Apparel and outdoor industry brands want production closer to home. Is Colorado a destination?

By Bart Taylor | May 22, 2017

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Two regional developments promise to infuse much-needed expertise into the manufacturing supply chain. Last week, we reported on the Mountain West Advanced Manufacturing Network. This week: We look at Colorado State University's National Science Foundation grant to study supply-chain dynamics in emerging clusters of small manufacturers.

The growing number of apparel brands looking to manufacture domestically face two big hurdles. One, there are simply too few qualified patternmakers and sewers. If there's a poster child for a U.S. industry workforce devastated by the offshoring, it's apparel. Today, about 5 percent of apparel purchased by U.S. consumers is made here. In 1960, that number was closer to 90 percent.

As we offshored jobs, we also stopped training the next generation of production specialists. In the process, we've lost much of our institutional memory on how to train new employees. Today there's no blueprint, and no uniformity in methods, equipment, and leadership. We're essentially starting over.

Carol Engel-Enright, Kelly Alford, and other local architects of a new apparel manufacturing infrastructure in Colorado have experienced this firsthand the past several years. Demand for a well-trained apparel and sewn-product production workforce is surprising strong. Has it outstripped the available talent? Maybe. Alford's enterprise, The Whole Works, closed it doors late last year after a promising, highly publicized run ended with too few production specialists.

But setbacks have also proved helpful. Engel-Enright's efforts, in particular, have garnered national attention. We chronicled the journey of the Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing initiative in previous columns, including an invitation from Walmart to apply for its Walmart's U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund. RCAM lost out in the end.

Engel-Enright is also an internship coordinator and instructor in CSU's Department of Design and Merchandising, and her persistent work to reconstitute apparel industry paid off in the form of a $385,000 National Science Foundation grant to the university, to study "the interactions and organizational development among emerging small manufacturing businesses, clusters, and a formal network, as supply chain partners." If it sounds like an academic exercise, it is. But Colorado’s rural communities -- RCAM communities -- are a worthy testing ground to study supply-chain dynamics, including the "reported shift from vertical integration to dense networks of specialized suppliers that amplifies the contribution of small manufacturers to overall U.S. manufacturing growth and employment."

Engel-Enright's CSU grant is coup for the region. One possible outcome? The CSU Department of Design and Merchandising offers degrees in Apparel Merchandising with a concentration in Apparel Design and Production. The graduates of the program may be positioned to assume leadership roles in regional apparel manufacturing. It's also an important step in developing a training blueprint for the industry.

One challenge that apparel manufacturers and close cousins in outdoor industry won't have is a lack of demand. A wave of new companies now prefers to make things domestically, where brand values like quality, value, and responsiveness are more easily achieved.

It's why brands are highly motivated to shorten supply chains and make products closer to where they're designed and sold. Hap Klopp, founder of The North Face, outlined his reasons last month. Under Armour's Kevin Plank told CNBC, "We should be bringing jobs back, not just to America, but tightening supply chains all over the world. We have the ability to do it better. It's time for all of us to make an investment." It's why manufacturing will get its jobs back here in the U.S.

Can Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region be home to a 21st-century, cut-and-make infrastructure to accommodate the wave of new brands seeking domestic manufacturing? We'll see. One one hand, the NSF grant already feels late to the party. Today, more than 300 outdoor industry brands call Colorado home, many that have overcome the talent crunch to build viable production capabilities, however small or geographically diverse. And entrepreneurs are streaming the West to launch new brands.

But RCAM's already generated national interest. Colorado's disparate eco-devo community would do well to help sustain the network as it finds its legs.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Contact him at btaylor@companyweek.com.