Labor Day is an outgrowth of the late 19th century labor movement, and the first Monday of September retains its central character as a day of national tribute to the contributions that American workers make to the prosperity of our country.
This Labor Day, I found myself thinking of the men and women who cut, sew, test the quality of, and pick and pack Hanky Panky garments in and near our warehouse facility in Hollis, Queens, New York. What are the unique challenges faced by American workers in our domestic apparel manufacturing industry? Well, for starters, finding and keeping a job in your field would be a lot harder today than it was even 20 years ago. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the apparel manufacturing industry declined by more than 80 percent (from about 900,000 to 150,000 jobs) from 1990 to 2011. So the role of companies like Hanky Panky, which has manufactured in New York since 1977, in providing employment for American apparel workers, is more important then ever.
And what challenges do American clothing companies like Hanky Panky face when they commit to making their garments in the United States from materials grown and made here?
For answers, I turned to Nina Myers McCammon, author of 50 States of Style: A Celebration of American Made + American Beauty, a blog that covers the best of American-made consumer goods. Nina has a knack for ferreting out beautiful and useful objects for home and body, as well as the stories behind them. In addition to well-written, informative and stunningly photographed articles on home decor, home improvement, fashion and beauty, 50 States of Style includes interviews with the designers and small business owners who make the products featured in the blog. (See Nina’s recent interview with Hanky Panky’s President & Creative Director, Gale Epstein.) Who better than Nina to give us insight to the challenges and rewards of American apparel manufacturing?
Q: What first got you interested in American-made apparel?
Nina: My time working at Country Living Magazine as a market editor had a huge impact on me and inspired my love of American-made; not just apparel, but accessories, beauty products, and home goods, too. I love meeting with and hearing makers’ personal stories and supporting their mission. I also have to add that the quality of an American-made product tends to be better. I’d rather pay a little bit more for something that I know will last.
Q: Do American consumers really care about where their clothing is made? Do consumers care more now than they used to? What do you think the driving concerns are, from the consumer perspective: product quality, safe working conditions and fair wages for garment workers, environmental compliance, or other?
Nina: I think the average consumer cares more than ever but is conflicted; on the one hand, they want to keep American manufacturing strong in the global economy, but ultimately the best price wins. As we know, a Made in the USA label can mean a higher premium. I’d say most Americans are concerned with creating jobs here, followed closely by fair wages and safe working conditions for garment workers and the environment. I would love for us to get to the point where we care as much about where our clothing comes from as, say, our food. But it’s a growing movement and I believe we’re getting closer. In terms of fair labor, the conditions in some factories are downright shameful, but sadly, since we’re so far-removed from where our clothing is made, it can be easier (not easy: easier) to overlook the conditions in which it was made.
Q: What do you see as the biggest pros to local manufacturing for American clothing designers?
Nina: The ability to develop a close relationship with the workers and families you’re helping to support. The convenience of being able to jump on the phone or simply drive over to your factory to have a conversation in person about what is and isn’t working is invaluable, i.e. quality control.
Q: What are the biggest challenges?
Nina: Unfortunately finding skilled sewers that people can hang on to. Also, scalability since many American designers start out quite small with limited resources. Finally, educating consumers about the benefits of American-made (higher price-tag perhaps, but higher quality).
Q: In your view, which USA-made apparel companies have done the best job of managing these challenges? Of educating the consumer about the pros to buying USA-made?
Nina: Nanette Lepore has been quite outspoken about the importance of manufacturing here and has done a tremendous job rallying annually for Save the Garment Center. And even though Pierrepont Hicks started out as a men’s accessories company, their ambitious roving national pop-up markets (Northern Grade) have brought so much exposure to smaller, quality American brands. They’ve been all over the country, from New York to LA and Minnesota to Austin, and are incredibly supportive of the USA movement.