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Made in America

Rita Richardson

Posted on June 05 2019

My cousin Kelly is three years older than I am.  To me, it looked like she lived a charmed life. She took piano lessons and ballet classes plus she was the only girl in her family , so all her clothes were bought specially for her. 

Her parents were thoughtful which meant every once in a while I’d get a big bag of hand-me-downs that looked as pristine as the day they were bought.  I was so excited to go through the bag and look at each piece.  It was a little like Christmas without the tree and the lights.

It was a different time.   A time when we had “Sunday clothes”.  We knew the drill.  Immediately after we arrived home from church, we’d be ordered straight to our room to take off our Sunday best.  Those dresses went back in the closet only to be seen again next Sunday.

After an undesignated period of time (my mom must have had some sort of algorithm about the number of times worn divided by cost multiplied by the square root of something) these “Sunday clothes” could go into a “school clothes” rotation along with the Stride Rite shoes that were bought at the beginning of each school year. 

I loved that annual shoe shopping trip.  We’d drive to Bloomington and go to the Stride Rite store.  It was a free-standing store and seeing the owner each August was a cherished ritual.  It felt like seeing a long-lost uncle.  My mom was a nut about teeth and feet.  We never neglected the dentist or bought anything but quality shoes.  It wasn’t extravagance it was prudence.  “You only have one set of teeth and feet so you have to take care of them.” 

There was always the inevitable fuss—my mom wanted practical black shoes that would go with everything.  I would have my eye on a cute pair of red patent leather shoes with a tiny heel.  I’d beg and plead, then I’d get “the look” and that would be that.  But, occasionally, she’d give in and I’d get my dream pair of shoes only after I promised over and over to never get them ruined because come the following August, they would be my new school shoes.

My mom was always so much more generous with us kids than she was with herself.  She always got the short end of the clothing budget.  She’d get one new dress, a good one that would last a season, and spend the rest of the allotted money on us five kids. 

Clothes were expensive.  You had to be practical.  I don’t know how many Kodak slides we have of my brothers wearing jeans with 5” rolled cuffs.  It makes me laugh so hard but there was no such thing as “buy now/wear now” back then.  Clothes were bought to last through growth spurts and be able to be passed down to younger siblings.  They were made to last.  They were American made.

In the 1960s people spent about 10% of their income on clothes.  The average person (and I’m sure my family brought down that average) bought fewer than 25 garments a year and 95% of those clothes were made in America.

Then things started to change. 

Large textile mills and factories started to emerge in China and other developing countries in Asia and Latin American.   There was a surplus of cheap labor and raw materials, so these factories grew quickly and were able to supply large amounts of product at a fraction of the cost to produce domestically.

 Between 1990 and 2010 big U.S. retailers started to transition away from making their own goods at home.  They could sell the same products for less money to their customers while pocketing bigger profits.  It was a win-win---except for the American textile manufacturers.  America couldn’t compete.  It was the domino effect:  textile mills closed so there was no domestic fabric and without fabric factories started shrink which led to the bulk of apparel manufacturing jobs going away, too.

It was hard to see American jobs lost but people loved being able to buy more and spend less.  Clothing became DEFLATIONARY which rarely happens.  Instead of spending 10% of your income on clothing like in the 60s, people we’re now spending less than 3%.  Who doesn’t love that???

When I started out as a buyer it was during the transition away from domestic manufacturing.  The buying power by a Sears or JCPenney overseas was staggering.  They would set up offices throughout the world to be able to maximize every opportunity to shave a nickel off the price.

But, like most things in our world there’s always an evolution.  Along came Walmart and Target and then H&M and Zara and now Amazon.  Every generation of retailer tries to figure a way to deliver more for less.  Today the average person buys 80 garments a year versus the LESS than 25 in 1960.

It’s staggering to believe, but in less than 40 years we’ve gone from 95% to only 2% of all clothing bought in the US being made in the US.

I think most people agree it’s great to buy American but don’t realize how difficult it can be.

Almost all fabric comes from China or India, so it has to be imported.  It’s not easy to find skilled workers who want to work for garment factory wages (which are still over 40% higher than a worker in Bangladesh).   Factories that do exist are feeling the squeeze because building owners can get more per square foot for restaurants, shopping and condos so rents are skyrocketing which can make it impossible to stay open.

Because of the shift of the last few decades all the components are made in China. The new tariffs are making everything more expensive---fabric, hangers, trims are all costing more to bring into the US.  For most retailers those added expenses will mean higher prices to their customers.

When we started FashionXFaith we wanted to support USA workers and made it our goal to make as much as we can here at home.  So far, we’ve been able to do it but it’s getting more complicated and we’ve had to get more creative.

The reality of it all is that it goes against our nature to go back to a time where we paid more and got less.  As a society we eliminate industries that don’t work for our economy and create new ones that provide better paying jobs in order to grow.  That’s how it works.  It’s capitalism. 

What I do believe will grow in America's small textile industry is boutique manufacturing which is what FashionXFaith does.  We create a unique product that satisfies a specific need.  With the avalanche of e-commerce business more people can create clothing that is not only functional but meaningful.  That’s what we want to do---make unique clothes that inspire kids to put their faith in something bigger than themselves and we LOVE doing it right here at home.

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