Small Runs, Big Gains: Reshoring U.S. Apparel Manufacturing

A push to reshore apparel manufacturing and technical skills is steadily taking hold in the United States. Industry organizations, as well as academe and suppliers, are identifying areas for job creation, inventing new ways to think about apparel production and building incubators that nurture a budding apparel workforce via expert tutelage and business advice.

The reemergence of U.S.-based apparel manufacturing has some defining characteristics, such as a concentration on premium garments and relatively small runs.

Consider Boathouse Sports, whose founder and owner John Strotbeck started his business as a way to make ends meet in the 1980s when he was an Olympic rower with The Vesper Boat Club & the U.S. National Team. Strotbeck's original line was limited to producing apparel for rowing enthusiasts; hence the name Boathouse Sports. Today, Boathouse employs 250 associates who design and manufacture performance apparel for teams nationwide and abroad. Strotbeck points to the premium nature of his custom product, his short production runs and his Philadelphia factory's blistering manufacturing speed of just 3.5 days from the time a cut ticket is released until an order is in the box as the keys to Boathouse's success.  

"To manufacture apparel in the U.S. and make a profit, you need a niche, a unique audience and a specific skill set or core competency," Strotbeck says. "Ours is mass customization of athletic wear, short runs and speed. We offer mass customization at its best."

Volume production, such as that needed for Boathouse's line of commodity T-shirts and sweats, is more efficiently produced offshore. But that still leaves plenty of room for onshore production and profit. Commodity items represent only 4 percent of Boathouse's total sales. A whopping 96 percent of the business—the company's performance apparel, which includes technical outerwear such as Gore-Tex® and soft shells for collegiate, amateur and professional teams across the country — is manufactured in the United States by Boathouse employees. The company produces more than a million items per year. The average order is approximately 17 garments, with each order unique from all others.

In addition to niche marketing and small runs, Strotbeck also credits his company's success to his workers, whom he describes as hard working and loyal, and who engage in tasks that call for practiced skills. "Making Gore-Tex garments is an example," he says. "Gore-Tex is guaranteed waterproof and breathable, so every seam has to be taped. The shell has to continuously go in and out of seam taping. We invested in sublimation some years ago. It's a digital technology, and the equipment can be kind of tricky."

While Boathouse has faced no particular challenge in finding qualified plant workers, Strotbeck nevertheless acknowledges a need for more U.S. training in manufacturing and technical skills and cites a European manufacturing powerhouse as a model.

"We should be training more people in crafts and skills, what we used to call technical skills in high school," he says. "The Germans have very clearly recognized that not everybody has to go
to college. They have made trades in high school very important."

Strotbeck is not alone in his call for a reemergence of trade schooling.

Ilse Metchek, president, California Fashion Association, is a vocal supporter. "We advocate that the word ‘shop' goes back into the lexicon of what you learn in high school," Metchek says. "Manufacturing skills require hand/eye coordination, and that is something we unfortunately have put down in our public schools. We have lost our focus on those people who wish to work with their hands."

Metchek distinguishes between manufacturing and technical skills, while pointing out a need for both.

"Manufacturing skills are things like sewing, cutting, managing a shop floor and being able to fix a machine," she says. "We still have no way to make a garment other than having a person at a machine put a round sleeve into a round hole, and one of our biggest lacks in apparel manufacturing is mechanics to fix the equipment.

"Technical skills rely on math and some awareness of the new techniques in the manufacturing process, such as laser technology and robotics."

The CFA is actively engaged in reshoring, largely through its Fashion Industry Report that it publishes in cooperation with CIT Financial Services. The report brings the issue of domestic manufacturing into perspective for interested parties (industry services and politicians) to absorb.

Metchek describes CFA's mission as defining and disseminating relevant issues in the global economy as they affect the apparel/textile industry of California, and she has some specific ends in mind.

"My realistic goal is to bring back between 10  percent to 12 percent of manufacturing that is shipped from California," she says. "California ships $49 billion of merchandise, 85 percent of which comes from somewhere else. If we just get 10 percent, we would bring back $4 billion to this state in manufacturing, and put another 20,000 people to work."

Another organization that is putting people back to work is the nascent Brooklyn Fashion & Design Accelerator, a part of Pratt Institute. BF&DA officially launched Nov. 11, at its beautiful new 21,000-square-foot quarters in Brooklyn's old Pfizer building, now a hub for small businesses.

Pratt Institute president Thomas F. Schutte describes the BF&DA as "a place where design start-ups will flourish, local manufacturing jobs will be created, and young people can design their future."

Accelerator founder and executive director Debera Johnson sees U.S. apparel manufacturing as being in a transitional stage, one that is steadily migrating to digital technology and evolving
into a "21st-century approach" to distributed production.

"For me it's about how digital and additive manufacturing technologies are becoming more viable," she says. "I think we're going to see a huge change. At the BF+DA we have high-tech digital knitting machines and 3D printers that require specialized programming which we see as an opportunity for new jobs. These technical jobs are right next to the cut and sew operation that is more traditional."

Johnson says that BF&DA is exploring partnering with local work force development programs such as Green City Force, which works with 18–24 year olds from the surrounding neighborhood in Bed-Stuy. They have the experience to help build skills for employment and the BF+DA has the resources that will excite young people towards new technology-based jobs."

"The Accelerator provides a space where you can see an idea go from design to prototype to production to market in one place. We want to develop a community of like-minded people who are aspiring to create viable triple bottom line companies," she concludes.

Janice Wang is CEO of Alvanon Inc. She can be reached at [email protected]. Alvanon, Inc. isenergetically engaged in reskilling U.S. apparel manufacturing. Our expertise is the art and science of fit. Earlier this year, we launched our Fashion Fit Movement, which is designed to help restore and revitalize technical fashion skills and fashion manufacturing in New York City, Europe and Hong Kong. As part of our global initiative, Alvanon donates technical fit tools and consultancy services to selected apparel design and manufacturing businesses that are rebuilding their local production capabilities, and to industry associations that support local production efforts.
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