment to making in America by investing $16 million in a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in North Carolina.

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Penner said that the Carolinas are “fertile ground” for re-growing domestic manufacturing because of the industry’s “innate institutional memory” from when production there was more prevalent.

With younger buyers in the market increasingly more concerned about the ecological impact of the products they purchase the movement back to America could stand to grow, according to Aubrey.

But the biggest problem with U.S. manufacturing is pricing, not surprisingly.

Kim, who works with many emerging designers at Johnny’s Fashion Studio, a sample development studio and apparel-manufacturing factory, said the company simply can’t make designers’ target cut and make prices while maintaining small production units like 50 pieces per style. At best, they are able to offer costs half that of the sample price, she said.

The solution they are working on, however, is to relocate New York’s garment district to Brooklyn where rents are cheaper, Kim said, adding that it will take five to 10 years to build a new garment district in Brooklyn.

Friedman asked the panelists to share their domestic sourcing strategies and visions for production here.

As the only man made cellulosic producer in the Americas with its facility in Mobile, Ala., Carey said at Lenzing, “We feel as a part of this revival, at least there is a start with raw materials,” adding that “We do feel as a company that we need to continue to invest in our presence here.”

Aubrey said the goal at Burlington is to get most manufacturers to buy local for fiber. If a customer is going to cut domestically, the company will provide a domestic platform, he said.

Friedman asked the panel what it will take to improve the American manufacturing industry and about the outlook for the coming years.

“The real holy grail is cut and sew,” Penner said. “It’s the one facility that no one has been able to figure out in North America. But if somebody can, they’ll be richer than Bill Gates.”

Marketing Made in USA will also be key, according to Aubrey. There is a market for American product and a certain pride attached to U.S.-made goods, and tapping into that will be necessary to growing the resurgence. Burlington has hangtags to market the domestic made goods at retail, and Aubrey said that is one of the ways the company hopes to continue the growth.

“We are getting more and more clients who need less sampling and more production,” Kim said. “The demand is there, it’s just a matter of getting the right system in place for these companies.

In terms of next steps, investment in infrastructure was a concept echoed by several of the panelists as crucial to any kind of return to domestic production on a bigger scale, and technology is also expected to drive the change.

Penner said technology is very important and that the innovations will have to be grand to really get things going. “We don’t see right now the electric car or the creation of the Internet—that’s going to have to be the paradigm shift.”

And investing in both technology and research and development could ultimately help facilities at least get closer to target cut and sew costs, Aubrey said.

“We have to look at going forward and what we can offer in this hemisphere,” Carey said. “And we have to look at cost. What’s being produced overseas is not apples to apples to what we can make here.” Some things, like managing inventory and shorter lead times, you just can’t put a price on, she said.