Of the industry categories that comprise the region’s growing manufacturing base, apparel may intrigue me the most. It’s a personal fascination, in part. I’ve spent hours on my bike wondering why I’m forced to wear cycling clothes that often look like hell, all the while formulating plans for new line of loose-fitting performance apparel.
But it’s more than that. It’s the enormous challenge U.S. apparel makers face, and here, among regional makers, the sheer audacity I’ve encountered that compels entrepreneurs to launch headlong into wall of apparel-making bastions in Asia and elsewhere. This includes the upstart group of fashion designers we profile in the current issue of CompanyWeek.
It’s also an industry category in search of support, disadvantaged relative to other sectors where advocacy and publicity come easier. I suppose economic developers would classify apparel makers as Creative Industries, which of course they are, but business doesn’t stop at conception. Apparel firms understand fully that at the end of the day they’re manufacturers. Their primary barriers to success invariably involve materials and assembly, labor and quality control. They’re manufacturers.
But obstacles to success often inspire innovation and clarity of purpose, and in the case of Pagosa Springs-based Voormi, profiled here last week, the challenges facing American apparel manufacturers inform the company’s vision, its operating philosophy.
Dan English, Voormi’s CEO, explains.
“We've got our eyes on a horizon”, he says, “where ‘Made in America’ and ‘Made in Colorado’ become a key driver of commerce within our state. Much as the movement for more sustainable, ethically produced goods finally moved from goal to expectation. A horizon where small batch, agile manufacturing allows for products that meet the needs of today, not needs that were relevant three years ago due to complex global supply chains..”
One hears this a lot, the notion that ‘local-for-local’ will increasingly drive commerce. But the barriers to growth seem more formidable than what ‘buying local’ might overcome. English admits that reaching the horizon, finishing the journey, won’t be easy.
“After the great Asian migration of the 90's, the technical apparel/textile industry was left extremely fragmented. Those that survived, did so through ‘finding their niche’. Some bet on innovation and quick-turn manufacturing, others relied on the demand of large government contracts.
“Today, this fragmented manufacturing base, in combination with the resurgence of ‘local demand’ leaves brands like ours with a huge challenge: Capacity both in the short and long run. If large brands simply flood the very small amounts of remaining capacity in the U.S., one, there's no way manufacturers will be able to handle the strain, and two, they'll be highly exposed in the event those brands move on to their next ‘big initiative’ here.”
They’ll also be farther removed from the singular spark that often fires successful companies, though Voormi’s business seems to be in a good place. But is the industry, collectively, ready to manage ‘good’ problems like excess demand while charting a future?
“We don't think the industry on whole has yet put together a truly viable plan for the resurgence of American manufacturing”, he adds. “Building a manufacturing base is much more than a story about keeping the lights on in the handful of factories left. We believe it's about making a bigger and longer-term investment in Colorado. The solution HAS to start with real dollars, real training, and real investment in capital. It has to include a long term plan for re-building an ecosystem of manufacturing here in the U.S.”
English may be a realist, but that doesn’t diminish his enthusiasm in the least. On the contrary. “We're excited about the energy surrounding a return to local manufacturing. After all, as a company, that's what we set out to do.”
Yea, but can he make cool cycling clothes?