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Can Trump Stimulate US Apparel Manufacturing?

One of the loudest—and most effective—rallying cries from Donald Trump’s campaign was a call for more American jobs. This was followed by a Trump-brokered deal to save a plant owned by the Indiana-based Carrier air conditioning and Ford’s decision to abandon its plan for factories in Mexico in favor of a larger workforce in Michigan.

And that’s all well and good for cars and appliances, but the apparel industry says any vision of large-scale clothing manufacturing flourishing in the States is a mirage.

“The U.S. doesn’t have the infrastructure for these industries,” said Howard Kahn, executive chairman of Kahn Lucas girls’ wear, which also owns Madame Alexander dolls. “Over 98 percent of apparel sold in this country is manufactured outside of this country, so is the fantasy for that much product to come back?”

Though he also doesn’t see a massive factory repatriation, Tom Travis, managing partner of the Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg customs and trade law firm, does acknowledge there’s opportunity on a smaller scale.

“In terms of pulling back apparel jobs here, there is a small stream of product that is coming back to the U.S. for business reasons,” Travis said. “If you have successful SKUs that are selling fast, you might want quick response, so maybe making it here is worth the additional cost of labor and inputs.”

Additional costs, though, is exactly what we can’t afford, according to Bjorn Bengtsson, chief merchandising officer at Untuckit men’s wear. The U.S. consumer has been spoiled; they expect rock-bottom prices. Imagine, if a $69 shirt were suddenly $149. A consumer might buy one if they needed it, but they won’t buy multiple garments. And that, Bengtsson said, is a big problem. “This country is based on consumption. The more people shop and consume in the U.S., the more we grow.”

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Therefore, he said, consumers are really the de facto heads of sourcing at every American clothing company. “The industry doesn’t determine [where we produce]. As long as product is valued by consumers at a certain price point, manufacturers have to follow consumers.”

In addition to infrastructure and price, U.S. apparel manufacturing would also require a qualified, motivated workforce. Unfortunately, the industry insiders we spoke to repeatedly referred, not a lack of workers, but to a lack of desire to do the specific jobs needed.

“How many kids coming out of college want to become sewing operators?” Kahn asked.

Charles Liberge, president of Jones & Vining, agreed that interest in the field has eroded—right along with our collective pride in Made in the USA—but he feels there’s still opportunity. “The challenge is how do we effectively train people and how do we make them feel that these are jobs worth having?” he asked. “There are millions of people who need jobs. If we do it right and build character around these kinds of jobs, we’ll have plenty of people to fill them.”

And his company needs those workers. Jones & Vining is one of the last to produce outsoles, midsoles and inserts domestically. About 28 percent of its products are produced here. The rest are made in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.

“We see a trend, although small today and not yet in place, in manufacturing in the U.S. in footwear coming back in some way,” Liberge said. The company began aggressive investment in its factories in Lewiston, Maine and Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, two years ago, building in the capability to work with footwear companies that use robotics manufacturing. “We’re trying to adapt to the market we’re in today as well as cautiously but optimistically look to the future.”

This kind of forward thinking is what Kahn would prefer to the protectionist measures he sees coming out of Washington.

“Our economy has evolved to the point that we should be looking at other things than the highly labor-intensive manufacturing jobs,” Kahn said, adding that developing countries now rely on these jobs to evolve their own economies. “We should be investing in technology and the future as opposed to the past.”

Kahn would like to see the government create incentives for things that look to the future like 3-D printing, which would make the U.S. competitive and also help solve our speed-to-market challenges. When it comes to textiles, he suggests funding techniques to make our textile production more eco-friendly.

For a company like Jones & Vining, which is committed to doing as much production in the States as possible, that type of action by the government would be most beneficial.

“The secret is going to be helping small to medium companies like us, who do $25 to $150 million, to invest in the U.S. It’s one thing to say companies will grow, but we all know [capital expenditure] dollars are hard to come by,” Liberge said. “It’s going to be important for the government to say these are the companies who can grow and have opportunity and can put people to work in the future and provide a multitude of options in which they can creatively finance that growth.”

Travis feels it’s the government’s responsibility, however. “That infrastructure is a private industry issue,” he said. “If the opportunity is here, they will build it.”

While Liberge understands that some of the proposed plans include tax breaks and the like, he feels only the big guys will benefit from them. “Helping the Fords and Carriers is all well and good, but long term they’re not going to be the growth of the middle class in the U.S.”

If you missed Part I in this article series, “Tax Reform, Import Tariffs Threaten the Fabric of the Apparel Industry,” read it here.