The Enduring Prestige of Made-in-America
Did you know that the attire George Washington donned for his first inauguration on April 30, 1789 became the talk of the United States?
The president’s get-up that day included a dark red overcoat, a brown suit with metal eagle buttons, a white ruffle shirt, over-the-calf white silk stockings and shoes with silver buckles. The father of the country also accessorized with a ceremonial sword in a steel scabbard.
That Washington’s inaugural outfit was American-made proved a point of pride for the president’s countryfolk, as at the time, most textiles – and certainly the overwhelming majority of the highest-quality ones -- were still imported from abroad. To find the very best American-made cloth for his suit, Washington arranged for his friend General Henry Knox to search the land. Knox came across a premium wool-and-cotton-blend fabric produced by Jeremiah Wadsworth’s Hartford Woolen Manufactory. So inspired was Washington by the uncommonly beautiful, American-made fabric that in a letter to Lafayette, he wrote with evident enthusiasm about cotton and leather clothing from Pennsylvania, footwear produced in Massachusetts and “superfine” cloths made in Connecticut.
“I hope it will not be a great while,” Washington wrote – (in reference to the up-and-coming American apparel industry) -- “before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress.”
Today, both here and abroad and for many reasons, gentlemen seek out clothing made in the U.S. of A. And increasingly, U.S.-based producers of “superfine” clothing are making discerning customers’ American dreams come true.
To be sure, recent decades saw dizzying shifts due to the rapid acceleration of off-shoring. Between George Washington’s era and 1960, U.S.-produced apparel had skyrocketed to a neat 95% of all clothing purchased in the country. By 1970, though, the figure had dropped to 75%. In 2000 it was just 29% and today it is down to 2%. Relatively economical clothing, imported en masse from other countries has created the following conundrum: American consumers’ apparel-related buying power has dramatically increased, at the cost of the lion’s share of an entire sector of American manufacturing. That, precisely, is a main driver of the resurgence of demand for clothing Made in the USA. Just as many consumers are eager to give the national economy a boost, many entrepreneurs take pride from seeing their garments produced within the fifty states, even if, ultimately, they might make larger profits by outsourcing production abroad.
Greg Chait of the L.A.-based luxury lifestyle brand The Elder Statesman famously had wool from Oregon spun into yarn in Pennsylvania and then knitted into a sweater in California. The Elder Statesman later partnered with the National Basketball Association to produce an appealing line of cashmere shirts, sweaters, hats and other garments with NBA team logos. The line made a splash in fashion publications worldwide. Thus, a high-end apparel brand can even stimulate foreigners to want to travel to the U.S. and buy tickets to a basketball game here.
Sport provides us with a hook to another Made-in-USA apparel brand, Arial Fital. Gibran Hamdan, the brand’s creative director, founded the company after spending six years as a National Football League quarterback, including stints with the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills. Intriguingly, while playing for the Bills, Hamdan authored a fashion-related blog for Brooks Brothers, the venerable American heritage brand. Alial Fital promotes itself as providing “Luxe threads for your active lifestyle.” Of special note are the company’s supremely comfortable and uniquely-styled polo shirts. Hamdan’s customers include Bo Van Pelt, a PGA Tour golfer, ESPN’s Matt Hasselback, NFL defensive end J.J. Watt, the Arizona Cardinal’s wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Major League Baseball pitcher Jason Grilli. Alial Fital labels typically say “Made in the USA of Imported Fabric,” reflecting certain supply-chain issues for many American clothing manufacturers. Still, Made-in-the-USA is a far sight better, in many respects than what was seen at the 2012 Olympics in London, where Ralph Lauren’s U.S. Olympic Opening Ceremony uniforms were embarrassingly revealed to have been Made in China. Ooops!
One contemporary American menswear company still able to use plenty of locally-sourced fabrics is the NYC-based Abasi Rosborough. The founders, Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough met as students at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Before starting their company, Rosborough worked for Ralph Lauren while Abasi cultivated his talents with Engineered Garments, whose Japanese-born founder and designer Daiki Suzuki now calls the Big Apple his home. (Note: no matter how challenging it may at times be to produce apparel in the U.S., the country’s great cosmopolitan cities, among them New York and Los Angeles, will always feature world-class creative ferment. Foreigners come to the U.S. and, while absorbing elements of American culture, impart, in turn, something of their own immigrant genius to American-born designers like Abasi). Abasi Rosborough have taken the fashion world by storm by pushing the envelope of the traditional men’s suit, bringing the classic into the 21st century by, among other sartorial niceties, repositioning armholes for greater range of movement, streamlining button placement and reimagining lapel structure.
