Can America Really Make the Suits that China Makes?

Team USA at Olympics opening ceremonies. Photo by Reuters.

On July 16th, the U.S. House of Representatives announced legislation which would, if passed, ensure that future U.S. Olympic team uniforms are made in the United. States. However, Li Guilian, the owner of the Chinese company that manufactured Team USA’s opening ceremonies uniforms asked in a Los Angeles Times story, “Can America really make the suits we make?”

Guilian asks a fair question. If Congress passes the bill requiring that uniforms be made here, will the United States still have enough of a viable garment industry to produce them?

I have been reading Elizabeth Cline’s excellent new book on the manufacture of contemporary fashion: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. In chapter 2, “How America Lost Its Shirts” she explains just how dire American clothing manufacture has become. In 1965, 95% of clothing worn in the United States was made here. By the 1970s, that number had fallen to 75%. Today, according to ABC News, just 2% of clothing purchased in this country is now made here. Moreover, the U.S. lost 650,000 apparel jobs between 1997-2007.

Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline

In a previous post I explored what Team USA’s uniforms might have looked like if they were made by some of the better-known clothing companies that still make clothing within U.S. borders.  It turns out that not just any clothing manufacturer can handle making structured, fitted garments like a blazer. American Apparel seldom includes fitted blazers (they do have loose-fitting ones in outerwear) in their seasonal looks. Given the proposed legislation and the Chinese owner’s question of whether America can still make a suit,  it’s worth exploring which companies could master the task of a blazer.  Karen Kane company now manufactures 80% of their garments in the U.S. and blazers (for women at least) are regularly in the line.

 

Karen Kane Indigo Linen Jacket, Made in the USA, from KarenCane.com

But since we’re talking about Ralph Lauren as the  contracted designer for 2014, where is he likely to go? Would he use the same factory as Karen Kane? One would think it is likely he will return to Dalma Dress in New York since that is where Ralph Lauren apparel that was made in the USA was once produced.  According to Elizabeth Cline, Dalma Dress is known for producing garments that require skilled labor, such as suits. And hopefully, Dalma Dress will still be a viable company if Lauren returns. Just this week, Ecouterre.com asked “Are the Days of New York City’s Historic Garment District Numbered?” in an article discussing how the Garment District is likely to be re-named since so few garment manufacturers remain there.

To have a U.S. industry that can produce uniforms (and more importantly, clothing for everyday use by Americans), we need more than just a bill which stipulates that the uniforms be made here. Members of Congress who would like to bring back U.S. clothing manufacture need to explore other types of legislation that would re-seed the industry through providing companies with tax incentives to run such businesses, training, equipment financing so that the newest technology in clothing manufacture can be purchased (see an earlier post that discusses LiaMolly’s efforts to bring a modern knitting machine to the U.S.), and other types of support. Consumer education efforts about why garments made here cost more and hopefully are worth more (reading Cline’s book Overdressed is an excellent place to start in terms of self-education about this) is also necessary part of the package.

The controversy over Team USA’s uniforms comes at what is hopefully a key moment when change is possible. In the last chapters of Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline discusses how the days of fast, cheap fashion from China may be ending – the price of Chinese-made clothing is increasing while quality from many factories is mediocre at best, leading some companies (such as Karen Kane) to bring back production to the U.S. So, perhaps we should be thanking Ralph Lauren for providing us with a chance to have a timely conversation about the current state of the U.S. garment industry and what it would take to make it viable, once more.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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3 Comments

Filed under Made in USA, Worth Reading

3 responses to “Can America Really Make the Suits that China Makes?

  1. This is a fascinating article to read since I once earned my own living as a seamstress and worked for a leather company in San Francisco that hired a lot of Chinese women working in sweatshops through-out the city. Our pattern drafter was a wonderful Chinese woman. I got to use a large console machine in my own home, thankfully. It is a sad statement that we only now produce 2% of our garments! Horrifying actually. I have done my best to purchase clothes made in the USA; Russ Behrens is another good brand. While clothing made in China at least has some quality assurance still in place, most things made there are quite frankly trash! They fall apart quickly or they don’t work, or you can’t put them together properly such as furniture that needs assembling.

    Thanks for giving us all wonderful perspectives on clothing. It continues to be one of our most basic of needs and deserves to be acknowledged in a more comprehensive way from your sociological perspective.

  2. Thanks Genevieve for the compliment and even more for sharing your experience as a former seamstress, and for another tip for a U.S.A. made company!

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