Kamali has moved production to the US

norma_kamali Norma Kamali is getting lean -or at least leaner. First of the major players to sidestep the industry market schedule dictating 6 month lead times coupled with the publishing calenders of magazines needing 3-6 months for print editorial, Norma’s brought production back to the US and is selling consumer direct from her web site. Not only is she selling consumer direct, she’s enlisting hostesses for “try before you buy” parties. I have to hand it to her, shipping out $2K gowns for the modern equivalent of tupperware parties would make me nervous. Danielle sends a link that explains more:

New York Fashion Week is a little over a week away, and it’s shaping up to be a tough season. Not only is the economy a challenge, so is the Internet. The speed with which photos of runway looks travel around the world is making the whole seasonal exercise of fashion weeks seem more and more ridiculous. (Designers traditionally show their collections six months in advance for store buyers and the media, so we’re getting ready to see spring ’10.) Because by the time a designer original hits the racks, you’ve already bought the knockoff at Zara or are on to something else completely.

Norma’s plan comes in striking contradiction to the town hall meeting Diane Von Furstenberg held at the end of July. DVF’s meeting was intended to be a discussion between designers, media and related stakeholders in coming to terms with the double edged sword of technological change. Owing to the latter, fashion has never been so transparent; yet transparency has facilitated the means of widespread copying before lines make it to the stores. I’ll spare you the lecture but I’ve long said designers are better served to evolve to the marketplace and deliver consumer goods faster. It’s good to see that Kamali is moving with the times.

With respect to between the rock and a hard place in which the industry finds itself, the tubes haven’t been lax in expressing opinions; says Jenna

Restricting the volume of clothing produced is a sure-fire way to artificially inflate sell-through rates, but to what end would a successful business actively seek fewer customers when it has enjoyed more in the past?

First, fashion is facing the problem of commoditization. It’s a commodity because there is so much of it and readily replenished. I don’t know how it can be described any other way if goods land at the loading dock with the 40% off tags already attached. It’s no secret the artificial glut is a consequence of broad scale outsourcing, effecting a race to the bottom. With product development time lines of the largest players stretching 12 to 16 months, it is impossible to produce anything but commodities, by passing trends current at the time of sales release.

Second, it is arguably beneficial for there to be fewer customers (really), and fewer but better goods with value reflected in pricing. Consider this in the context of energy use. If oil is too cheap, energy use is profligate and the planet warms. Some costs of overproduction of (cheap) apparel are these: an increase of sweatshops in lesser developed nations; export of used (disposable) apparel from the US to those same nations has caused manufacturers producing for the local market to go broke themselves. As far as the average North American consumer is concerned, clothing produced closer to season, in short runs and at higher quality, means consumer choice is less disposable.  Both parties, producer and consumer, are more committed to a quality outcome. I wish more producers would dramatically re-align their operations to address the consumer’s increasing dissatisfaction -in the sorts of ways it would seem that Kamali has done.

Jenna continues:

What nobody was apparently willing to address was that fashion became, during the long recent boom, simply too expensive: there are not enough good designers willing to make a beautiful dress that costs not a few thousand dollars but a few hundred dollars.

But why did clothing become so expensive? Wait a minute, is clothing more expensive? Across the board it’s not; adjusted for inflation, apparel prices have been dropping steadily several percentage points per year since the early 1980’s -when outsourcing was still nascent. Men’s and boy’s wear seems to hold its value better though. I think the issue is one of increased consumer expectation. In part, owing to many consumers using their homes as ATMs and thus having the means, consumers acquired the expectation to covet and purchase goods a level beyond that which was intended for their demography.

There is no doubt that high fashion became pricier. Costs have escalated due to marketing and branding whether by artifice, intent or by freebie crowd sourcing via web 2.0 –and inflation. Inflated high fashion prices have much more to do with over-inflated values across the board, a manifest extension of the housing market. We’re seeing a correction there, one is due in the industry as well. Without getting too far off track, it’s not coincidental that consumer fit complaints escalated in the same period. Suddenly real estate rich, consumers had the disposable income for goods that were never designed for the sizing characteristics of their demography. Those hopelessly sized out of higher priced goods bought luxury handbags.

One concept that wasn’t discussed at DVF’s town hall meeting was consumer apathy. Actually, apathy isn’t the right word. Consumer apathy has been building -and measured- since the early 1990’s. The better explanation is that apathy has migrated to outright hostility, often expressed in terms of sizing and style frustrations. In this light, DVF’s strategy to pass the DPPA could be seen as an attempt to control fashion from both ends in closing off entry to the business by independent designers.

I suppose one way to buttress price points in the industry is to prevent anyone else from getting in or by effectively increasing the costs of doing business so people will have to leave it…but then, where does that leave consumers? Between increased consumer abdication and less competition, prices won’t be falling any time soon but the results could be a wash. In the end, the only salient strategy is to follow Kamali’s lead to produce locally and on shorter time lines. To be sure she’ll experience some hiccups but just think how much further ahead she’ll be once everyone else catches on to her great idea. You know, the same idea I’ve been preaching over the past fifteen years. With any luck, lean manufacturing could become the thing that all the cool kids are doing.

