US domestic apparel manufacturing has its share of complications

US domestic apparel manufacturing has its share of complications

Moves to re-shore the US garment manufacturing sector will not be easy, especially when "price is king" and in an industry where "fast fashion is also cheap fashion," the CEO of US fashion designer Karen Kane has told just-style.

But it is not impossible for the US - the world's largest garment consuming country - believes Lonnie Kane, who was speaking after being a panellist at the Sourcing at MAGIC clothing and textile industry conference and trade show, staged this year in Las Vegas.

To start with, "making more apparel in the United States could primarily be done by companies that work in the middle retail price range and up," says Kane.

He adds it is "not realistic to believe at this point that apparel for moderate and budget retailers can be made domestically" to meet cheaper price points.

The matter was a dominant theme at MAGIC, held late last month. Kane spoke at a seminar entitled 'Made in the USA: Options and Strategies for Sourcing Apparel and Home Furnishings'.

The Obama administration has proactively sought to relocate manufacturing from abroad back to the US, supporting proposals such as the Make it in America initiative launched by House of Representatives Democrats.

Kane says US domestic manufacturing has its share of complications including the sourcing of raw materials and trims although "cut and sew can be done" at home. On the more positive side "shorter production cycles...allow for the ability to respond to consumers buying patterns," he says.

And consumer demand might also help: "If the momentum for 'Made in the USA' remains strong for a number of years, larger companies will consider opening their factories again and make a portion of their products domesticity just to appeal to the domestic market," Kane notes.

He cites the recent US furore over America's Olympic 2012 uniforms: "Look at the uproar over the US Olympic uniforms being made in China."

According to Kane the reality is that "making goods in China is much more costly and difficult today" than it was when China was eagerly trying to take over the apparel manufacturing sector. "Now that they have achieved their goals the rules have certainly changed," he says.

Job creation
The attempt to re-shore US apparel manufacturing is part of a broader initiative to create more jobs in the country, Kane explains. He calls the administration's policy "realistic" and says it could supply jobs for America's large number of immigrants lacking advanced skills.

Meanwhile, the United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel (USA-ITA) president Julia Hughes, who moderated the MAGIC seminar, agrees.

Speaking later, she told just-style: "As we discussed at MAGIC, the Obama administration, as well as local groups in Los Angeles and New York City, support the expansion of garment production in the US."

Hughes suggests the planned creation of a national searchable database of US-based clothing and textile manufacturers, plus suppliers, would help American companies in the sector strike deals with US partners. It would also help US retailers buy American.

Another issue raised during MAGIC was the fact that the majority of the fabrics used to manufacture high-end apparel are imported.

"So clearly one way that the Obama administration and the US Congress can support 'Made in the USA' is to eliminate the duties on imported inputs like yarns and fabrics," Hughes explains. Such a move would "go a long way to support sewing operations" in the US.

Hughes however believes the status quo of a majority of garments being imports will not "change substantially."

Decades of "restrictive quotas and high duty rates forced many companies to look for manufacturers off-shore" while labour costs also have a big impact on the sourcing of apparel.

"At MAGIC even those companies who maintain substantial manufacturing operations in the US say that skilled labour remains in short supply," she notes.

Policies impede re-shoring
Kane adds that apparel manufacturing left the US because of costs. "But the government also helped with the move offshore by our trade agreements with other countries. 'Buy our airplanes and technology and we will give you our shoe, textile and apparel manufacturing and we will then buy those products from you'."

And these policies will impede re-shoring manufacturing when "so much of the industry had left for China."

He says his company is hiring more workers and its US-based sewing contractors are hiring more sewers. "But new sewing facilities need to be built and it is harder and harder to hire sewers."

And these sewing jobs are low paying. "Most unemployed people do not want to do it and do not know how, and those that do know how are not allowed to work," because of immigration rules. To remedy this, "US immigration laws need to be overhauled" allowing companies to obtain work visas across all industries.

Unfortunately, it is a misunderstood issue and a political "hot potato" that both political parties avoid dealing with, Kane adds.