News & Scoops

2012 April 5

Designers Discuss: The Obama Admin's "Made In The USA" Campaign

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Yeohlee Teng, Whitney Pozgay of WHIT, and Luis Fernandez of NUMBER:Lab Yeohlee Teng, Whitney Pozgay of WHIT, and Luis Fernandez of NUMBER:Lab
Patrick McMullan
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(NEW YORK) Keeping jobs stateside took a decidedly stylish turn earlier this week. President Obama’s administration is angling its Made in America campaign towards the fashion industry with a heightened push to get the “Made in the USA” label on as much apparel as possible through more onshore manufacturing. Ultimately, the objective is for Obama and co. to double exports by the end of 2014, as part of its National Export Initiative.

Los Angeles-based designer Karen Kane was one of the brands that U.S. Trade Representative Demertrios Marantis met with earlier this week as part of the White House’s “Made in USA” push; the visit included a tour of the contemporary womenswear designer’s manufacturing facilities. Rep. Marantis’ two-day visit to L.A. also involved tours of denim manufacturers New Fashion and Blue River Denim, plus a roundtable with industry execs. The latest, L.A.-situated activity follows a visit by Francisco Sanchez of the Commerce Department to North Carolina in January, plus his roundtable and visit to Ralph Lauren’s HQ last month. This isn’t Kane’s first foray into the “Made In USA” fray: Earlier this year, Kane was invited to attend the President Obama's "Insourcing American Jobs" summit at the White House. 

But Kane's commitment to producing stateside is a relatively recent advancement. “We made the strategic decision to manufacture the majority of our clothing in the United States approximately a year and a half ago,” explained Kane. The impact has been sizeable, in myriad ways: “Since shifting our production, we've improved our ability to insure the quality of our items, the reliability of their delivery time, and had much more stability with pricing.” Keeping things local has also helped the brand with “quickly jumping on trends” and churn out bestsellers before stock sells out, or to satiate customers’ appetites for more of what they wear and love already. “We can turn our products around in less than a month, and it might take three months for some of our competitors to do the same,” Kane said.

NUMBER:Lab designer Luis Fernandez made the shift to on-shore even more recently, with his Spring 2012 collection marking the athletically-hewed menswear line’s first time producing in the Garment District in lieu of primarily China-based manufacturing.  “As a designer, it’s very liberating to be in total control,” Fernandez said. “You’re exposed to so many minute details about each garment that you’re not aware of when you’re producing overseas.” Sometimes that minutia is as much about a wealth of new details to attune to as it is about what has to be scrapped, for practical reasons. Fernandez learned that recently when looking for a specific type of trim to incorporate into his designs. “There was one sourcing item we needed, and it was nowhere to be found because the last company in United States that made it had gone out of business,” Fernandez said. Sedgwick handbags co-designer Carly Beck, who oversees production at a Garment District factory, seconds the notion: "It's tough to underestimate the value of our workshop as an educational resource," she said. "We consult with craftsmen and women at every step of the design process, from sourcing leather to altering patterns to perfecting finishings, to end up with the best possible product."

Despite WHIT designer Whitney Pozgay’s pride in operating a largely New York-based production of her women’s RTW line, launched two years ago with her Fall 2010 collection, the obstacles hit close to home—precisely because of what isn’t close to home. “With so much business moving overseas, many of the factories are either shutting down or operating on a skeleton crew and it gets harder every season to keep it here,” said Pozgay.

For Yeohlee Teng, the Obama administration’s spotlight on the goings-on, and shortcomings, of the fashion industry, is a long time coming. "Manufacturing has up to now been mostly about the automobile industry,” said Teng. Not everyone drives a car, but we all wear clothes. Clothing is shelter, and food and shelter are basic necessities of life.” Teng has been involved with the CFDA’s partnership with the Design for Public Space; phase one consisted of the Made in Midtown study in 2010, which assessed the contemporary role and needs of the Garment District. Part two of the initiative will consist of Making Midtown study that will offer policy-based recommendations for the industry’s future in NYC, expected to be released this spring. 

"It’s the ultimate American dream: to make a deal with a handshake, look people in the eye, and grow relationships and loyalty,” said Veronica Miele Beard and Veronica Swanson Beard of N.Y.-based women’s line Veronica Beard, which launched two years ago. There are far more practical benefits of being in the same zip code as the clothes than striving to fulfill the American dream. “The ability to change our minds in the middle of development or production is a necessity at times, and a luxury at other times,” said the Beard duo. “Producing here gives us the flexibility to react accordingly.”

As for the customer response to NUMBER:Lab’s decision to go local, “there’s been heightened interest in the brand,” said Fernandez. “Besides the hanger appeal, people care about the price tag—and increasingly, they care about where it’s made. There’s a cognizance today about where your clothes are coming from.”

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