What is the role of American manufacturing in modern men’s fashion? The answer depends less on individuals discovering a new sense of patriotic consumerism and more on the ability of American workers and factories to compete globally. Claudio del Vecchio, chairman and chief executive officer of the Brooks Brothers Group, provided a window into the current state of American manufacturing at a recent Fashion Institute of Technology symposium on Ivy Style.
Buying American-made clothing rouses a lot of passion, though that passion is at times wistful or based on a sense of economic patriotism rather than enthusiasm for the quality and appearance of what American producers are putting out. (It is also occasionally hyperbolic. At the FIT symposium, one blogger suggested that Chinese production of men’s clothing was a matter of national security.)
While style-makers like Mark Bollman of Ball and Buck speak convincingly of a growing movement among consumers to place a premium on buying American-made clothing, a business model based on nostalgia or patriotism is not sustainable. Ultimately, American clothing manufacturers will rise and fall on their ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce what Bollman calls, “high-quality products that happen to be made in the USA.” The trouble is that Del Vecchio indicated that U.S. manufacturing competitiveness has waned in recent decades.
He described his decision to take a second look at producing clothing in America when he bought the company in 2001, knowing that Brooks Brothers’ two U.S. factories were slated to be closed. He said that, when he visited the American factories, the reason they were losing money was because the most up-to-date technologies were about 25 years old. “There was no training going on. There was no passion. They were waiting to die.”
Del Vecchio suggested that while many people look at China and see low labor costs and terrible working conditions as the reason for its competitive advantage, the reality is that they have invested in modern factories, new technologies and worker training.
This experience is echoed by entrepreneurs elsewhere. An employee with one custom shirt company told me that they had initially attempted production in the United States, but the factory made it cumbersome to place orders, while turnaround was four weeks or more. The company now emails, rather than faxes, orders nightly to their Asian supplier, who can have a shirt to a customer in the United States in as little as a week.
The founder of another custom clothing company, which had production in both Asia and the United States, grew so frustrated with the logistics surrounding their U.S. supplier that he moved all of it to Asia.
One reason Brooks Brothers has been able to turn around its U.S. manufacturing operations is that it has been able to lead factory innovation. Del Vecchio described how, when the company bought its manufacturing plant in Long Island City, Brooks Brothers rented another site just down the road, installed new equipment and, one-by-one, migrated existing staff to the new facility and trained them.
Now their factories are competitive globally and making money for the company. Brooks Brothers is looking to broaden its U.S. production, which currently includes dress shirts, ties and shoes, to new product lines. (Look for American-made chinos, priced under $200, to appear next.)
Modernizing U.S. manufacturing will require companies like Brooks Brothers to commit to invest in new technologies and worker training that will help bring American factories into the 21st Century. It will be interesting to see how many of its contemporaries follow its lead or test the waters via special collections as Club Monaco has done.
Entrepreneurship and innovation often bring to mind small, young companies and individuals. It is easy to forget that big companies need to innovate too in order to evolve and survive. Having been responsible for seminal innovations in menswear since its founding in 1818, Brooks Brothers finally has begun to show signs of life under del Vecchio’s leadership.
I was so put off by the state of Brooks Brothers in 2000 that I still haven’t gone back. The company’s recent focus on modernizing their silhouette, developing segmented stores for trendier lines, introducing a wholesale business to bring their brand to retail outlets like Nordstrom, and investing in U.S. manufacturing give me and American men everywhere great reasons to take another look.
Speaking of its Black Fleece collaboration with Thom Browne, del Vecchio said, “we wanted to say to the younger generation, ‘Brooks Brothers is still alive.’ ” I’m glad to hear it.