U.S. fashion brands that choose to remain “American-made” are becoming something of a rarity.
While some brands try to produce solely in America, many clothing labels are turning to offshore factories, motivated by cheaper manufacturing and labor costs and the ability to easily scale production. The shift away from Amercian-made fashion has largely occurred in the past fifty years: In 1965, 95 percent of all American clothing was made in the U.S. Today, that number has tumbled to just two percent.
Brands that attempt to remain American-made are typically smaller and produce products that are much more niche. When they want to scale or broaden their product and fabric offerings, they often run into roadblocks sourcing fabric. There’s also an issue of a lack of investment in manufacturing quality and technology in the U.S.
Often associated with poor working conditions, cheaper labor and environmental issues, offshore factories can paint a grim picture—and many brands remain tight-lipped about the factories they use. In the U.S., factories are held to much higher labor laws and standards than other countries—yet from a business perspective, cheaper offshore production is often too good to pass up.
In Glossy’s latest edition of Confessions, where we grant anonymity for honesty, we speak to a senior designer at a contemporary fashion label that produces all of its products overseas. When it turns to factories in the U.S., the samples it receives are comparatively more expensive and of poorer quality, the person explained.
Let’s start with costs. How much cheaper is it to produce overseas?
Let’s use making a blouse as an example. It’s about $45 to make it in China and $100+ in the U.S.—and India is even cheaper than China, probably $30, but you don’t make it there if you don’t want an embellishment on it.
How does that affect the retail price?
A 65 percent rise in margin is normal for a mark-up. Then retailers times that by 2.2 for the retail price. But when you produce offshore as well as domestically, you have to cost everything as if it’s made in China—you want to put the best price in front of buyers, so brands take it out of their margins.
All of your brand’s clothes are made overseas, but what about pattern-making?
To make a pattern from scratch in China, I give them measurements and a sketch and say, “Make this pattern from scratch.” I’ll be charged $150—or if I give them something that’s half-complete and they have to adjust it to a certain point, it’ll be $150. In New York, if you go to a domestic factory, you can pay up to $1000 for a pattern, depending on how many times you adjust it and send it back. Then there are times a sample comes in and you want to adjust it slightly. I’ll send it back to China, where we don’t pay them to adjust it again. One time in New York, we needed something to be hemmed, and we got charged an extra $100. It’s insane and a big problem.
How does the quality of work differ?
India’s construction skills aren’t as honed in as in China, and factories there are dirtier and more disorganized. We’ve had clothes come back from Indian factories that are dirty with marks all over them, and that wouldn’t happen in China. But India is the best for beading, embellishments and creative pieces. In Chinese factories, they have quality control rooms, so everything coming off the line gets inspected and you see it right away. They’re willing to do a little more to make sure mistakes don’t happen, like use a stabilizer when sewing. The quality we see coming out of domestic factories is not the same at all: It’s a lot of stretched hems and puckering at seams—a lot of stuff you don’t want to see from a factory at all.
Why do you think the U.S. industry is less careful?
I’m not exactly sure, because I would have thought they’d want to try harder to get more business—but it’s almost the opposite. They seem to have more of an attitude. When we send stuff back and say, “This is poorly made,” they want to fight us on it—and we’re like, “Can’t you see that? It’s very obvious.”
People discard [the U.S. industry]—it’s not a serious option any more because the bigger you get, the less likely you are to develop or do any sort of domestic production. If you want to be a big company, you’re not going to be producing here.
What about labor laws? And how are overseas workers are treated?
In the U.S., there’s better labor quality, and we have higher labor laws. People are more entitled here, and they don’t get held to the same standards as in Chinese factories. It’s in their [Chinese] nature to be strict and on-point. Here, you don’t seem to get the same investment.
What about Chinese factories and working conditions—what are they like?
What’s interesting is that they’re super-proud of their factories. They think their spaces are amazing, and to an American, the factories seem sad. They all have fluorescent lighting and floors of people just sewing the same lines over and over again—and then there’s the dormitories. They’re there to house workers, because people don’t live in these towns. They come here to work, and they work six days a week. I went to one factory for leather, and there were much better quarters than other factories I’d been to. There were all these mango trees for the workers to eat the mangos and a Zen garden for people to take breaks in—but the owner had a whole part of her factory shut down because people don’t want their kids becoming factory workers anymore. It’s been a while since the one-child law was in force, but those children who were born in that time are now older and around the age when they might start working in factories—but parents are saying, “You’re my only child. I want you to do something better.” So factories are finding it harder and harder to find workers, but they don’t want to start paying more—because it ruins the whole clothing industry if they start paying workers more.
Are you OK with getting clothes made in that factory?
I am—you see how many people are there, and it is their employment. If everyone was like, “I’m going to boycott Chinese factories,” then there would be millions of people out of work. These factory owners work hard and do their best. They’re not trying to make a bad situation. They probably grew up around factories, and they’re like, “My factory is nicer than other factories”—but to us, it’s never going to be a nice environment.