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Means of Production

Means of Production

Means of Production

August/September 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Garment Center Pilot Program Classes

In addition to serving as headquarters for 20 incubator members, the Garment Center Pilot Program facility, which includes an industrial sewing room and computer lab, offers a variety of classes and workshops, which are open to the public. Photo: Courtesy of Manufacture New York

Manufacture New York aims to restore the city’s status as a fashion-production powerhouse.

Manufacture New York is an ambitious project. Its Brook­lyn flagship facility, slated to open this winter, will house a fashion design incubator and workspace, integrated with nearly 30 different manufacturers, as well as product development resources; it’s everything an apparel, accessories, or jewelry designer-maker could need to produce work domestically – and competitively.

In the age of outsourcing, that might sound like a tall order, maybe even a tall tale. But spend some time talking with CEO and founder Bob Bland, as we did, and it’s clear that Manufacture New York is also a pragmatic project: thoughtfully conceived, wide-ranging, and – for the economy and our communities – an idea whose time is now.

Where did the idea for Manufacture New York come from?
I had been working for companies that specialize in Americana; I had been designing for Ralph Lauren, for Tommy Hilfiger. These are big, huge brands that have made billions off Americana. And they were making it in China. At the time, it was just so de rigueur, there was no way I could have seen anything wrong with it – that would have been heresy.

When I started my brand, Brooklyn Royalty, I woke up to how badly outsourcing had shattered [the domestic apparel and textile sectors]. New York City went from making 95 percent of Americans’ clothing in the 1950s to making less than 3 percent right now. We lost more than a million jobs, and it was seen as something that could never come back. But for me, as a young designer, I said, well, I called my brand Brooklyn Royalty, and I’ll be damned if I’m not making it in Brooklyn.

And as I started doing my own line, and connecting with everyone along the production/supply chain, I realized what a more positive experience it was, and how much easier it was to do quality control. And I realized, “Hey, if I’m doing all of this hard work, why do it just for me? Why not create a resource that would be available to other designers who are struggling in the same way that I am?”

Why was it such a struggle?
What we’ve seen is that at the same time that demand for domestic production – for “made in USA” and locally made products – is picking up from customers, we’re still seeing a contraction in small manufacturers, especially in New York, where the cost of doing business is extremely high and industrial space itself is rapidly declining.

What we’re creating, basically, in this Brooklyn manufacturing center, is a 30-year oasis. We want to create a Noah’s ark of manufacturers, where there’s one of every specialty, so there is always going to be high demand for their services, and they’ll be in a stabilized environment in terms of their rent costs.

Why 30 years?
Well, that’s how long we have our current contract with the building. But hopefully, by then, through our workforce training program, we will have trained a new generation in product development, and in why it’s so rewarding to work with your hands. Manufacturing is an industry with a lot of room for growth; typically people make about 20 percent more working in manufacturing than in an equivalent service or retail position. So yeah, you could work at Starbucks. But you’re going to make $5 more an hour in manufacturing.

Your Garment Center Pilot Program incubator, with 15 apparel and five jewelry designers, opened last fall. So in this big vision, where does the incubator fit?
As much as every single designer is different, there are basically two types. There are designers who just need coworking space with machines (and we have quite a variety of specialized ones they wouldn’t otherwise have access to). Typically they have selected to create smaller businesses and to make a lot of the product themselves. They know their business model and they know how to turn a profit.

Then there are designers who need a lot more than that. Some of the most talented, knowledgeable, hardworking people in the industry, once they get into the product development side – it’s like starting fresh. They’re already professionals. They’ve just never made [their products] in the United States before. And it’s a very different process from outsourcing. With outsourcing, you don’t get to have a real connection with your product. You don’t get to know the people making it – or even the process itself. After you’re done making that first test, it’s pretty much over, and from there it’s just a back-and-forth approval process. It’s certainly not collaborative in a way that is inspiring.

So what we do as much as possible is connect designers with manufacturers, the people who are making and specializing in various parts of the process, and we also educate them, to ensure that they actually understand how hard it is to make clothes and how complex the apparel supply chain is, even to the point of helping them ethically and domestically source their textiles and trims.

The idea of an ethical, transparent supply chain is one of the cornerstones of your mission. Why is that so important?
The entire promise of Manufacture New York is that local supply chains are easier to manage – which is about the sanest thing you can possibly say. Obviously there’s more accountability in working with your local community; you’re going to face immediate repercussions.

Recently at Saks Fifth Avenue, a woman opened the little brown bag that you get with every purchase, that cute little brown bag, and there was a note inside from a Chinese political prisoner, who was enslaved and forced to make these bags. And what was Saks’ response? “Oh, well, we didn’t know that was happening.”

Not only is that not an excuse, I think it should be criminal. For an American company that’s making millions of dollars to not be able to track its own supply chain is ludicrous, and it’s unethical to the point of criminal.

Those are obviously important goals. The counter-argument for outsourcing always seems to be: It’s the only way to be competitive. How will Manufacture New York help people on this front?
What we’ve seen in the fashion industry over the last 20 years is something I call the race to the bottom: Companies are trying to find the countries with the lowest wages – with very shaky working conditions – and that’s how they’re cutting costs. What we feel is that there are creative ways to be competitive, while ethically making a product and ensuring that everybody is paid a living wage.

What are those ways? One, clearly, is bringing everything under one roof.
Yes. Vertical integration, actually, was the first place where outsourcing became an advantage. It wasn’t just about wages; it was about vertical integration and high-volume production.

The high-volume work is not coming back, and honestly, we don’t want it. That sort of unsustainable, high-volume fast fashion – Forever 21, Walmart type of stuff – it’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for the consumer; a significant portion of consumer waste is clothing. And people are going to slave just as much over that $5 T-shirt as a $25 T-shirt – the difference is how long it lasts.

Today, wages are rising across the globe, which is good news for everyone – and is making it more equitable to make in the United States. So by integrating new technology that hasn’t previously been used in American manufacturing, and bringing these teams of people together to increase efficiencies, we can make a huge difference.

It might surprise you, for example, but digital pattern-making is not prevalent in the domestic manufacturing market yet. So making industry-standard digital patternmaking available to all manufacturers is a huge priority for us.

How do you get the message out to the fast-fashion consumer?
I think on a production level, people think clothes are made by robots or something. Once you’ve seen the automation that goes into other types of manufacturing – like cars – that’s what people think of when they think about manufacturing. As if it’s this assembly-line process.

That never happened with fashion. The truth is that every single garment we wear is touched by at least 20 sets of hands. And it doesn’t matter if you bought it at Walmart or at Gucci. That’s the truth. So if 20 people were involved in the making of your $5 T-shirt, how much do you think they got paid?

Bringing back American manufacturing, we have an opportunity to reconnect with this process – and to make informed decisions about the true value and the true cost of the clothes we wear. I do three or four regional radio spots a month; I’ll do radio shows with anybody who wants to talk to me. Ideally, it’s local governments, the national media, and the responsible fashion industry that are working together to create awareness.

What I’ve experienced with this new generation, though, with millennials and even younger people, is that they understand sustainability implicitly. They’re implicitly looking to know more about their clothes and how they’re made. So I think Manufacture New York is just a driver in a natural movement that’s going to happen anyway. We’re just trying to help keep it organized – and help make it happen faster.

Julie K. Hanus is American Craft’s senior editor.