For all the fears of artificial intelligence and automation replacing the need for a human workforce, machine learning and sophisticated hardware and software are two of the major reasons apparel manufacturing is enjoying a resurgence in the USA and bringing considerable blue-collar and white-collar employment along with it.
Out of the third-floor factory of a trendy building in Industry City, Brooklyn, the one-time mecca of knitwear, Tailored Industry is using AI to crank out sweaters ordered directly from the customer in quantities as little as one.
At a sprawling less-than-year-old facility on the south side of Phoenix, Bespoke Manufacturing Company is fast becoming the go-to place for on-demand bridesmaids dresses, pumping out 250 an hour with a capacity for 120 sewers per shift.
In Las Vegas, a factory that staves off competition from Asia thanks to the terminal procrastination of high school sports teams in need of jerseys has partnered with a California swimwear brand trying to fulfill a promise co-founders made to one another to one day be Made in the USA.
And in an industrial neighborhood in Clifton, N.J., a third-generation garment factory owner has computerized every step of the process to produce premier outdoor wear with a team he calls “the Navy Seals of factories.”
“We’ll do the hard jobs, the short, laser-focused jobs,” said Martin DiBattista, owner of Better Team USA. “I want my people to get paid well. I want them to be proud working in this industry. My team all wears lab coats. They’re highly skilled. This is not a sweatshop.”
DiBattista knows a thing or two about coats, having produced the Ralph Lauren-designed official coats worn by Team USA at the 2018 and 2022 Winter Olympics.
“I like to say that Ralph Lauren chose us because we were really good at what we do. That’s part of it; the other part is we’re the only one,” he said. “So we’ve built this niche. I’m sure people are gonna follow us into this niche, but for right now, if you want top-down outerwear pieces, we’re probably the only ones who can execute it.”
DiBattista recalls that when he opened his factory in 2015, he was laughed at going to trade shows trying to promote the merits of sourcing and producing in the USA.
“They’re not laughing today,” DiBattista said, reminded of his trip to the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City two weeks earlier. “It’s the first time at that show that I got work… Usually I come back from the show and chase them… Now, they’re coming to me. I had two to three customers from that show automatically.”
DiBattista’s father Horacio ran a factory in the Garment District of New York City until one day he saw the writing on the wall foretelling the demise of American apparel factories and the rise of manufacturing in the Far East. He made his way to China in the mid-90s, where he opened his own factory and resided until settling into semi-retirement in Italy where he still consults Martin on Better Team USA affairs.
“We do everything—that was dad’s vision, and that’s what we’re executing here—everything under one roof,” DiBattista said. “It’s like a full-service, so you come to me, you can make a sketch on a napkin and we have the ability to bring that to life. We create the patterns, all the details, all the components and we’ll work together and show you a prototype.”
DiBattista said that in olden times, a pattern maker would have to work in conjunction with a sample maker, who in turn would take it to the factory, which would be completely out of the loop between ongoing conversations between the other two, creating a “Frankenstein-ish process.”
Keeping it all under one roof was key to securing the Olympic coat deal with Ralph Lauren, which DiBattista considers the seminal moment for Better Team USA.
“That jacket had a heater inside of it; electrical wires that were designed into the jacket. That had never been done before,” he said. “DuPont had developed this silver-based heating element that worked with a lithium battery, so we had to work with their technicians. It was wild, but we revel in that type of environment.”
Bridesmaids on demand
World-class winter sports attire is central to Kirby Best’s entry to the world of apparel design, too, though his introduction to what today might be called 3D fitting was an experience anything but virtual—or for that matter, pleasant.
In 1977, Best was a member of the Canadian biathlon team trudging his way through a grueling cross country ski course in Vingrom, Norway with a 12-pound rifle on his back pressed against a zipper running up the back of his Adidas-made suit.
“The top of my backbone was a bloody pulp by the end of the race. The suit rode up and choked us,” Best recalled. “The Germans were livid. ‘These were $1,000 suits!’ they said. We were livid: ‘You tried to kill the Canadian biathlon team!’”
Best did a little digging and found Adidas never tested the suits on athletes with body types peculiar to the sport. So, he assembled 52 athletes from different sports around the world and started his own company.
“That became my love,” Best said. “It grew and grew for like four years, but then all the athletic companies started having athletes test their products. We went from a booming business to nothing in a matter of months.”
