I have a friend who was an indie designer. She started back in 2004. Dynamic vision. Highest standards. Gorgeous prototypes. A designer with allure and personality to spare. What happened? Right person with the right idea, but at the wrong time. It was 2004 and the fabric selection was gaunt at best. Customer interest was just as gaunt. These difficulties were just the start.
Indie designers that found their way to New York would have to wade through dozens of store front retailers; finding your way to the best fabrics with real wholesale pricing, continuity and a reasonable minimum was almost impossible. Who knew about a prized supplier tucked away on the 7th floor of a building like 237 West 37th Street? Real wholesale entities were not exactly putting out the red carpet to independent designers. We were a good five or six years before indie designers created any kind of excitement. We weren’t called The Sourcing District. We represented four lines part time. Maker’s Row didn’t exist yet. Local shows in Chicago and Dallas featured about 75% jobbers. There was no DG Expo. In our hometown of Chicago, finding a contractor was real needle in a haystack stuff. Directories that did exist listed mills, converters, importers and jobbers together with little designation. That was 2004.
So, what happened? How did we end up with Maker’s Row, The Sourcing District, trade shows and a pretty decent network of factories, technical designers, product developers, photographers, etc. that continues to grow more every day? Bear with me, the answer is a little complex. Here we go:
In the first decade of the 21st century stores surrendered to low prices. No price was low enough for America’s largest retailer. Made in the USA absolutely disappeared off the shelves of America’s big box retailers. Popular look-alike flag shirts were made in China. Before 2008, Chinese workers were making about $200.00 a month. The tech explosion had not really happened in China and other countries in the Asian Basin. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese people and others in the region received an up close look at “Western Life”. Chinese salaries accelerated. At the same time, most American retailers were not interested in paying more. Quality suffered. Styles became even more simplified and homogenized. Other forces contributed to the diminished quality of lower priced clothing and consumer goods. Unrest in Egypt and other factors led to cotton prices rising precipitously.
Finally, by 2010, there was for the first time the whiff of hope. More imagination and value arrived in the area of knit fabrics. Over the next three years, designers making bamboo yoga wear, vintage little girl dresses, the first sign of domestic outerwear and real originally styled womenswear appeared. The best dresses in San Francisco were not in big box stores. They were in local boutiques and designer’s studios. By 2013, lovely man-tailored women’s blouses were popping up on line with real quality features. Design communities in Nashville, Denver, Austin, Louisiana and Minnesota became more than just credible, they became industry leaders. Product developers became a well-financed project, expert pattern makers and strength in all of the skill positions. Contractors expanded. Chain stitch and coverstitch machines were no longer a rarity. And here’s the kicker: Made in the USA was no longer a handicap. The start of reshoring began to develop.
Now we still have some issues. While some Americans have discovered us, we’re still under the radar for several others. Worse still, those big box stores are falling behind the true sentiment and dynamics of the public and still cheap it out most of the time. Fast fashion is nothing to brag about. Factories in the U.S. are now making the effort to upgrade their machinery and further modernize their facilities. The industry missed a generation of sewers, pattern makers, technical designers, cutters and other “skill players”, but the resurgence of interest has led to younger innovators pioneering U.S. manufacturing once again.
On the fabric sourcing side, new categories are emerging. Unique t-shirt materials, dynamic fleece and a whole world of sustainable fabrics are lighting up the independent fashion scene. World class talent is finding a home in the bridal industry. Some of the most inventive and stunning bridal fashion statements are being made in local shops from Houston to the Detroit suburbs. And vintage-look children’s dresses are booming as DTM (Direct to Mommy) sales are larger than anyone would believe. American entrepreneurs are selling on Facebook, Etsy, Maker’s Row and their own websites in a way that is vigorous and no longer small.
How has this affected sourcing? Textile companies are meeting the demand. Where few prints were offered with continuity there are all of a sudden thousands of choices. Sophisticated bottomweight fabrics are appearing. The choices in cotton shirting are fashion-forward and value-packed like never before. As the volume of usage goes up, quality and selection increase as prices stabilize or even drop.
If you’ve been hanging out on the Maker’s Row blog, you’ve had a front row seat to all this.