Made in the USA. That declaration is most often a source of immense pride and a badge of honor. But behind those four seemingly non-threatening words, there can be a whole host of challenges along with the rewards.
The issue of American fashion manufacturing, or the lack of it, was the subject of a panel at the recent Launch Tennessee 36/86 conference celebrating entrepreneurship and southern culture.
It was noted that 20 years ago 50 percent of clothing was made in the USA, while today less than 3 percent is manufactured here. The biggest impact of this sobering statistic has been on job creation, but there is a dedicated group of fashion designers and industry executives working to reverse this trend.
“Made in the USA is real. Bringing manufacturing to the U.S. is real,” declared Dean Wegner, president and CEO/owner of Omega Apparel.
In the U.S. alone, fashion represents a $331 billion industry, and Tennessee’s burgeoning fashion scene is looking to make a name for itself in this lucrative sector outside the traditional fashion centers of New York and Los Angeles. Already the Volunteer State is ranked seventh in the country for apparel manufacturing jobs, ninth in textile mill jobs and tenth in leather and allied product manufacturing jobs.
However, the lack of skilled labor, job misconceptions and a less than robust manufacturing infrastructure are all hurdles the fashion industry faces throughout the U.S.
Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America located in New York City, detailed some of the initiatives his trade association is spearheading to combat the shrinking labor pool. One example was offering a course to train professional sewers through the Fashion Institute of Technology and linking those graduates to jobs.
Although this only addresses part of the available workforce problem.
“The bigger thing actually, more than the skilled training and placement, is the perception of what those jobs are,” explained Kolb. “They’re not factory jobs. If you look at it as a factory job, it seems less glamourous than if you look at it as a creative production job. I think that’s a misconception. There are really good paying jobs that are creatively fulfilling in production. It’s about repositioning the way those jobs are marketed.”