Sure, there are some downsides. With more people moving to stateside production, it’ll be even harder to find a contractor -which is why I’ve been saying there will be an increase in folks setting up their own production in house. I can’t think (and I’ve tried) of a way to produce to order and sell consumer direct on a dime without it. I just hope people don’t wait too long to figure it out and all the best stitchers retire. The real crisis that few seem to realize is the loss of institutional memory we’re incurring daily.

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16 comments

  1. Cheryl says:

    I SOOO agree with your points :) I am a self-employed seamstress. MOST of my work is alteration work. My area just cannot support the price of custom sewing :) I get a few orders a year, that’s it.

    I am interested in ‘art-to-wear’ type of work AND some VERY light manufacturing of items for sale via etsy/eBay./etc….I purchased your book..WONDERFUL….I haven’t had a chance to read all of it yet though :)

    My point is THIS…………SEAMSTRESSES are DYING…We are a DYING breed…. GOOD seamstresses ARE…. at least :( In the past two months I have had to re-do MASSIVE screw-ups from other seamstresses. They have POOR talents and POOR business practices :( I am sorry that my clients have to pay TWICE for their alterations :( At least the word WILL spread that I am a GREAT seamstress :) BUT..I am 52 yrs old. I won’t live forever :)

    The problem with trying to keep all manufacturing AMERICAN MADE is the fact that people do NOT want to pay the LABOR CHARGE for AMERICAN WORKERS…..I charge MORE than the piddly 25 cents an hour a CHINESE or TAIWANESE or INDIAN seamstress makes…..I CANNOT make a living on that wage…..

  2. Reid B. says:

    Kathleen,

    First of thanks for all of your hard work. The loss of institutional memory is a huge crisis. I am working in Portland right now and it fascinating getting more involved the industry here. We have a flatseam machine, and there is only one mechanic in the city to work on it, let alone spare machines. We just got an old Queen Light seam sealer, this could be a blessing or the biggest nightmare ever…

    I am glad to see you writing about the trend of American-made and direct-to-market manufacturing. The company I am working with right now has a huge inventory of really phenomonal fabrics, which makes the switch to local manufacturing a no-brainer if they are looking to move the fabric out.

    We are working with an Autometrix cutting table, making the cutting proces nearly. The ability to quickly cut precise pieces has me constantly thinking about the opportunities for just-in-time and actual “custom” manufacturing.

    The ability to sell direct is huge. (In fact, my “boss” mentioned the idea of apparel parties this morning) Never before has there been the so many opportunities through social networking and the internet for a manufacturer to make direct contact with a customer.

    I dropped off a (poorly organized) CMT order with a local manufacturer last week, and this next week am going to be attempting to organize a short run in-house. We shall see which ends up being more efficient.

  3. PamSD says:

    As a semi professional seamstress making doll clothing out of my home, I am increasingly dismayed by the growing number of times I hear..”You can sew?”

    There was a time when sewing was taught in high school…a little thing called home economics.
    With the push toward test score results instead of actual education, things like sewing, cooking, music, art and many many other SKILLS classes have simply disappeared.

    I applaud a company for trying to shorten the time it takes to get a product to the consumer. I just hope the lack of skilled manufacturers inside the US don’t hinder their efforts. Much of the generation coming up can’t be bothered to learn to sit a sewing machine when there are computers to play games on and misspelling to be typed. Production moves to outside the US might have been started for cost but now I believe much of it is due to a lack of skilled labor.

    I learned to sew from my grandmother on her foot pump machine and my mother on her 62 Elgin. I hope I can keep my god daughter’s attention long enough to teach her to sew at least enough to repair an item but its difficult to compete with Spongebob.

    Though who knows, this new move back tot eh US might inspire some to learn to sew since jobs are scarce. That could be a very good thing.

  4. Jasmin says:

    It is a huge challenge, and Kathleen, thank you for fighting the good fight, and providing a rallying point. Here in NZ, we are awash in poorly made imported clothing, and local fabrication has been going bankrupt.

    I also note (I’m nearly 40) that myself and my sister can sew, and sew relatively well, due to a mother who taught us, and school lessons (plus being short and roundy – big motivator!). When people get sick of poorly made, horrible clothes, and having no choice about colour / style other than what is ‘in’ this season, we may see change.

    A friend who is a teacher told me the sewing/cooking classes are pretty much over for their high school students, she was horrified (she’s ten years older than me). Heaven only knows what will happen, maybe it will become a rare and desirable skill? As it is, people seem to be impressed if you can a/grow and preserve food b/sew and alter clothing, so it may become a skill worth having again. Certainly I get plenty of alteration requests for simple hems & fixes.

    On the bright side, some of the young girls I work with (21 year olds) sew and love it, so there is hope.

    I think when we start to see people decide that just consuming too much isn’t enough to be happy, really having less ‘stuff’ of great quality that flatters them (no more bunchy front pants, please lord!!) is sustainable and looks better, we may see more local production.

