Survival or Meltdown: Execs Ponder Future Of U.S. Manufacturing

U.S. apparel production is being decimated by the explosive growth of imports, which have left the industry fighting for its life in Washington.

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NEW YORK — A generation ago, Rocco Ciccarelli’s story would have been typical of the flourishing garment trade in New York. Now, his factory could be one of the last of a dying breed, as apparel manufacturing in the area and the country continues to undergo a dramatic downturn.

The explosive growth of imported apparel — particularly from China, which for the year ended in May shipped 75.5 percent more garments than it had a year earlier, on a unit basis — has decimated domestic producers, and left the industry fighting for its life in Washington.

More than 40 tailors, mostly aging European immigrants, sat working at sewing tables in the loft building in a gritty part of Queens that Ciccarelli’s Primo Coat Corp. has called home for the past three years. As Ciccarelli walked among them on a rainy afternoon last week, the 67-year-old Italian immigrant said he’s been pleased with business lately.

“This year is pretty good; we can’t complain,” he said. “We’re supposed to go on a vacation next week, but we still have so much work to complete.”

As his workers hunched over the high-end suits they were finishing, many sewing without the aid of a machine, a visitor could notice something unusual about the Long Island City factory. The employees seemed relatively relaxed and showed no signs of the tension that usually accompanies a factory rushing to push out a large order. The bundles of half-completed garments that typically cover most available flat surfaces in a large plant were nowhere to be seen.

Asked how long it took his workers to complete a typical suit, Ciccarelli said he wasn’t sure — he’d never tried to clock out the man-hours. In an average week, he said, his factory turns out 80 to 85 men’s and women’s suits.

Clearly, Ciccarelli’s market segment is an atypical one for the U.S. apparel industry. He’s a custom tailor, making one-of-a-kind, high-end garments. Primarily working as a contractor, he fills orders taken by high-end tailor shops in major cities that offer bespoke suits but don’t have the space or manpower to actually assemble them, turns out costumes for Broadway shows, sews competition equestrian jackets for those with the money and time to show horses and, on occasion, fills orders for high-end designer labels. The soft-spoken tailor asked not to reveal his clients’ names, citing privacy concerns.
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