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Could US Manufacturing Strike Gold? Some Signs Point to Yes

For emerging and established brands alike, the question of establishing domestic manufacturing operations is a conundrum for the ages.

At Thursday’s Fashiondex and LA Textile Sustainable Fashion Forum in Los Angeles, panelists from U.S. manufacturing companies weighed in on the overwhelming challenges of bringing operations stateside, even as demand for American-made goods grows in the face of escalating China tariffs and trade wars brewing on two fronts.

Marta Miller, founder of Los Angeles-based Lefty Production Co., said that part of the issue stems from comparing U.S. production’s capacity with a country like China’s. “We’re never going to be China, but I don’t think we want to be. It’s not comparing apples to apples,” she explained.

Lefty specializes in sustainable, ethically made garments that are often ordered in small batches—though the company has the capacity for larger orders, too. While prices are undoubtedly higher than they would be if a brand were to source from a factory overseas, she said, “Our costs aren’t that much more when you weigh the benefits of lower minimums and ease of communication.”

For that reason, Lefty appeals not only to established brands, but startups and emerging designers who aren’t looking for huge production runs, and who value a close relationship with their supplier. Operations are small, as it’s tough to find skilled workers to sew garments in Los Angeles. It’s an art form that’s being quickly lost, she said, as an aging population exits the workforce. “Technology can really help give us an edge, but buying those machines is really cost-prohibitive,” she added.

Still, Miller sees cues that the industry is shifting in ways that might benefit U.S. manufacturing. The movement toward tightly curated collections rather than sprawling seasonal lines is much more conducive to local production.

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“There are so many hands that go into making and developing a garment, and as designers and brands, so much of your time and heart goes into it,” she explained. “I think the days of a 40-piece collection should be over,” she added, explaining that in order to become more sustainable, lines should be less focused on trends and more concerned about a garment’s long-term potential and seasonless appeal.

David Prentice, senior vice president of OnPoint Manufacturing, said that his company has built up its business on small-batch orders—some containing just one garment.

“The ability to drop minimums is a game changer,” he said. OnPoint’s highly advanced Alabama-based operations allow brands to buy only what they need, with no minimum order quantities. Most orders are manufactured and shipped within 72 hours, he said.

The company also offers brands complete fulfillment services. “We manufacture the garment, and we can drop-ship it directly to their client with their box, their tissue paper and a handwritten note, if they want,” said Prentice of the full-service operation.

Not only does the model help small brands and designers, it helps eliminate waste, Prentice said. On-demand manufacturing means less wasted resources, like fabric and components. The company also uses pattern optimization tools to ensure that scraps are minimal.

When it comes to competing with China, Prentice agreed that it’s not an apt comparison. OnPoint certainly doesn’t have the same capacity as a large Chinese manufacturer—and in some ways that is the basis of its appeal. Brands and designers are afforded the freedom to order what they need and have it delivered quickly, rather than banking on large orders that may or may not sell through at retail.

Plus, Prentice said, “If you’re making something in China—it’s not just about the unit cost, it’s about the cost of shipping and transportation.”

There are variables that add costs and challenges, he added. OnPoint’s proximity to U.S. consumers—and its ability to avoid tariffs—could ultimately save brands money and headaches.