A few years later, Best’s wife was diagnosed with cancer and the chemotherapy resulted in severe night sweats and soaking-wet bed sheets. Best, who began his professional life manufacturing books on-demand, got right to work and developed sleepwear that would wick away moisture.
“We tried it out and it didn’t solve her night sweats, but it did keep her dry and when you’re sick, sleep is everything,” Best said.
Best’s wife beat cancer, but his wicking sleepwear innovation would become yet another full-blown business venture, even if all profits were donated to breast cancer research.
“Suddenly, I’m back in the garment business and for 20 years we had the first and longest-going wicking sleepwear company. But the problem was, we had incredibly long runs and we couldn’t get it made,” Best said. “I went to my partner and said, ‘we’re the king of one-off, on-demand garments, so why don’t we make our own factory?”
Finally last summer, Best opened Bespoke Manufacturing Company near Sky Harbor Airport on the south side of Phoenix.
“The hardest person to hire in a factory is a sewing machine mechanic. My COO was the COO at Singer and he said, ‘we’d send all of our machines to Phoenix to get fixed. They have more mechanics there than anywhere’—so we did,” Best said. “We’re really trying to hire people with skills, and primarily we’re getting them from Eastern Europe, but a lot of highly skilled people are coming out of Mexico, too. So far, so good.”
In training recruits, Best said he’s applied the urban development concept of ‘scene theory,’ and transformed it into his own ‘seam theory’ to maximize the potential of his staff of 50 that is projected to grow to more than 300 if he’s able to open a second facility on the city’s north side. Best said he’ll be making a yes or no decision on launching factory No. 2 in the coming months.
“We take one person and put them on one machine with one fabric and train them in one day on that one seam. Then they start to learn other fabrics, doing the same seam on the same machine,” Best said. “We end up with a whole factory divided into pods of seams. It’s ‘seam theory.’ If I put a collection out, they’re going to be the very best at those seams.”
The seams BMC stitchers find themselves perfecting most often are those on bridesmaid’s dresses, fulfilling an on-demand niche that Best expects his factory to soon lead the world in supplying.
“I love watching the sewers sew. We have a lot of tailors in here. I love what they can do and I want to keep that art form around, but I want to automate everything else,” Best said. “It has to be scalable at a big level and a combination of robots and conveyer belts is the best way to transport goods sewer-to-sewer. I have no intention of just replacing humans.”
Best said the bridesmaids dress market was one he’d thought about cornering five years ago, surfing the internet and coming upon the popular wedding website “The Knot”.
So, he partnered with “The Knot” to launch his line and sell the dresses through their site, essentially on-demand.
“Most weddings average about four bridesmaids and it’s inevitable that some will be tall, short, heavy and so on, but they all want the same style and same color,” Best said. “They spend $200 to $400 on a dress and then another $100 to have it altered. This way, the bridesmaid no longer has to go have it altered.”
From the BMC website, each bridesmaid can try on dresses virtually, in 3D, and that information will automatically inform specs on the garment.
The one box BMC doesn’t check is delivery of the fabric to the plant. Best said there was some debate in his camp about whether they should try to, but after reluctantly letting brands and designers know they would have to supply their own fabric, the response was so positive, the decision not to was easy.
“The downside would be, now I’m storing a lot of fabric for other people, but that’s an upside as well because I know it’s here,” Best said. “So we designed a system that’s all Sonotubes, cardboard tubes for cement poles, and we put fabric in these tubes, so it’s well protected. We say it’s free to store it here for a year, as long as you’re using it sometime during that year.”
Industry City redux
Supplying fabric is a much simpler and necessary proposition for Tailored Industry in Brooklyn, where spools of yarn are fed into as many as 20 Shima Seiki 3D knitting machines and out comes a sweater, shirt, or some other knit product, pretty much ready to wear.
“The nice thing is we don’t have linking machines; that’s the biggest skill set you can’t really find in the U.S.,” said Emily Gauger, director of partnerships at Tailored. “For technicians and sewers, we’re at a good spot in Brooklyn.”
Gauger said 99 percent of Tailored’s business is on-demand.
“These [sweaters] come in off a machine, we tuck in a few ends and there’s no cutting, no sewing, no inventory waste,” Gauger said. “We’re only making what is sold; that’s 100 percent sell-through, compared to [what would otherwise be] 40 percent—and that’s on a good day.”
