There are plenty of factors that have made on-demand, local manufacturing a buzzy topic of conversation in recent months. In the wake of a pandemic that has shaken global supply chains to their core, brands and designers have been rattled, perhaps permanently, by the awakening to vulnerabilities and inefficiencies in their operations.
But even before the coronavirus illuminated these issues, a trade war between China and the U.S. had been raging for two years, fueling brands’ doubts about their dependency on the global superpower for all of their production needs.
Consumer concerns about sustainability have also loomed larger in recent seasons, while shopper appetites for fast-fashion goods made a world away have receded.
But in 2014, when New York entrepreneur Paul Goncalves began laying the groundwork for his newest venture—a stateside, vertical manufacturing business—these attitudes hadn’t fully taken hold across the industry.
“Our business was born out of our own personal frustrations,” Goncalves told Sourcing Journal. He and his brother had been working to launch a men’s wear label, Bespoken New York, when they began contending with the aches and pains of the traditional retail wholesale model.
“In trying to build a business and grow it, it was becoming difficult and challenging to use this antiquated system that was set up years and years ago,” he said. “We were getting all this great press and momentum behind the business, but we were living looking at our P&L and saying, ‘Something’s wrong here.’”
Building a brand from the ground up takes a sizable upfront investment of capital, for samples and production runs, a showroom, admission to trade shows, and myriad other expenses. While Bespoken New York was generating interest from consumers and accolades from peers, it wasn’t generating profits with the same momentum.
Goncalves delved into the concept of made-to-order manufacturing as his brand was folding due to financial constraints. The concept eliminates the need for brands to buy into large quantities of inventory that might not sell, and instead, products are created only after a consumer makes a purchase.
He set up shop in the Los Angeles suburb of Garden Grove, Calif. Through6, as the factory came to be called, is a vertical operation where garments are sewn, printed, finished and fulfilled, often in as little as two to five days.
Goncalves’ operation specializes in activewear and streetwear, and is especially adept at sublimation printing—a technique for creating motifs and patterns that is used on synthetics like polyester, spandex and rayon—and direct-to-garment printing, which mimics the screen-printing process, and can be done on cottons using water-based inks.
“What we really do is provide the canvases for the brands and merchants and what allows brands to differentiate themselves is the printing, and how they want to decorate that garment,” Goncalves said.
But unlike other print-on-demand operations, brands are able to customize their canvasses. “We’re able to offer our customers access to products that are not just something that they can print on, but something they can build equity in as well,” he said. Brands can customize every detail of their designs, which are cut and sewn to order.
“The print is not the only IP they can put their names to—in this case, it’s the whole garment,” he said.
While Through6 initially began with a small roster of direct-to-consumer clients whose operations were based mostly online, the business has opened up in recent years to brands large and small, located across the country.
Goncalves credits the cost-saving element of the made-to-order model for much of his factory’s success. But brands are also increasingly interested in creating a more sustainable future for the industry, where less waste is created and fewer clothes end up in landfills.
Then, there’s the proximity to the end consumer.
“There is definitely a growing narrative around nearshoring,” Goncalves said. “It’s not just about having products made in the U.S. and carrying out that message, but it’s also about being able to react quicker and removing those dependencies” on foreign manufacturing.
Innovative new brands have had little trouble acclimating to the idea. But larger, more established players have had a hard time pivoting, he said.
“Businesses go overseas in large part because of the economics of it all,” Goncalves said. “From a unit economics perspective, some traditional brands will poke holes in our business, because it’s not as favorable on a unit basis compared with China.”
Recently, though, the industry has taken a hard look at the inefficiencies inherent in overseas production, like huge minimum order quantities, high shipping costs, and the heavy carbon output of transporting goods across the globe.
“When you look at the cost of everything, we’re a lot more favorable,” he said. “It’s just getting those businesses and those brands to look at it that way.”
Perspectives have been shifting, he admitted—and in light of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s happening quicker than ever. Business is booming at the Garden Grove factory, and Through6 is laying the groundwork for expansion.
The company has long been searching for a location to service the Eastern Seaboard and brand partners operating out of cities on the other side of the U.S., said Goncalves, who wanted to further reduce shipping times and cut down on the distance that garments need to travel.
Through6 has planted a stake in Raleigh, N.C., Goncalves said, because of the state’s rich history in textiles and sizable pool of skilled sewers and craftsmen. The facility, which will mirror Through6’s California operations, will offer the same capabilities at a larger scale, and will open later this summer.
“When all you hear about are closures and people being let go, and we’re in the fortunate position to be able to open up a new facility,” Goncalves said, “it’s certainly not something we’re taking for granted.”
When asked why he believes his factory’s model has resonated during this unprecedented moment in the industry’s history, Goncalves said, “We’re challenging the conventions that are typically associated with apparel manufacturing.
“When we first started, we were dealing with an old-school mentality,” he added. “But to be honest, this has become a part of the zeitgeist. Things need to be disrupted.”