Stitching the Apparel Industry Back Together in Colorado
With industry stalwarts like Rockmount Ranch Wear alongside newcomers like Sync Performance and Western Rise, Colorado's apparel industry has over 100 companies designing and making everything from high fashion to camping gear.
On Sept. 28, the industry came together at the McNichols Building in Denver's Civic Center Park at CompanyWeek's third annual Colorado Apparel & Lifestyle Manufacturing Summit. Attendees discussed the future of the apparel and lifestyle industries in Colorado and how to grow and strengthen the industry in the Centennial State.
One of the truths about the industry is that a staggering amount of apparel manufacturing is now overseas. Brad Gebhard, president of global wholesale at Los Angeles-based American Apparel, said during his keynote that 90 percent of apparel sold in the U.S. is made offshore, a stark reversal of the 90 percent market share domestic-made clothing held a few generations ago.
As it's often impossible to compete on price, U.S.-based makers are aiming to differentiate by way of quality and customer service.
Gebhard would know. His company is the largest apparel manufacturing company in the U.S. In downtown L.A., it employs roughly 9,000 people and produces 8 million of the company's hallmark T-shirts, not to mention thousands of other SKUs it produces.
"We continue to make product in downtown Los Angeles and will continue to do that until the economic situation makes it more difficult to not do that," Gebhard said. "We're very committed to 'made in America.' That's one of the main reasons why I came out here. I feel very strongly that we need to continue to build products in the U.S."
But Gebhard cautioned that to make it a sustainable business model there must be a compelling argument. "One of the most fundamental parts of the product business is what is the competitive advantage? What is the unique proposition of your brand, your company or region?"
Gebhard also warned, "One company can not raise the brand awareness of the region. It's going to come down to really the work between the state and the public and private side."
One example on the Western Slope in Rifle, Colorado, The Whole Works in is training women who were on federal assistance to become high-quality sewers. It's already popular. "Our problem is not demand,"said co-founder Kelly Alford during the summit's founder panel. "We're turning clients away and running about three months out."
"The limiting factor is educated sewers," Alford added. "It's kind of frustrating. We're developing a training program and working with the state and within our company to do that."
Likewise, Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing (RCAM), which was set in motion at the inaugural Colorado Apparel & Lifestyle Manufacturing Summit in 2014, is aimed at training people in rural areas of Colorado in cut-and-sew skills, the backbone of the industry. The nonprofit launched its first training center in 2015 on the eastern plains in Wray.
"The goal is to get these training systems in place and figure out where training [opportunities] are, and work with new workforces to get them skilled," said RCAM organizer Carol Engel-Enright, a design instructor and internship coordinator at Colorado State University's Department of Design and Merchandising.
"The biggest mistake for the whole apparel manufacturing industry when it went offshore, we forgot that there were skilled craftsmen in it," Engel-Enright added. "We're just starting to get that back in America."
There are indeed advantages to working with local talent, particularly sewers with experience making technical apparel. Clients can drive to The Whole Works to pick up and test prototypes, Alford said. "They can take it to the hills, ski with it for the day, bring it back, and the next day we can make changes," she said.
"Prototyping and making it and using it right away, having that next door is huge," said Kelly Watters of Telluride-based Western Rise. While Watters and her co-founder and husband, Will, are currently manufacturing overseas, prototyping locally is more efficient. "That cost and that lead time and the higher creative level is valuable to have here in Colorado."
Local manufacturing carries a premium, but manufacturing overseas with large producers has drawbacks as well. "There is a very high minimum based on 1,200-piece minimums per style, 3,000 yards for fabric," Watters said. "On top of that, you are charged duty and shipping fees of anywhere from 7.5 percent up to 34 percent. We try to have 12,000 minimums, but we need multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars just for shipping, and there's also the cost in time. We have 30 to 45 days sitting on the water."
She added, "There is some added benefit of making things in the states that I think isn't talked about a lot. Being able to be nimble and respond to your customers quickly is important."
The takeaway of the day: To expand cut-and-sew manufacturing in Colorado will require investments in training programs, cutting-edge manufacturing facilities, and creative brand-building and marketing while expanding on the unique capability to connect rapid prototyping with testing in the outdoors. It will help more "Colorado Proud" companies command the premium they need to manufacture locally.
Is it worth it? Well, as Gebhard observed, "A $28 piece in the U.S. is selling at $300 in Japan."