Stitching America Back Together: Why Designers Should Produce Their Clothes Locally

By Katherine George, Intro to Journalism, Eugene Lang

Too many times we hear about unfortunate conditions in overseas garment factories. Even more disappointing, it often takes a tragedy, a deathly fire for instance, to unearth these consequential conditions. While slowly waiting for all of the poorly maintained factories to catch fire may seem like one way to eliminate them from the global market, change can be done in a much quicker and less destructive way by simply asking United States based companies to return home for their production needs. Brands like Nanette Lepore and J. Mendel have made the switch and are already reaping the benefits of producing solely in New York. Organizations like Made in NYC and Save the Garment District encourage other designers to follow in their footsteps. Only by combining in-house seamstresses with garment factories in New York, will the awful overseas counterparts begin to take notice and make serious long-term changes.

images-1Greta has worked as a seamstress in J. Mendel’s in-house production facility, located in New York City’s Garment District, for approximately five years. Its there that she “sew[s] the beautiful clothes.” In between cigarette breaks, she works at an average sized industrial sewing machine, and albeit, relatively small operating space. Her station is seated next to her friends and their own corresponding tables. While they buzz and clip away at pre-fall’s jacquard dresses, they converse in their native Russian tongue. Greta shares a dress form with one of her friends, and tests the fit of a zipper she just pinned on. “Its good here,” she says meaningfully while picking up a pin and replacing it in the form, “I make good money, and Bridget and Kendall (her managers) are respect[ful] of my working.” The vibe of J. Mendel’s production offices is indeed respectful; conversation distractions are almost non-existent, and everyone is focused on their projects; designers, patternmakers, and sewers alike. After sewing in the zipper, Greta gets up and steam presses the seams inside. Before handing it off to be lined and hemmed, she quickly removes her basting stitches. Greta then calmly goes to the kitchen and retrieves a water bottle from the fridge, and then resumes sewing up the next dress. Despite the immensely productive environment, there isn’t an air of uncomfortable pressure in the least to get garments done under impossible expectations. Between 5:30 pm and 6 pm Greta and her friends pack up their spaces, put on their coats and head home after a successful day at work.

Bangladesh Factory Collapse. Photo:

Bangladesh Factory Collapse. Photo:

Only a year ago, when Greta was then working on pre-fall of 2013’s production season, did a large Bangladesh garment factory collapse, catch fire, and claim the lives of 1,127 workers. Unlike the seamstresses at J. Mendel, these workers did not have the privilege that day, nor any other day it seems, to produce clothes under comfortable conditions and leave at peace with the day’s results. The factory itself was built with poor materials, only to have it’s infrastructure put to the test even further when the owners illegally built upper floor levels to make room for more employees. Because their source of power was built to only provide enough electricity for the original, intentional floors, the owners once again tested the building’s strength by installing large generators on the makeshift floors to protect from power failures. These generators would shake and even make cracks in the factory’s walls, causing several workers to refuse to come to work. The Rana Plaza factory by that point had received several warnings from the government of their numerous code-violations. Sadly, it was no surprise when on one typical day, as the generators whirred up for business, did the cracks give way and lead to the most devastating event in garment production history.

Fast forward now to 2014 and we are still facing the problems of yesteryear. In Cambodia, hundreds of garment factories are citing complaints from workers of fainting, sometimes hundreds of them at a time. These fainting spells appear to be a result of toxic fumes, overworking, extreme heat due to lack of ventilation, and several other unfortunate working conditions. One factory in particular, located in Kompong Speu Province, Cambodia, hospitalized their workers and shut down the factory after over 200 of them fainted and talked of extreme dizziness. However, two days later these hospitalized workers were asked to come right back after the owners re-opened the facility. In the States, this kind of management would be one of CNN’s hottest investigative stories. Compared to Greta at J. Mendel, it’s a mystery why U.S. companies with even the smallest moral compasses continue to order from factories overseas where working conditions are not up to par, even by the smallest of standards.

