The Demise of Made in the U.S.A

Look for the union label
when you are buying that coat, dress or blouse.

Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
our wages going to feed the kids, and run the house.

We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the I.L.G. we’re paying our way!

So always look for the union label,
it says we’re able to make it in the U.S.A.!

—Song by Paula Green, music by Malcolm Dodds

Boy, we haven’t heard the ILGWU (International Garment’s Workers’ Union) song in a long time. But on the eve of Labor Day, a presidential election, and with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week less than a week away, the state of garment manufacturing in the US is heavy on the minds of many in the fashion industry and beyond.

The ILGWU song was composed in 1975, and in that year manufacturing was a strong, integral part of the American economy. I remember that in my hometown and surrounding cities in North Carolina there were over 20 textile plants. Sadly, now there are none. Most folks in my hometown worked in these plants, had a good, sustainable lifestyle and sent their children to good universities on the earned income from these jobs. Now, many of the citizens of these small North Carolina towns work in fast food and have to commute over an hour to low-paying jobs that offer very few benefits, pensions and chances for advancement.  This unfortunate, but true-to-life scenario is played out in many small and moderate-sized towns across the country; and even a metropolis as diverse and multifaceted as NYC has been affected by the demise of American manufacturing.   In the mid-80s, NYC boasted over 3,000 mom and pop factories; yet, today those numbers have decreased to a little more than 200 small shops.

Where did it all go wrong?

“ADIN International was founded my father 45 years ago.  And since that time, we have seen dramatic changes in the garment industry. We’ve survived by diversifying and being smart … Forty-five years ago there was no Limited, The Loft, Urban Outfitters, Casual Corner, etc. Macy’s only had maybe 20 stores. Most retail stores were mom and pop with a few extensions. Now you have multiple chain stores, where over four decades ago there were over 6,000 mom and pop stores. That has all changed and now the big guys rule the world,” explains Scott Fishman, president of ADIN International.

Michelle Vale

And he is right!! “In the 1950s and 60s more than 95 percent of clothing sold in the US was made nationally; that number has decreased to around 5 percent” according to a 2009 Reuters article. This decrease in American-made production also could dramatically affect New York Fashion Week, which globally is one of the biggest fashion cultural events that pump billions of dollars annually into NYC. “If we lose the garment center, we will lose New York Fashion Week. There are hundreds of designers that are still using the garment center to get samples and small orders made. Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Prabal Gurung, Billy Reid, Jason Wu, Nanette Lepore, and many others are all getting their samples made in NYC’s small shops. You can’t send sample orders to factories abroad because the orders are too small and the turnaround time is too slow. That said; if these small shops continue to disappear, so will Fashion Week,” contends Michelle Vale, luxury handbag designer and co-founder of Make It In Manhattan, a business initiative that promotes NYC as a fashion capital. “The small factories now are so busy during peak production season to fulfill small orders and samples, but during the rest of the year they are extremely slow. This is an imbalanced business model that is not working, and every season more and more shops go under” explains Vale.

What is to be done?

In the forefront in the fight to save the Garment District is designer Nanette Lepore. With a $5,000 loan from her father, Lepore was able to launch her fashion line in 1992 and today 80% of her brand’s product is still made in NYC. Lepore, a fierce advocate for the protection of the Garment District and homegrown manufacturing, in the past has meet with congressional representatives and City Council about the state of the fashion industry and the garment district as a whole. ““The fashion district is facing extinction, and small factories are being lost to developers,” … “Without it, young designers cannot get their start in New York City,”  explained Lepore in a 2009 New York Magazine article. “We need someone like Ralph Lauren on board, or someone like Donna Karan. We need them to realize that they’re still there, their design rooms are still there, and they should be helping support this cause … You have to give back to those who want the same opportunity.”

Despite the drastic decline of garment manufacturing over the past 30 years, over 845 fashion companies are still headquartered in NYC, which is more than London, Paris and Milan combined. Launched in 2007, Save the Garment Center (STGC) is a trade association devoted to promoting the garment district and the companies and brand’s that utilize it. As a response to City Hall’s plans to lift the 1987 zoning laws that protected the Garment District, factory owners Samantha Cortes, Anthony Lilore, Paul Cavazza, and Larry Geffner, formed STGC. Through advocacy and education, STGC supports factories, designers and suppliers.

Andrew Rosen photographed by Tina Barney

Though Lepore and STGC are doing incredible advocacy work and making headway with city, state and federal officials, Andrew Rosen is actually working on putting brick to mortar. In 1997, Andrew Rosen with Elie Tahari co-founded the successful brand Theory with sales in 2012 projected to top $700 million. Rosen has also bankrolled and nurtured such youthful American brands as Alice + Olive and Rag and Bone. “We don’t have a Gucci or LVMH in this country,” says Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “but in his own way, Andrew is creating a kind of American equivalent.”

But, Rosen is attempting to do more than nurture young talent. Rosen has been working behind the scenes for some time with the Lower Manhattan Economic Development Corporation to open a factory in NYC. “I want to put together a state-of-the-art building with manufacturing, cutting, sewing, sample making all together—that’s what they do in China,” Rosen told the WSJ.

The garment industry is in Rosen’s blood. As the scion of Carl Rosen, the CEO of Puritan Fashions, Andrew Rosen already owns a mini-garment center across the street from Theory, which encompasses 30,000 square feet.

Claudine Desola

Claudine Desola is taking a different approach to saving the Garment District. “I always wanted to connect young celebrities with new designers and talent. I also wanted to create a creative space for stylists, photographers, bloggers, and designers … I got the bright idea of having a creative space where industry professionals could get together, and what better place to meet than in the Garment District. I thought by having this communal space in the Garment District where industry professionals, and even celebrities could meet, network and even work, people would realize how important this area is and rich in resources,” details Desola. And with Caravan Stylist Studio, Desola has done just that.

But, pulling brands and people together is old hat for Desola. The former co-owner of Think PR and several Caravan stores, Desola has worked in the fashion industry for over 17 years. “In a way by bringing all these fashion creatives into one space in the Garment Center is my version of Occupy Wall Street,” explains Desola.

Caravan Stylist Studio is a fully functioning studio that by day serves as a space for private wardrobe, beauty and photo opportunities and at night serves as a space for private events. The space is supported by brand partners and sponsors, and there is no cost to approved designers, editors and their guests. Desola also fights the good fight by giving tours of the Garment District to tourists and students.

Still, the fight continues. “Consumers have to demand for clothes made in America. And until department store buyers get a consensus of shoppers asking for homegrown product, things are not going to change,” contends Michelle Vale. “We were once a manufacturing giant, there is no reason we can’t be that again, and I believe the tide is beginning to turn. But we need everyone’s help, from government to consumers.”

—William S. Gooch





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