    The bottom line is, consumers need to see the consequences of their choices, for themselves and others; in the same way that free range eggs are the best choice now if you don’t want to torture chickens, free range, local clothing is the best option for getting quality you want to wear. The economic consequences for China, India, and similar countries are another issue ….

  5. Sandra B says:

    I’ve just spent the weekend at Perth (Western Australia) Fashion Festival, promoting my sewing classes. I agree that sewing was a dying skill, but the young girls are hugely interested again. The difference is, they don’t want to sew for others. It’s just another aspect to their general interest in fashion.

    The loss of skills is a huge problem here, too, possibly worse for us due to the tyranny of distance. As it turned out, most of my promotional work was done as I wandered around after I’d finished up. And it was to the designers, not the hobbyists. They are all fresh out of college, boosted by having been told for 3 years how creative and talented they are, and then they can’t get anywhere. It dawns on them that maybe they can’t sew very well and their patternmaking is …inadequate. (Sorry, I nearly said a rude word then) As I did say once, many years ago in a fit of foot-in-mouth, it’s a criminal waste of public funding to train people for three years to have all attitude and no skills. (Very true, but it was to the head of a prestigious college, and I would have liked the possibility of teaching there. Oops. I was p’d off because the interns he’d sent me were useless)

    Then today I attended a Master Class by a woman who’s written a book about getting into the fashion industry. She was quite good, but gave the impression that entry to the fashion industry starts at a certain level, generally a bit higher than young designers here can manage. She emphasised how one needs a business partner with money to get started, and when asked to explain how young designers can find that, admitted they may have to work alone for a few years to get a track record in order to get this angel. Surely that means entry to the fashion industry is actually the “few years” not the business partner stage.

    In my experience, the scrappy lowest level is ignored as irrelevant by the established gurus, but they are the ones making in-house (their own, usually) and selling direct through Etsy or at market stalls, or through indie boutiques as scrappy as they are. They are not acknowledged, therefore receive little guidance, and they only vaguely suspect they could be doing better. On the one hand it’s a wildly creative and exciting milieu, which I love being involved with, on the other it’s heart-breaking to see young people tacitly promised the earth, but with no intention of delivery.

    It’s been a very long, tiring weekend, I’m probably starting to rant. I’ll stop now.

  6. dosfashionistas says:

    Norma Kamali is right on track! I hope she is able to work out the details. I have been thinking for years now that the key to selling fashion right now is not only lean manufacturing, but lean retailing as well. When the designer becomes totally disconnected from the customer (ie the woman wearing the clothes) and is instead selling what the stores want…..what can we expect but dissatisfaction. So she is going to sell to the real customer. Go Norma!!

    Hope I get to stay around long enough to see what happens with this. I want to see how we are sewing and selling 20 years from now.

  7. Wow, Kathleen! What a great post, filled with information and very progressive as well. I know that in India a lot of export factories have closed down or they have started thinking about producing for the domestic market because many of their overseas buyers have shifted to China or Bangladesh or someplace cheaper. At my own production unit I don’t consider my tailors’ salaries cheap at all. Granted, it’s all relative and I’m talking cheap for Indian standards, but as the Indian economy grows, it will be harder to find good quality tailors unless one is willing to pay for them. Many tailors leave the industry for a job as a cashier at a supermarket or something totally different as long as the salary is higher- another indication that “cheap manufacturing” is not sustainable in India.

  8. Alicia says:

    I’m with Sandra B.-
    Sounds like all the fashionistas I work with and sew for here in Honolulu. I just lost my day job as a secretary / interior designer and decided to take some sample and short run orders for extra cash. Even though there is a fashion designer networking group here they have minimal to no connections to local contractors and established garment manufacturers. Do we have to keep reinventing the wheel?!? Problems everywhere and I can barely charge minimum wage, certainly not enough to live on. All the local people who are mildly sucessful here have either their own in-house manufacturing operations (more mid and large scale retailers and brands than you would think still do made in hawaii, mostly using cheap immigrant workers) or they contract out to the highly in demand local contractors. I find myself in a pickle like everyone else, trying to get into a dying/newborn industry with very little guidance. Because I believe small and Local can be in demand if manufactured, branded and marketed well, and it offers us something better to work for.

  9. christina cato says:

    This is a great article!! I have been really looking at sweater manufacturing in the U.S and the most efficient way to go about it. The lead times are ridiculous at times and the minimums required by overseas manufacturers can be daunting for a small design company. This touches on several points that I have thought about and helps with some of my justifications.

  10. LisaB says:

    Ha. I don’t even remember looking at the model at the top of the page when I read this previously. I must have breezed right past.

    To answer your question, this one doesn’t bother me as much as the Ralph Lauren simply because this gal doesn’t look emaciated to me. She simply has unnaturally long legs. Still, I’m tired of the Photoshopping….

  11. Andrea Klausner says:

    I have loved Norma Kamali designs since the 80’s and always kept my eyes open for new creative things she sold. I live in Los Angeles California and would like to find a larger collection if possible. Anything you can suggest will be appreciated. What a terrific designer. I LOVE YOU!

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