Made in America: Four Fashion Designers on What It Takes To Do So

Nanette Lepore, Brett Heyman, Billy Reid and Laurel Berman - Split - Publicity - H 2017
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Nanette Lepore, Billy Reid, Edie Parker's Brett Heyman and Laurel Berman of Black Halo discuss the how and why of crafting their collections in New York, L.A. and points in between.

President Donald Trump kicked off "Made in America Week" on Monday, an event his administration planned "to celebrate American manufacturing," he said. A press conference that day at the White House included a display of products from all 50 states, from Tennessee-made Gibson guitars to farm equipment made by Illinois-based Caterpillar. But unless you count the Stetson cowboy hats (made in Texas) or the NASA space suits (manufactured in Delaware), fashion was not widely addressed. Media pundits posited that the reason could be rooted in a desire to not draw focus to Ivanka Trump’s eponymous line, which does not include any U.S.-made products.

What are the challenges of crafting fashion in America? Pret-a-Reporter asked four designers who are producing all or part of their collections domestically — Nanette Lepore, Billy Reid, Edie Parker founder and creative director Brett Heyman, and Laurel Berman, designer and founder of L.A.-based Black Halo — to discuss why "Made in the U.S." is key to their labels.

What percentage of your collection is produced in the U.S.?

Nanette Lepore: We manufacture approximately 80 percent of our product in Manhattan, within a five-block radius of my studio in the Garment District.

Billy Reid: There are variables in each collection, but typically 50 percent of what we do is made domestically: in the Garment District as well as Chicago, San Francisco, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama. And for the first time, our K. Swiss collection is 100-percent made here, in upstate New York near Rochester, in a factory that's been around since the 1870s.

Brett Heyman: All of our acrylic bags, including the hinges and the rivets, are produced in the US: The sheets of acrylic are poured in New Jersey, the hinges and rivets are made in New York, and the bags are assembled in Illinois.

Laurel Berman: The collection is 100-percent made in Los Angeles. Since we started more than 12 years ago, it's been part of the DNA of the brand.

What about the percentage not produced here?

Heyman: The one piece on the acrylic bags not manufactured here is the clasp, which is made in China because it became totally unaffordable to manufacture here. The clasps are made on a machine, and that was a cost savings we couldn't give up. And we make our leather bags in Italy, where there are skilled artisans and people are paid a fair wage.

Berman: We do source our fabrics outside the U.S. We are showing the world that L.A. can do fashion other than denim and T-shirts, but the problem is that we don't produce many other fabrics here. I love sourcing fabrics from trade shows in New York and Paris and here in L.A., but I'll also shop for them worldwide.

Reid: We make a lot of things in Italy. One thing about U.S. manufacturing is that, other than denim, it's very difficult to get luxury raw materials in the domestic market. We develop our textiles in Italy, France and Japan, and we get our pima cotton from Peru. We do a few things in China, mainly technical outerwear, because they really are pros at that.

Lepore: We usually send our embroidered or beaded garments to China or India to be manufactured, as it's almost impossible anymore to find factories that do handwork and fine-detail embroideries in the U.S. Full fashion knitwear is another category that's difficult to make in the U.S. When I first began making sweaters they were manufactured in San Francisco, but those factories have since closed.

Why is it important to you to produce your collection in the U.S.?

Reid: It's something I've always believed in; when I started my business [in 1998], it was a one-man operation; I had one room at the Chelsea Hotel that was my office, my studio and my showroom. I lived in the Garment Center, going from one place to get patterns made and then taking them to the cutter, all in the heat of the summer. As complicated as it was, there was such a sense of pride in doing that. And I've worked with those same factories for nearly 20 years now, and those relationships mean something.

Lepore: I have better control over my fit; my team and I spend hours perfecting the fit of every piece. So we need to be sure the factories we use will not destroy the fit of my garments. I'm always panicked about the fit of the styles coming from overseas. We also have a quicker turn time from cutting and sewing to store selling floor. With China, orders need to be finalized six months ahead. In New York City we can turn garments in four weeks. We can re-cut strong styles, and we can cut small quantities.

Heyman: I had been collecting vintage acrylic clutches since high school, and the whole point in launching Edie Parker [in 2010] was paying tribute to the post-World War II period in America, when we were setting fashion trends and using all these new materials. It didn't feel right to make this very American fashion bag in, say, Bangladesh.

Berman: Being able to have a tight control over fit and quality was the biggest reason.

How would you define the biggest challenges to a made-in-America philosophy?

Heyman: Made in America costs more because we pay our laborers fair wages; it's a different cost proposition. There are all kinds of great benefits, but it is more expensive.

Berman: Finding good contractors can be a challenge, and once you find them, you have to keep them happy by juggling your cuts and giving them a steady stream of work every month. They have to keep the machines going, and if you aren't doing that, then you're giving someone else the opportunity to slip in there, and then you have to get in line. And with the minimum wage going up to $15 in the next couple of years, that will affect the cost of garments made in Los Angeles. I do see it as good and something that will better our community. We're absorbing the cost to our best ability right now as the price creeps up, but it does have an effect on our bottom line.

