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September 5, 2011 3:30 PM

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Like a Phoenix

For more than 20 years, I've been reporting on the demise of the U.S. apparel and textile manufacturing industry....

For more than 20 years, I've been reporting on the demise of the U.S. apparel and textile manufacturing industry.
So, it's come as quite a surprise that lately I've been thinking about Mark Twain and the quote about the report of his death being greatly exaggerated.

The decline had actually started way before I arrived at WWD -- it had peaked in the mid-Seventies before the import era emerged. In the last two decades, the rush abroad for cheap labor and production prices continued unabated, cutting deeply into U.S. manufacturing. China seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut and thoughts of Made in USA seemed to have faded to black.

But as Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over till it's over." The Great Recession brought changes to the global sourcing landscape and China's evolution to a consumer economy came on strong, raising labor costs and creating a desire to manufacture for domestic markets instead of being the world's factory for inexpensive goods. The recession also seemed to bring about a shift in the American consumer mind-set. Industry executives say people have become more concerned with quality over price or quantity, while retailers are more focused on inventory control and customer satisfaction.

All these factors have combined to create a scenario I and many others thought we'd never see again: a desire to make apparel and textiles in the U.S. again. The talk of this Made in America yearning was a major point of conversation at a recent round of textile trade shows in New York.

Walter Meck, chief executive officer of Fessler USA, a manufacturer of fabric and yarn based in Orwigsburg, Pa., said: "Bringing back U.S. manufacturing is more than talk; we're seeing it. We're getting back to the true theory of comparative advantage -- where's the best place to make certain things."

Ronald Sheridan, president of STC Textile Inc., said: "We're finding that with the production and price issues out of China, companies are being forced to move away from an Asian manufacturing base and, increasingly, they're looking to the U.S., especially California. It might not be a major move back to the U.S., but they're exploring opportunities. There is a resurgence of interest in manufacturing close to home, especially in the better market where price isn't as much of an issue."

Jacques Brunel, general manager of Premiÿre Vision, said the feedback from exhibitors was that there is a movement away from offshore production and toward more local manufacturing.

"They are saying that their offshore operations are very difficult, especially in China, where they are focusing on their own market and fighting with increases in labor and raw material prices," Brunel said.

So there's no question that interest in U.S. manufacturing is revived. This has also been helped by an increase in fabric and yarn exports to Central America, where the duty-free benefits of CAFTA are catching on and taking market share from Asia.

But the question remains: Will the interest lead to investment? David Sasso, vice president of international sales with Buhler Quality Yarns Corp., in Jefferson, Ga., said, "I think it's fantastic that [stores and brands] are looking [at more U.S. production], but they get shocked by the price. I'd like to see it come back more to this side of the world. There are a lot of great apparel and fabric manufacturers here, but what comes back has to be more specialized and more niched."

Perhaps the fresh investment in domestic manufacturing will come from unexpected sources. German textile machinery manufacturer Stoll GmbH & Co. opened the Stoll Fashion & Technology Center at 250 West 39th Street, in the heart of the Garment District, in April 2009, and part of its mission is to boost U.S. manufacturing. "We like to say 'Through our door comes our future,'" said Beth Hofer, senior manager for customer relations and educational resources for the center, a 30,000-square-foot facility consisting of sample-making and production departments that encompasses eight knitting machines, an archive, a showroom, and a production training area. The center has become an integral part of New York Fashion Week, with many firms using it to develop and make their runway samples.

"Our business is to sell machines," Hofer said. "Our business is also to be the connector between the designer or company here and the manufacturer...We don't look at U.S. manufacturing as a goal or a by-product, we look at it as a necessity. This generation of young designers is very proud. They want to make a quality product and they only want to make it in America." Hofer said she often hears from people that there aren't any mills left in the U.S., even if they want to have some Made in USA production.

"There are mills here, it's just that people aren't aware that they're here," she said, citing, for example, Machinit Inc. in Farmingdale, N.Y., which has about 100 machines, and Knitcraft Corp., the Winona, Minn.-based manufacturer of the St. Croix Collections men's wear line. Markus Kirwald, product development manager for Stoll Fashion & Technology, said, "Virtually every other customer comes in with a desire to do production in America.

The Tristate area would be ideal for us. We are in desperate need of someone looking to invest in factories. We have customers for them." I'm interested to see whether a new chapter will be written in the history of U.S. manufacturing or if this will turn out to be just another Twain tale.
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