It was one of those Friday nights: Organic popcorn, elastic-waist pants, and a scouring of the Internet for free streaming documentaries. “Sure,” I thought to myself, “I’ll turn this into a semi-productive evening, and find a fashion documentary that might be of interest to my friends at EcoSalon.” It was settled. I would watch the James Belzer film, “Make it in America: Empowering Global Fashion.”
It was roughly 32 minutes into the film when I had to face the bitter truth about my response to this film. “I am so BORED,” I exclaimed to no one. Perhaps my expectations were too high; after all, when I saw the words “Empowering Global Fashion” in the title, I anticipated a harsh, transparent look at the global supply chain and lessons from industry experts on how to keep fashion local. Instead, “Make it in America” seemed to tell the same story over and over again: “My parents came here and worked as tailors in the ’50s. This is what the Garment District looked like. And then, everything got outsourced to China.”
It’s not that I carry a blatant disregard for the ugly truth about fashion’s global supply chain. After all, Laura Kissel’s “Cotton Road” comes with a deep, investigative look at what outsourcing means for the industry players in China, going beyond the well-known issues related to labor and factories. And it’s not that I don’t care about how we got to this point, either; understanding the fashion industry’s history is imperative to figuring out how to make it sustainable, and how to let it support a local economy again. “Make it in America,” unfortunately, leaves that unsatisfyingly open-ended.
The film does provide an encouraging glimpse at U.S. clothing companies that are keeping it local; they use vertical integration to keep most manufacturing operations under one roof, their products are hand-cut, and they source local suppliers for things like tags and labels (Elan Savir has been using the same small business for this task “since day one,” he says). But they leave no model to follow; no examples of what makes it work, how it makes business more efficient, or how other businesses can do the same thing and still remain profitable.
The film opens with a quote from Martha Stewart: “We’re faced with a big problem. How can we make enough goods for our growing population that will be affordable and well-made? How can we do that here, back in the United States?” The question goes, sadly, unanswered. There are numeric figures dictated by fashion professionals that illustrate the drop in domestic production or jobs, followed by an egregious gap that I would like to see filled with the implications of those numbers, and solutions to them.
The film ends with some thoughts on what needs to happen next, which don’t go tremendously beyond the obvious. “I think that it’s a place where we need to invest some money in rebuilding the infrastructure,” says Theory CEO Andrew Rosen, toward the conclusion.
“If we don’t have the support of the industry, they’ll be no homegrown manufacturing,” echoes J. Alexander, of “America’s Top Model” fame. “Sorry.”
Furthermore, the film seems to conveniently gloss over the questions it raises about more than just the supply chain. During one scene in a Los Angeles denim factory, for example, workers are seen wearing protective mouth and nose masks during the process of sanding and washing jeans. “Why?” I asked. “What are our jeans being made or treated with that’s not safe to breathe in?” For a documentary with such a lofty title, it seems that its content is filled more with doom-and-gloom historical details, more than empowerment.
That’s not to say, however, that those facts and figures are of no interest. Here’s the information laid out by “Make it in America”; now, it’s up to us to put it to use.
1. “There were so many factories in the beginning, that we would just walk through buildings and knock on doors to see if factories were willing to take our work. We used a lot of word-of-mouth. Friends of other designers would refer us to factories, cutting rooms, pleaters, stitchers. Everyone was really helpful. People really wanted to see us succeed, so I still work with a lot of the same factories I worked with 20 years ago.” Nanette Lepore, designer
2. “You cannot underestimate the importance of the [Garment] District to startups. I mean, without the district, [it] probably would be hard to film ‘Project Runway’ here. … If you can make ten garments in your apartment, how are you going to make 100? The district enables them to take their designs to somebody that will make their patterns, to somebody that will grade their sizes, cut their small quantities, and there are factories that will actually sell them.” Yeohlee, designer
3. “The funny thing about a fashion business, is that there’s no way you can do it alone. … You hear those origin stories all the time, of just, like, one designer making something out of nothing, and it just magically happens. Yeah, that’s all complete bull-hockey.” Bob Bland, CEO and Founder, Manufacture NY
4. “You can walk these streets, on 37th, 38th, 39th, and you see a bunch of stores on the ground level. The ground-level stores that sell you fabric and trims…it’s not necessarily exactly what you’re looking for, as a designer. They have the big places, like Mood, but first of all, they’re very expensive. Second of all, you can’t go and reorder from them, because [they] generally sell close-out items. They go around to different mills…where there’s leftover fabric. But if you actually want to design and create something, and then reuse that material, you can’t do that by going into the stores on the ground level. So all of the really interesting businesses are on the 2nd, 3rd, or 15th floor of these buildings.” Nelis Parts, former COO/CFO, Manufacture NY
5. “Starting in the ’40s, there was a garment industry here that started to flourish. You had a lot of Jewish manufacturers from New York come down here after WWII, and in the ’50s, sportswear started to flourish. The factories started taking off. They even had a fashion week of sorts. … And then, when the Cuban revolution came, [Cuban immigrants] became the factory workers, and by the ’60s, Miami was the third-largest garment production center, after LA and NY. The garment industry was a way to get a leg-up in the United States.” Doreen Hemlock, Business Writer, Sun Sentinel
6. “Florida was definitely the largest producer of swimwear. What happened, though, was as the economy took a turn at times, production then moved to China. It moved offshore, and really shut down a lot of the production that was done not only in Florida, but also, in the United States.” Judy Stein, Executive Director, Florida Swimwear Association
7. “The other issue with Miami was, the Cuban women that used to come in those days: They retired, and their daughters didn’t want to sit at [a] sewing machine. Those are, today, the doctors and the lawyers.” George Feldenkreis, Chairman and CEO, Perry Ellis International
8. “I believe that the people who make the garment also need to be happy. I believe that if you bought a shirt and it’s being made by people who are suffering and miserable in some far-away country, that somehow, you will feel that when you’re wearing the shirt.” Elan Savir, President, ELAN
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