Beyond the heady cornucopia of creativity among America’s recent fashion pioneers are any number of distinguished heritage brands. Think, for example, of the Chicago-based Hart Schaffner & Marx. Founded in 1887, the company was sold, in 2012, to the Authentic Brands Group, which saw great value in HSM’s Made-in-American pedigree. Hart Schaffner & Marx’s illustrious designers have included Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin. If you watch videos of the old Tonight Show, you might see Johnny Carson looking spiffy in a Hart Schaffner & Marx Nehru jacket. Actor Jesse Williams wears HSM suits, as does a certain Chicago-tied dude with the first name Barack. Another tried-and-true American heritage brand is Alden of New England, family owned since its founding in 1884. David Beckham has been seen wearing Alden’s suede Chukka boots, while Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones character is shown wearing the Alden “Indy” boot in that film series.
If you had four large walk-in closets, you could fill them all with stylish, sexy and sophisticated articles of clothing -- each piece Made in the U.S.A. -- yet still not own every desirable menswear garment produced in this country. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the state of the American apparel industry today. What makes this a great time for entrepreneurs to be entering the U.S. fashion scene?
Reality dictates that nobody can expect the American apparel industry to come roaring back exactly as it was, yet there are many promising signs pointing to future growth and excitement for the sector.
The social and political will to help the industry certainly exist. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the data, we know that the U.S. apparel industry is showing signs of recovery along with American manufacturing generally. In part, the trend is fueled by consumers’ desire to buy American-made products. And, elected officials are responsive to American consumers’ desires.
Take, for example, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who makes a point of wearing American-made suits and shoes on the Senate floor. In 2012, Brown worked in the Senate to make sure that for future Olympics, U.S. teams would be outfitted with garments made in America. Brown has repeatedly introduced legislation titled the Wear America Act, which has yet to pass into law, yet has helpfully telegraphed Brown’s interest in attracting apparel businesses to Ohio. Brown was, in part, responsible for successfully luring the Wahconah Group – a fashion technology company – to downtown Cleveland.
Because an authentic Made-in-USA label carries prestige, American elected officials as well as industry and consumer watchdog groups act to safeguard that prestige when commercial malefactors put counterfeit Made-in-America labels on their goods. Think about that: Made in America has so much cachet that some unscrupulous stinkers even try to lie their way into the field. A number of mass market retailers – who shall here go unnamed – have been found in violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s standards for making U.S.-origin claims. And as a humorous aside, one urban-legend-type ‘fake labeling’ story involves the Japanese town of Usa. Wagging tongues have claimed that sneaky people in Japan have put “Made in USA” labels on consumer goods and then sold them under false pretenses in America. The story is flatly ridiculous though, as U.S. Customs would not allow such a thing into the country. The upshot is, apparel manufacturers who make the ethical decision to produce in the United States can expect to see the integrity of their investments rigorously protected.
Salient among the ethical motivations for making apparel in the U.S. is confidence in the country’s high workplace safety standards. Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building, which housed various apparel factories, collapsed in 2013, killing 1,129 people and injuring 2,500 more. The plaza was built atop soggy ground to begin with and then two stories were added atop without proper authorization. Workers noticed severe cracks in building plaster one day but their bosses demanded that they report to work the next, which turned out to be the day of the catastrophe. In the aftermath of the deadly disaster, some efforts were made to enhance safety standards across the global supply chain, but safety remains elusive in many countries. Thus, producers and consumers can feel more psychologically at ease buying clothes made in America, where safety laws and regulations are more stringent, and effective enforcement protocols are followed.
Since the end of the Great Recession, American manufacturing has enjoyed a resurgence, with over 800,000 jobs added. Thanks to advanced technologies, American manufacturing productivity is world-class, shining like Klieg lights throughout the economy. A U.S. government fact sheet issued for the fifth National Manufacturing Day on October 7, 2016 mentioned the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s $2.5 million competition to build a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration, including the agency’s journey to Mars.
3D-printing of apparel, while still more a dream than a practical reality, is currently being advanced in many places around the U.S. 3D-printing of haute couture was featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s 2016 spring show “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.” On the pop culture front, Katy Perry’s dancers wore 3D-printed helmets during her 2015 tour. And in Baltimore, at Under Armour’s UA Lighthouse center, designers and developers are hard at work on 3D design and body scanning in hopes of being able to custom-design and then print bespoke clothing for individual athletes.
For more immediate developments, though, producing garments in America is especially appealing for high-end designers and craftsmen positioned to offer their customers the very best that money can buy. Atelier Traditionnel takes full advantage of the optimal flexibility available to U.S.-based apparel companies. Each handcrafted piece of Atelier Traditionnel underwear is a masterpiece, manifesting the company’s belief that “underwear is art.” French by design and produced, by hand, by artisans in California from American-sourced, ultra-comfortable premium Micro-Modal fabric with a touch of Elastane, Atelier Traditionnel underwear elevates the spirit into a rarified world of luxury. These wearable works of art are so lovingly and beautifully made, and so silky-smooth on the skin, that if George Washington were alive today, after running his hands across their deluxe fabric and appreciating their elegance of design, he would surely declare them to be “superfine.”