imagesimages-1One designer who is actively, and quite publicly, known for using production resources only in New York is Nanette Lepore. For several years now Lepore has spoken out to the urgency of having everything made in-house, or in a New York based factory. Often making appearances at board meetings or events ran by organizations devoted to sustaining the Garment District, she’s made it clear to her competition that her moral compass points home. It comes to no surprise that the Executive Director of Save the Garment District, Erica Wolf, also happens to be Lepore’s Director of Special Projects. “Nanette attributes much of her success to [the New York-based factories’] skill and mentorship throughout her career,” Wolf says. She finds that Lepore has committed to roughly ten factories for years, but does “search for new resources from time to time when a new or specialty skill might be needed.” If even half of New York’s large designers committed to ten factories in the Garment District, there would be no thought of the iconic neighborhood becoming extinct.

Most people assume that these large companies go overseas for production because the cost of labor is significantly cheaper. While this may be true of a company like Walmart, smaller brands that do not get bought in those mass quantities, like J. Mendel and Nanette Lepore, are actually at a disadvantage by sending their orders to these poor factories. Wolf points out that designers have better control when having samples and stock pieces made just a few doors down, “Since you can consistently watch your production when it is happening just blocks away you lessen the amount of mistakes that will end up in the final production.” Often times it takes at least three or four samples of each designed garment to finalize its individual construction requirements, and communicating this process of each sample is difficult when the person making the clothes is in another country, on a different time zone, and usually speaks another language. Wolf says that if a factory overseas encounters a problem that cannot be immediately communicated, “You need to deal with fixing the entire lot once it arrives at your office,” and ultimately becomes more costly to fix all of those mistakes, and risk missing shipping deadlines.

Better yet, of the incentives to using these New York-based factories, quality and workmanship are highly emphasized in these local resources. Because they can work hands-on with a designer, both sides can understand and explain what the desired result of each garment is, and how they should go about creating that desired product. Wolf says the benefits to producing in locally are endless, “Inventory control, quality control, speed to market, and fast turn around,” are just a few of these advantages. Even more encouraging is her mentioning of incentives for the factories themselves, “There are current local initiatives that will allow factories to now make improvements to their [facilities] by bringing in new machinery or training their employees.” She believes these motivations should ultimately, “allow them to increase their offerings and take in more work.” The combination of all these elements should certainly make a good case for any designer currently looking to get the best production outcome. From her conversations with other smaller designers, Wolf has seen several companies who currently use overseas manufacturers experiment with using New York-based factories and more frequently they find that “it makes sense to stay local.”

Staying local is exactly what Tanu Kumar, Executive Director of Made in NYC, hopes designers will do in future production decisions. Kumar finds that there is a sweeping tendency to create here in New York, even noting “a sense of community that New York offers its old and new designers.” Made in NYC is a project of the Pratt Institute with a wider lens approach to New York production, promoting not just fashion designers but other artisans, recycling and sustainability groups, and even makers of landing gear for spacecraft. While her involvement in garment production tends towards the “emerging” designers – meaning those typically working with less than ten employees and sometimes a single boutique in Brooklyn – she has certainly noticed the quality and cost efficiency of these local resources, “New York has a long history of being a place of accessible and quality production, and I have seen no different in my experiences with clothing manufacturers.” What she hopes for as a result of designers moving their projects locally is that, “we [will] create a sustainable economy right outside our front door. Which I think is quite the American, and even New York, way of operating.”

While Nanette Lepore and J. Mendel are rooted in New York, their way of thinking is, as Kumar remarked, quite American. This desire to be working and producing season after season independent of overseas influence sounds very familiar in the course of this country’s history. When more designers begin to switch back to local production, they will not only be contributing towards a more self-sustainable economy and morally correct business model, but a larger sense that the United States is the determinable factor in a global market. We are not able to travel back to the 1940s when America’s economy was booming with independency, but we are capable of moving forward and encouraging these ancient garment factories to do so as well. We will not tolerate anything less than the same conditions under which Greta works, and we will not tolerate another tragedy like those of the past.