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Posted on: Thursday - Jun 18, 2015

Made in the USA.  That declaration is most often a source of immense pride and a badge of honor.  But behind those four seemingly non-threatening words, there can be a whole host of challenges along with the rewards. 

The issue of American fashion manufacturing, or the lack of it, was the subject of a panel at the recent Launch Tennessee 36/86 conference celebrating entrepreneurship and southern culture.

It was noted that 20 years ago 50 percent of clothing was made in the USA, while today less than 3 percent is manufactured here.  The biggest impact of this sobering statistic has been on job creation, but there is a dedicated group of fashion designers and industry executives working to reverse this trend. 

“Made in the USA is real. Bringing manufacturing to the U.S. is real,” declared Dean Wegner, president and CEO/owner of Omega Apparel.

In the U.S. alone, fashion represents a $331 billion industry, and Tennessee’s burgeoning fashion scene is looking to make a name for itself in this lucrative sector outside the traditional fashion centers of New York and Los Angeles.  Already the Volunteer State is ranked seventh in the country for apparel manufacturing jobs, ninth in textile mill jobs and tenth in leather and allied product manufacturing jobs. 

However, the lack of skilled labor, job misconceptions and a less than robust manufacturing infrastructure are all hurdles the fashion industry faces throughout the U.S.  

Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America located in New York City, detailed some of the initiatives his trade association is spearheading to combat the shrinking labor pool. One example was offering a course to train professional sewers through the Fashion Institute of Technology and linking those graduates to jobs. 

Although this only addresses part of the available workforce problem. 

“The bigger thing actually, more than the skilled training and placement, is the perception of what those jobs are,” explained Kolb. “They’re not factory jobs. If you look at it as a factory job, it seems less glamourous than if you look at it as a creative production job. I think that’s a misconception. There are really good paying jobs that are creatively fulfilling in production.  It’s about repositioning the way those jobs are marketed.”

 

 

It was a sentiment shared by Natalie Chanin, owner and designer of Alabama Chanin.

“It’s not about a factory position. These are highly creative craftswomen who are working these machines and making product from beginning to end, so it’s not about just setting the hem on a t-shirt. It’s about being able to understand construction.”

Chanin also detailed her problem of an aging workforce in her company’s Florence, Alabama headquarters and the difficulty in filling open positions.  For example, a nationwide search to fill lead production coordinator and lead sewing coordinator positions only netted one qualified candidate after six months. 

Even with all these challenges, the panelists agreed that it is possible to manufacture apparel in the U.S.  Many industry insiders are championing the effort, embracing a shift in business practices and seeing increased consumer appetites.

“There’s been a huge resurgence of people working with their hands now,” noted Matt Eddmenson, co-founder with wife Carrie of denim brand Imogene + Willie that is based in Nashville. 

The Eddmensons have made a commitment to making things in the USA, and they highlighted the “trickle-down effect” that happens when things are produced here.  Supporting manufacturing operations can include jobs transporting goods, warehousing them, and selling at retail along with many business support services.

Designer Billy Reid, owner of his own namesake label, also shares this same passion for American made goods. “I think the emphasis now is really quality over quantity. Being able to produce quality garments – there is a market for it. I think that’s what we as American manufacturers are about – offering something unique, offering quality. 

“What’s really awesome about that is how receptive the global industry is. They want ‘Made in the USA’ goods. Domestic is certainly a big opportunity for all of us, but the international market wants the ‘Made in the USA’ label. We really put a premium on that,” added Reid.

Omega Apparel’s Wegner is on a mission to make it easier for Tennessee companies to produce apparel in the state. 

When Wegner, a former Army Ranger, bought Omega in Smithville, Tennessee three years ago, the company only had one customer – the U.S. military.  Omega is still the number one producer of military dress pants, but Wegner’s business hasn’t been immune to the effects of U.S. military budget cuts. 

Wegner has made diversification a top priority and decided to take a proactive approach. He started the “Express Lane Program,” providing much needed production options to area fashion entrepreneurs that aren’t able or ready to mass produce their inventory. 

The program will allow smaller companies to start by producing 50 items up to 500 items per week with the idea that as your business grows, Omega grows with you. Omega itself is growing and will be opening a second facility in Nashville this summer and creating new jobs. 

Above all, Wegner said “we’re committed to quality” and “timely delivery” in addition to being competitive on price.

Ultimately, American manufacturing is a product of entrepreneurship, and panelists also offered aspiring Tennessee fashion brands some helpful advice on generating investment. 

“The people who are getting investment money are the people that have a point of view and they have a core and they have a real business. They want to be in business,” advised Kolb.

In the highly creative and artistic world of fashion, being commercial isn’t a bad thing.  As Kolb succinctly said, “Success is actually selling.”

Reid added that “your best investors can actually come from your customer, someone who falls in love with what you’re doing. So the main thing is try to create something people want. If you can create something that someone wants, your customer might be someone that becomes your best investor.”

Carrie Eddmenson followed up with the simple yet effective advice she received when starting out: “Sell one jean to one person and go from there.  So that’s what we did.”

 

Top picture – Billy Reid

Middle photos – Look from Billy Reid’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection; Steven Kolb, Carrie and Matt Eddmenson, Dean Wegner

Bottom photos – Imogene + Willie hand painted wool wrap; Alabama Chanin tiered coat