The Bleak Reality of Fashion Manufacturing Jobs in the US
Interior view of a Chinese jean making factory with girls sewing jeans for Levi.

When Ralph Lauren revealed his design for the Olympic American Opening Ceremony uniforms, the new look was criticized for being a bit too French prepster meets weekend get together in the Hamptons.

But even more surprising—the US uniforms weren’t made in the U.S., which ultimately opened the door to scrutiny for other US-based clothing designers that were manufacturing overseas.

The reality is, due to the low manufacturing costs, almost all of the larger US-based  fashion companies are producing their garments in another country.

But, how does this affect those involved in fashion?  Does it take away potential jobs fashion-related jobs here in the U.S.?

And how does it affect domestic manufacturing costs for young designers?

In a nation with a deteriorating economy, high unemployment rates, and college graduates—like fashion majors—continue to struggle to find jobs, it appears that the future for those who want to break into fashion appears to be bleak.

Dr. Dante West, the Fashion Design Chair at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale in South Florida, states that manufacturing doesn’t exist here anymore [in the U.S.] because there’s only the smaller industry and the bigger industry—there’s no small medium anymore.

West explains, “Young designers can start small and get a couple of sewers and have a small business, but when it gets to certain size, it becomes very cost heavy to manufacture in this country.”

Decline of the Garment District

According to the nonprofit organization, Save the Garment Center, in 1960, 95% of clothing sold in the US was made in the U.S.

Men pulling racks of clothing on busy sidewalk in Garment District, New York City / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, 1955.

Back then, New York’s Garment District was the heart and soul of fashion. The street of fabric sellers, pattern makers, and other manufacturers brought the designer’s work alive.

In 1987, the city of New York passed Zoning Laws that would protect the garment district, which kept spaces for factories and workers at affordable rates. However, in 1993, the city stopped enforcing the law, and as a result, many designers were forced out and could no longer afford the real estate.

In an Op-Ed article for the NY Times, Nanette Lepore, a fashion designer and loyal advocate for the Garment District, stated, “Manufacturing locally, as opposed to overseas, allows us to quickly increase or decrease production, depending on what customers want, and is the only affordable option for young designers with limited resources working on a small scale.”

Despite the efforts of Nanette Lepore and Save the Garment Center, two years ago, the Garment District was consolidated to make room for cheap housing.

This occurred due to the fashion globalization and outsourcing that reduced business for the factories. As a result, rents rose, and the factories could no longer afford the rent increase.

Gary Babb, President of Paron Fabrics in Manhattan’s Midtown, says, “When the rents rose, it forced people to leave—especially against the low wages from overseas. With the higher rents, people can’t exist.”

Babb also explains since that the Garment District hasn’t seen much variety in fabric and in designs—everything has become slower.

In February, Crain’s New York reported that the Garment District had plans to move to the West Village, but that was complicated due to the conflicting agendas between the designers, unions and landlords.

The Bleak Reality

The other fashion capital of the world, London, England, has a different take on creating and manufacturing fashion and apparel.

Jess Cartner-Morley of The Guardian reported that the fashion industry makes up 1.7% of UK GDP, which is twice as much as the publishing, car manufacturing and the chemical sectors. In addition to that, it supports 816,000 jobs, while New York only supports 24,000 apparel manufacturing jobs.

Fashion brands are aiming to keep those jobs within England.

Last year, Mulberry received £2.5 million from the UK’s Department for Business Innovation and Skill’s regional growth fund to establish a handbag making factory in Somerset. The endeavor is expected to create 250 skilled jobs. The goal of the growth fund is to stimulate economic growth and sustainable jobs.

While there are a couple of companies, like American Apparel, The Row, Alexander Wang and other New York-based designers who produce clothing domestically, it may not be enough to turn around an entire industry and open up doors for younger designers.

The American fashion industry is not looking bright. It’s at risk of losing its status and more importantly, its innovation.

Perhaps Nanette Leopre said it best in her NY Times article, “We need someone like Ralph Lauren onboard, or someone like Donna Karan. We need them to realize that they’re still there, their design rooms are still there, and they should be helping support this cause.”