Made in America: Taking hold

by Elise Diamantini

Smart retailers are profiting from American made.

For many menswear retailers, it’s increasingly important to support vendors who are creating American jobs. While cheaper overseas manufacturing has led to the outsourcing of most American apparel production, demand from consumers (and ultimately from some retailers) may help bring it back.

Michael Williams, the creator of popular Americana blog A Continuous Lean and The Pop Up Flea market, says that made in America has grown a lot since he started his website five years ago, but it’s not even near its peak. “People understand made in America now; it’s grown with the consumer. Men have changed a lot; they’re much savvier and more educated [when it comes to their buying habits]—brands are embracing that and are changing too. People want to know where their goods are coming from. They’re buying high quality, less disposable goods. People want to buy products from workers who are treated fairly. But made in America needs to be built into a brand and the government needs to step in and support it.”

He points out that the few American factories that remain are either busy, or going out of business. “There’s no good B2B way to connect brands and factories. The industry protects its resources because production is so valuable.” So how can made in America grow? Williams believes we need an industry organization that connects manufacturers and factories. “I get calls from people all the time who are looking for help with sourcing. My website does it on a small scale only because I’ve written about my various factory tours, but there needs to be some kind of database.”

Steven Alan, owner of eponymous retail stores, showroom and apparel collection says, “Initially we started making clothes in the U.S. and have since built relationships with factories, but it took a long time. I think having an organization like Cotton Incorporated for manufacturers that produce the majority of their collection here would be a great way for the industry to start promoting made in America. There should be economic incentives for both the companies and factories that produce goods here. There should also be an educational platform with downloadable information that explains ‘how to collect back duty paid when shipping imported goods out of the country, gives sourcing info on fabrics, factories, etc.”

David Matsudaira opened Squire Apparel in Milwaukee with the intention of stocking goods that are made in America. “Aside from the fact that it’s important to keep manufacturing here in the States, American quality and workmanship is known throughout the world. However, stocking brands made here is a lot easier said than done. About 40 percent of our assortment is U.S.-made (HMX, Robert Talbott neckwear and Estate dress shirts, Bills Khakis, Carrot & Gibbs) and our three-year goal is to get that to 50 percent. It’s unfortunate that over the past couple of decades American consumers have opted to go for price over quality, but there’s a resurgence of people who believe that quality trumps price. There’s a saying: ‘Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.’ That’s something we truly believe in.”

It’s become very popular for retailers to promote made in America by hosting in-store events and trunk shows. Mr. Sid in Newton, Mass. held an event last spring after they noticed that made in America was resonating with customers. They carry brands like Alden, New England Shirt Company, Gitman Bros. and Randolph Engineering. “It was the first time we threw a made in America-themed event. We had great vendor participation and served local seafood and beer; our customers really responded,” says Stuart Segel. But what was most exciting for Segel was how their event inspired other local businesses, like a nearby furniture store that later put on a similar event. “It’s important for us to support made in America in order for people to get back to work and for workers to learn and develop a craft. We’ve lost that trade not only in clothing, but furniture, jewelry and shoes, too.”

Levy’s in Nashville took it one step further and promoted an entire week around their made in America assortment. As David Levy explains it, “Our clients tend to depend on us for their MIA selections. We felt it was especially important to support made in America during an election season. We asked representatives from each brand to join us for informational trunk shows and offered gifts and some special offers. We worked with brands like Robert Talbott neckwear, Hickey Freeman, Gitman Bros., Measure Up Shirts, Remy, Agave, and a local jeweler. One night, we featured Hart Schaffner Marx in a “Save a Hart” event benefiting the Nashville Rescue Mission. Our business depends on a successful economy. We need to support these brands and they need to continue to offer special services that brands that make off-shore cannot provide.”

David Hodgkins of David Wood and Portland Dry Goods in Portland, Maine (whose assortment is 60 percent American made) has been a supporter for many years. “It’s important for the future growth of our economy. I feel very strongly that manufacturing will again provide good jobs to a large percentage of the U.S. population who are now scraping by at minimum wage in the service industry.” David Wood is mostly private label and Hodgkins says that he’s able to put his own spin on the product due to his close relationships with vendors like Hertling Trouser, New England Shirt, Southwick and Rancourt Shoe. “I can accommodate the needs of customers with special and made-to-measure orders. This allows me to control inventory by moving small in-season orders through production in three weeks or less.”

While some retailers are successfully promoting and selling made in America, the majority of customers aren’t seeking it out. “Eventually people will start asking for product that’s made in America. People are realizing its importance,” predicts Matsudaira. Hodgkins admits that while customers don’t come in asking for American goods, they do ask if goods are made in China. Matsudaira says, “Overseas production is hit or miss because there are some really good factories in China, but then there are some really bad ones too. The consumer doesn’t know the difference. It instills a little more consumer confidence when he finds out that merchandise is made in America. The easiest thing to do right now is to buy product that’s made overseas at a cheap price and sell it for big profits, but that’s not our business model.”

Made in America products usually mean premium price points, but some customers are willing to pay for the craftsmanship. Mark Bollman of Ball and Buck in Boston explains, “Because the cost of manufacturing in the U.S. is so high, you can’t afford to use low-quality materials. So the quality is generally good.”

“Our customers often tell us how important it is to them,” says Alan. “They understand that the prices might be higher, but we do our best to sell quality product that has a great value. Apart from our own line, our retail assortment is 40 to 50 percent made in America. We’re doing well with brands like Engineered Garments, Simon Miller, Walkover, Fidelity, Wolverine and Filson.”