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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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Team USA Past: Made in North America

Check out this story from Ecouterre. Team USA uniforms have been made offshore since 1998, though “offshore” isn’t literal. Before Ralph Lauren got the contract in 2008, they were made in Canada, which, I suppose, is a version of “Made in America.”
Also, notice the Chinese News Agency’s response to Congress – “ban your own Chinese-made clothes.”

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What if Team USA had been “Made in the USA”?

Team USA Olympic Village Uniforms

U.S. clothing manufacturers, it’s time to put in your bids to make the 2014 Winter Olympics team uniforms, designed by Ralph Lauren. Following the controversy over the U.S. Olympics Team uniforms being made in China, a CNN story reports that “Ralph Lauren has agreed to domestically manufacture Team USA’s apparel for Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games” according to USOC CEO Scott Blackmun. In his press release, Lauren stated that his company will “lead the conversation within our industry and our government addressing the issue of increasing manufacturing in the United States.”  Given that there are already designers and companies that have been using U.S.A manufacturers, he seems a bit late to be claiming to lead a conversation.

I was a wee bit surprised when I read  some of the on-line commentary accompanying an NPR story on the controversy. Some listeners did not seem aware that Lauren’s clothing – whose Polo line often features flag images or a red-white-and-blue color scheme – was not made in the United States.  They actually have not been made in the U.S. for quite some time.  As I mentioned in my previous post Label Love, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. textile mills and clothing manufacturing companies were gradually closed, as brands sought lower production costs overseas. If you were to search for vintage Ralph Lauren, you may find some 1980s garments with the “Made in the USA” label, but they become increasingly rare from the 1990s onwards. As it stands today, 98 percent of clothing purchased in the U.S. was made abroad. As ABC News demonstrated in Grand Central Station as part of their Made in America news series, if we all had to strip down to just those garments with the USA label, most of us would need to embrace a “clothing optional” lifestyle.

This isn’t the first time Ralph Lauren has designed the U.S. Olympic Team uniforms. And it’s not the first time they’ve been made outside of the U.S. Nor is it even the first time that Lauren-designed Team USA uniforms have sparked controversy (he has designed uniforms in the past where his Polo Pony logo was bigger than the Olympic Rings symbol). And apparently, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is giving him another shot for Winter 2014.

This got me to thinking….what if the USOC had not hired Lauren and instead sought companies already known for making garments made in the USA. Where could the USOC have turned? The name that immediately comes to mind for me (and to those who made comments on the NPR story) is American Apparel. Their clothing is made in the USA, they make sportswear, they design for both women and men, and like Lauren, they often use flag emblems on the clothing. Would Team USA, American Apparel style look like this?

Would the U.S. Olympic Committee go for American Apparel’s racy and/or casual looks?

What other companies manufacture clothing in the U.S.? There’s Carhartt, the maker of rugged clothing that is greatly appreciated by construction workers…and hipsters.  If they were to make Team USA’s opening ceremonies uniforms, they would last for years.

Designing and making Team USA’s opening and closing ceremony uniforms could provide an opportunity for new U.S. companies like Imogene + Willie out of Nashville, Tennessee to show their clothing to a larger audience. It would give the Olympic team perhaps a more country western look:

And what if, instead of Ralph Lauren designing Team USA’s winter 2014 uniforms, we turned it over to Pendleton and their designers from their USA-made Portland Collection? How about one of their heritage prints in thick wool, in red, white or blue?

Or perhaps rather than featuring just one designer and company, Team USA could be outfitted by a stylist who would coordinate a look by seeking different elements from different USA companies. Pants by Cone Denim, ties by Pierrepont Hicks, and carrying bags by Duluth Pack.

Do you have a favorite Made in the USA maker that you think could make a great Team USA look?

– Nancy L Fischer

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