Using the Tailored model, all anyone would need to become an instant e-tailer is a Shopify page and a monthly subscription fee from Tailored that ranges from $299 for private buyers and $699 for the Designer Tier, which allows more control and sophistication of design. Embroidery is available on site and an order quantity can be as a little as one. Bulk orders don’t require a subscription fee.
Los Angeles-based premium apparel newbie Losano found a seemingly perfect partner in Tailored, and earlier this month, the two announced the launch of a sustainable sweater collection.
“It was a match made in heaven,” said Brianna Graffia, who along with her mother Staci, founded the company, its name an elegant mashup of Los Angeles, where the Graffias live now, and Chicago, their previous home city. “Tailored stands for what we do—slow fashion, producing only what we need to produce and using only sustainable materials.”
Alex Tschopp, Tailored Industry’s co-founder and “chief everything officer,” as he’s known around the shop, moved into Industry City with intention. Inspired from a young age by Andrew Carnegie, he wanted to usher in a new era of the neighborhood, which in the first half of the 20th century was the “epicenter” of knitwear before “fast fashion emerged at a dizzying speed,” the company says on its website, and drove almost all production off-shore.
Five years ago, the first Tailored shop opened about a mile from the current one. Commitment to the old-world ways gave way to modern technologies that would make re-shoring to Brooklyn not just a nostalgic cause, but an economic advantage.
“We had Stoll machines at a factory a mile south of here, and then Alex discovered the Shima about a year ago. Basically, the whole sweater comes off in one piece—no linkers or loopers, so there’s many fewer people here,” Gauger said. “With on-demand manufacturing, you pick your style and order through photoshoot samples through the Shopify app. A customer goes to their website and we knit, dropship with a three-to-six-day business window.”
Though the 25-person staff at the factory is a reduction from the stitch and sew Stoll model, it beats the waste and inefficiency of cargo loads of cheaply made products barging over from Asia.
And while Made in the USA doesn’t automatically bestow an authentic tag of sustainability, it does mean not overstocking cargo containers on pollution-spewing ocean vessels and it speaks to a more evolved consumer base rapidly waking up to the perils of fast fashion.
“She’s elevated, able to spend a little more money on her product because the cost is a little higher,” Graffia said of the quintessential Losano customer. “But the most important thing is that she’s ready to have that sustainability conversation; ready to make her wardrobe not just make her look good but make her feel good about being for a good cause.”
That description might point to the hole in the bag for the neo-Made-in-the-USA movement—being a good consumer costs a pretty penny.
“To be honest, we have a few larger brands working with us, but getting them to want to stand behind being sustainable in the supply chain is very difficult,” Gauger said. “I commend Losano for being all-in, saying, ‘we’re going to do this fully, right away. They understand how it works. We have six or seven brand partners, bigger brands who say, ‘I can order 300 pieces?’ and they literally just don’t get it. They don’t have to make anything [more than they sell]—it’s wild. If you have a subscription, you can place an order for one piece at 3 a.m. and we can knit it the next day.”
People are used to greasy, cheap drive-through food at 3 a.m., but that’s not what they’re going to get when they manufacture on-demand on U.S. shores.
“It’s like, I have a Ruth’s Chris [Steakhouse] and that’s a McDonald’s, and we both make food, it’s just different, right?” DiBattista offered as an apt 3 a.m. metaphor. “I can make you a hamburger, but it’s going to be a really good hamburger and it’s gonna be 50 bucks.”
So what is a brand to do when it feels the pressure of being sustainable, and being Made in the USA, but the end customer doesn’t have the bottomless pockets of, say, the U.S. Olympic Committee?
It’s a quandary Jennifer Hinton and Thayer Sylvester find themselves in now.
The two friends came up with the idea of swimwear for “real women with real bodies” while swinging on hammocks on a beach in Mexico. The fruit of their conversation became known as Carve Design, and at the pit of that fruit was a promise to one day manufacture—and manufacture sustainably—in the USA.
Twenty years later, that promise is coming to fruition with Carve’s Heritage Collection, highlighting the brand’s most popular polka-dot and retro-dots, set to launch on March 1.
The launch is Carve “dipping its toe in the pool” of future domestic production. After all, being a swimwear brand for real women with real bodies also means being a brand for real women with real bank balances.
“If I had all the money in the world, it would have been done already,” Hinton said of manufacturing in the USA. “We have a growing number of younger customers who are definitely looking to invest in brands that are transparent. The older demographic, they get hooked in, but the younger demographic is asking and demanding more.”