Lepore: We will be facing problems trying to maintain our price points as the minimum wage rises. My factories are also having problems managing their rents, as landlords continue to skyrocket the rents in New York. They have been dealing with the real-estate problem by shrinking their factories and squishing into smaller spaces.

Reid: Most of the raw materials have to be imported these days, so you're dealing with an import tax that adds to the cost of your garment. And labor costs are also more expensive. So your customer has to be with you on that, an idea of, "We know it's going to be at this price, and we expect that because you're making it in the U.S."

What are the advantages?

Heyman: Quality control is a real advantage; I and the people in my office go to the factories all the time. It also allows us to be very nimble: If I've missed a trend, I can correct that pretty quickly. And there's a great feel-good element, too.

Berman: It's easy to keep a close eye on fit and construction, and we can respond to problems. You get to have different layers of quality control, so you can have things stopped and corrected.

Reid: We have 13 stores, so if we've got a program that's running well, it's easier to fill in things that are working well for us. One of our best pieces last season was a suede trench coat we made in New York City: We did a very limited run of just 24, and we sold out of them within a week. If I had done that piece in China or Korea, the minimum quantity would have been a couple hundred, and I can't digest that many pieces at once. We also want a piece like that to feel special, and our customers would prefer it to feel special. They like that we only made 24 pieces of that trench.

Lepore: If you are a small, up-and-coming designer, you have the ability to cut and sew small lots in New York factories. It's almost impossible to get a factory in China to sew less than 300 units. Most factories in New York will accept lots of 50 units or less. Another advantage is being able to walk in off the street and find new contractors who will take your production. That just wouldn't be possible for someone working overseas.

Do you feel like it's gotten easier or harder to produce a collection here?

Heyman: I think there is a lot of opportunity here, and a lot of support. Organizations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America are great with helping to find local resources. But we're also dealing with knockoffs from China and other countries. They get an identical look — not in feel or quality — that comes out quickly at half the price, and that comes with its own set of challenges.

Lepore: I think we have not given our garment factories the government support they need, on any level: local, state or national. There's a lot of talk, but the right actions are never put into place. The New York City Mayor'’s office is trying to create a garment-manufacturing hub in Sunset Park [in Brooklyn], but there are still many problems with that plan that are yet to be resolved. Another fix I'm a big believer in: If every big American brand produced just a few styles a month in the U.S., it would support our factories and enable them to continue our heritage of American craftsmanship.

Reid: I would say it's easier, because it's somewhat stabilized. People have figured out how to do it well, and I don't think you could say that five years ago. But now you see a lot more factories open and a whole wave of passionate people who want to make things and make them special and make them here in the U.S.

What advice would you give a designer about making the commitment to producing in the U.S.?

Lepore: If you want to build a brand on a small budget, the only way to do it is in the local factories. But please stay loyal to the factories that toiled for you.

Heyman: I think it's totally worth it. Another great benefit, for ready to wear, is that you can get away with much smaller minimums; you don't have to order something in the thousands. I would suggest focusing on a core competency that you can get really good at; manufacturing here allows you to do that, and it's a smart way to grow a business.

Berman: Find a good contractor and be loyal and consistent. And don't give up: The ability to produce in the U.S. is out there; you just have to work for it.

Reid: Focus your idea, and don't over-assort your collection. Master the process of making something in the U.S. by going through all the hurdles to learn what you're doing with just one specific thing. Quality over quantity is key when you're starting out. 

Do you recall a moment which best sums up that you made the right decision to produce your collection in the U.S.?

Lepore: Yes! I started my business [in 1992] as a small shop called Robespierre, in the East Village between a gas station and a soup kitchen. The rent was $500 a month. I begged my dad and brother to each loan me $5,000. I bought fabrics from the jobbers in designer leftovers or the warehouses that stocked the basics. My cut tickets were 10 units; as styles got more popular, I would up it to 30 units. I never could have started a business with $10,000 without local manufacturing. I don't know why people think it's not realistic to manufacture at home; it's how I built my business. 

Berman: Before we knew our Jackie O. dress could be a best-seller, we only had a few in stock. Once we realized how well it was doing, we could respond quickly and keep up with the demand because we were local.

Reid: We applied for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2010, and one of the first things you do is appear in front of a panel of 10 people that includes Anna Wintour and Diane von Furstenberg; it can be very intimidating. You bring in five looks, and when you walk in they're completely silent, waiting for you to talk. All of the five looks I brought with me were made in the U.S. At one point Diane asked me, "What five words would you use to describe your collection?" And I said, "American luxury built to last." I later added that it was built to last both in durability and in style, but it perfectly summed up who we are. I remember walking out of that interview really feeling like I had nailed it. And we won.

Heyman: I do a lot of trunk shows, so I get a lot of opportunities to interact with the women buying our bags. There's a label inside that says, "Handmade in America," and people always seem delighted by that. There's a quality that comes with being made in America that people understand. I don't hit them over the head with it, but I really do feel good when I see their reaction.