All-American Fashion Is Actually A Global Affair
Fashion in the United States is built on a worldwide network of suppliers and manufacturers
Twice every year the fashion world descends on New York City for New York Fashion Week, an eight-day circus of runway shows, parties, and Instagram-centric street style, all with the purpose of showcasing next season’s designer collections. And while the primary goal is to celebrate American designers and brands, the truth is that getting those clothes out onto the runways and into stores requires a major international effort. New York Fashion Week may have a distinctly American flavor, but it’s still a very global enterprise.
Of course, as the hub of American fashion, New York is the primary place where designers both large and small dream up and assemble each season’s collection. “Most American designers produce their runway collections here,” says Tamara Albu, Associate Professor of Fashion at Parsons School of Fashion. “The sample is created and fitted to the model here. But for the manufacturing, it’s a totally different story.”
In fact, before the sample is even produced, there is often a point of international input. Most designers rely on high quality fabrics for their runway collections and, though the U.S ranks fourth in global textile exports, behind China, India, and Germany, when it comes to high quality fabric, the story begins and ends with Italy. In 2014, the U.S alone imported $64 million worth of wool fabric from Italy, a little more than half of the wool fabric imported that year. And for special weave fabrics, Italy came in second behind China as the biggest exporter to the U.S.
The reason for this is simple: Italy has been manufacturing high quality fabric since the Renaissance. In northern Italy, Vitale Barberis Canonico, a manufacturer of high-end light wool used for suits—Brooks Brothers and Hickey Freeman count themselves customers—has been in operation since 1663. Also in northern Italy, in the Biella region, are Lanificio Egidio Ferla and Loro Piana, two companies famous for the unmatched quality of their cashmere, silk, linen, and wool. And then there’s the Como region, which is famous for its high quality shirting fabric.
Once the collection is assembled with those high-end materials, it’s then sent down the Fashion Week runways for buyers and editors to see. Then, when the show is over, the samples themselves go global. Most of the collection is sent out to international buyers and editors so that it can be seen and photographed by advertisers and magazines worldwide. “There is the photoshooting and the advertising that’s mainly for the publishing world,” says Albu. “It’s important for the media to catch the attention of the consumer.”
For designers, it is this part of the process that can often have the most influence on their designs. “The question they have to ask,” says Albu, “is what is the percentage between the design for editorial and the design for production?” When people look at a runway show and think, “who would wear that in real life?” That’s the portion of the design meant for editorial, the portion meant to catch the eye and tell an interesting story. But there needs to be a percentage suitable to be worn in real life, that can go into production and end up in stores. International editors and buyers can have a big influence on that ratio.
Once those real-world aspects of the collection have been decided on, the next step in the process is manufacturing. While some brands try to keep manufacturing in the U.S., Everlane and Buck Mason being two examples, the vast majority of clothing sold in this country is manufactured abroad. According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, 97.5 percent of clothing in the U.S. is imported. And in 2014, according to the Department of Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel, those imports totaled over $107 billion.
As Dana Thomas writes in “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster,” the manufacturing of designer clothing follows a pyramid model. At the top, “the exquisite work is produced in a very limited quantity by a coterie of highly skilled traditional craftsman in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.” And at the top of this list, of course, is Italy. Though it comes in 12th overall on the Department of Commerce’s ranking of apparel imports, at $1.9 billion, Italy leads Europe for luxury imports to the U.S. Tamara Albu concurs, “Italy is absolutely number one for high end manufacturing.”
At the middle of the manufacturing pyramid for designer clothes are countries like Spain, Egypt, Turkey and former Eastern bloc countries. Turkey especially has become a big player in this market, with imports to the U.S. totaling $1.1 billion in 2014. And at the lower end of the luxury manufacturing pyramid are countries like China, Vietnam, India, and Mexico.
But even for American luxury companies that prize high quality craftsmanship, manufacturing in these countries is often necessary due to available machinery. Julie Hutton, who runs both a personal label and a brand sourcing company, points to the polo shirt as an example. “The polo shirt requires what is called a double-fold machine,” she says, explaining that these machines are found abroad. “They are extremely expensive and domestic factories did not invest in them. It’s just not cost-effective to make a polo shirt without one.”
Of course, the primary reason brands turn to manufacturing overseas is cost. “With domestic production, you need to work with all of your suppliers yourself,” says Hutton. “With off-shore production, the agent or factory does it all for you.” That sort of vertical integration can drastically reduce the cost to produce a garment. Beyond that vertical process, though, lower wages are still the primary driver in overseas manufacturing.
“Labor is the main reason why a collection is produced over seas,” says Tamara Albu. “Labor costs here and in Europe are much higher.” China, who’s minimum monthly wages have been rising, still averages only $297, significantly less than the U.S.’s mean hourly wage of $10 for a garment worker. Vietnam, which ranks second behind China in U.S clothing imports and has increasingly become a player in the luxury sector, averages a minimum monthly wage of just under $150.
With all of these factors in play, it’s highly unlikely that large-scale clothing manufacturing will return to the U.S. anytime soon. In a fashion benchmarking study done last year by the University of Rhode Island and the United States Fashion Industry Association, 100 percent of respondents reported sourcing from China. More importantly, the study found that, though U.S. fashion companies continue to express interest in sourcing “Made in the U.S.A” products, there’s no evidence that companies are shifting their business models back to manufacturing. For the foreseeable future, at least, American fashion will remain a global effort.