So, for their defining 20th anniversary line, Hinton and Sylvester came up with a material blend that’s 82 percent polyester made entirely from recycled plastic bottles, and 18 percent spandex. To boot, proceeds would go to the Changing Tides Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting ocean health.
But where to produce?
Hinton said there are boutique factories in California that could easily wind up setting a customer back $200, but Carve’s best-selling model is made in China, Indonesia and Mexico, priced at $60, and the Carve customer is only going so far to be patriotic and sustainable.
“Manufacturing in the U.S. can be extremely expensive,” Hinton said. “We wanted our brand to be really democratic—give the people what they can afford. Quality swimwear should be within reach.”
Meanwhile, out in Las Vegas, Genre Sports, was staying afloat against cheaper costs in Asia thanks to a pernicious habit anyone who’s ever played high school sports is keenly aware of—the procrastination of ordering jerseys and like items, which are infamous for arriving days, even hours, before the season opener.
“Luckily, pretty much all sports is time-sensitive,” said Jeff Kirsch, owner of Genre Sports. “You have factories overseas that can actually overnight stuff, so we do still have to compete with some of that, but overnighting gets to be expensive and we can still beat them on time. We can get very close to [Asia] after [customers] have to absorb that shipping cost.”
Kirsch, like DiBattista, comes from generations of factory owners, domestically and abroad. For 15 years he ran a plant in Sri Lanka and when it closed, he came back to his home state of Nevada in his 40s having known no trade but apparel manufacturing. He stuck to what he knew and he knew what would still work.
Working heavily with the poly blends common to sports jerseys, it was a natural fit for Genre to expand into swimwear. California distributors were attracted to Nevada’s more lenient tax policies and knocked on his door to be their middleman.
“They asked if I wanted to make swimwear and I know how difficult it is to make and I had a pretty good thing going just with team sports. They said, ‘Well, it’s continuous monthly orders,’ and steady work is how factories thrive,” Kirsch said. “So I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’ and it’s been a lot of trial and error.”
Six years of swimwear trial and error later, Kirsch’s brother, himself a manufacturer on the East Coast, put him in touch with Carve’s co-founders.
“Jen came down with the team from Carve, saw the factory, saw we do high-quality swimwear and so they said, ‘let’s do this.’ It’s been a little bit of a learning experience for both of us, but we’re in production now and we expect to hit their date,” Kirsch said. “Manufacturing-wise, it’s not that big of a difference, actually. It’s a little softer fabric they’ve selected for a more luxurious feeling.”
Carve’s small-batch order of 300 is made from his 10 dye sublimation printers, a practice he considers the “premiere decorating method of synthetic fabrics.”
“It’s special paper, special ink and then it goes through a heat process where it sublimates. That ink turns into gas, re-dyes the white fabric during the heating process,” Kirsch said. “It takes heat, pressure and time and it beautifully transfers; you don’t feel it. It’s super-durable, doesn’t crack, curl or fade.”
Hinton likes what she’s seen from the samples sent from Genre and all systems are go for the Heritage Collection’s March 1 release.
“It’s a little different from the rest of our swim wear line in China, which is not digital [printed],” Hinton said, adding that the Genre samples appear ‘shinier.’
Hinton is confident her customers can get to the $76 price point for this collection, and her next American-made attempt may be batches of light purple—Carve’s most popular color.
“We just want this to go off without a hitch,” Hinton said. “We spend so much on transport, via the ocean and air [producing in Asia] and here we’re able to run small amounts, and small amounts are important because our goal is to sell out the collection.”
The three major factors are the bedrock of this return to domestic manufacturing—trade wars with China, a heightened focus and scrutiny on sustainability and lessons learned from Covid’s disruption of the supply chain—all mark profound changes in the way business is done. But trade wars don’t last forever, talk of commitments to environmental stewardship doesn’t always translate to action, and 100-year pandemics don’t come around very often.
Still, Kim Glas, CEO of the National Council of Textile Organizations, believes this renewed interest in U.S. garment production has real staying power.
“I think Covid illuminated the fragilities of our supply chain and the importance and strategic benefit of textile and having a supply chain on-shore. A lot of de-risking executives realized, ‘I can’t put all my eggs in the China basket,’” Glas said. “My crystal ball is still a little foggy, but the reality is the world really did change around Covid.”