Made in USA Apparel Brands Succeed in Market

Would you be surprised to find out that San Diego has a fashion design industry? On July 30th, the Fashion Group International San Diego held a meeting, titled "Going from Designer to Manufacturer," featuring Barrie Kauffman and Heather Haas from two San Diego-based clothing lines: Fables by Barrie and Fiveloaves Twofish. Both of these brands are designed and manufactured in San Diego, not made across the border in Mexico and not made in China like other brands founded and still headquartered in San Diego.

Since the 1980s, the San Diego region has been known for its active sports lines of clothing and shoes. In addition to the golf and sports apparel of San Diego-based Callaway and TaylorMade, other San Diego companies include:

  • Reef, starting with casual sandals in the 1980s and branching into a complete line of men's and women's sportswear in 2002;
  • Bad Boy starting with T-shirts and shorts for local surfers, skaters and motocross riders in the early eighties and expanding into action sport and combat sport lines in the 1990s; and
  • Tribal Gear, launched in 1989 as a Southern California lifestyle inspired clothing brand, until its original San Diego based shop closed in 2012.

None of these brands claim their products are "Made in USA."

On the Fables by Barrie website, Barrie says that she started her company in 2007 to create stylish, whimsical, and head turning clothing for women. “Since 2007 I've been striving to meet these goals with a good mixture of kindness and elbow grease…I'm very pleased to tell you that Fables is designed, developed, and manufactured in San Diego, California USA. We take pride in being most definitely sweatshop-free…We are very aware that our creations cost a bit more than so many similar-style brands, much less knockoffs, so we want to thank you for your continued support through the years ….”

A feature article in the San Diego Union Tribune in July 2010 described her line as vintage style inspired fashions for ladies, specializing in swimwear, Western wear for women that kind of looks like a chic version of the outfits on “Hee Haw,” and dresses. Kaufman makes clothes using lots of primary colors, bows, ribbons and ruffles. The popularity of her red, white and blue swimming suits, which are sold in places like South America, Puerto Rico, Israel and Australia, helped propel Kaufman from Internet saleswoman to boutique owner. She opened her first boutique, Fables by Barrie, in the Hillcrest area of San Diego in April 2010.

Fiveloaves Twofish was founded by Kit Kuriakose and Heather Haas in 2009. Kit is the head fashion designer, and Heather functions as COO. Fiveloaves Twofish is a fashion design house for girls, tweens and teens. The design house was originally in the art district of Little Italy near downtown San Diego, but relocated to the Liberty Station area and is open to the public.

The website states, "It is a fashion driven lifestyle brand for girls, tweens, and young contemporaries" and describes the collection as an "all encompassing look, attitude, and way of life," saying they "design clothing for the up and coming generation’s needs, wants and desires." They "design in order for girls to grow-up and enjoy each stage from 4 to 16, while allowing them to embrace the transitions from little girl, to girl, to tween. We like to call these stages the age of exploration, as girls are caught between 'little' girlhood and 'juniors.' During this age of exploration, Fiveloaves Twofish provides girls with a rich collection of varying attitudes that allows girls to play with who they will become each and every day." The brand is sold in boutiques and department stores nationwide, with Nordstrom being one of their major department store outlets.

The website touts that "all our fashion is designed and patterned in our design house in San Diego. We take great pride that all our manufacturing from design to completion is done not only in America but also locally in San Diego, CA. We source our raw materials locally at first, using about 50% from local suppliers and 50% from overseas. All our packing material is recyclable, and waste is kept to a minimum." The website encourages clients to wash their clothing in cold water and line dry it, saying "This is not only better for the longevity of your clothing, it is also easier on the planet."

Fiveloaves Twofish's website offers a challenge to clients: Know what you buy and read labels. Buy from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect.

Going to Market for Fashion

Barrie and Heather were asked by the moderator to describe how they "went to market." Barrie explained that “going to market” means exhibiting in a major trade show in the fashion industry. The market calendar means that you sell your spring line in August and October, and your fall line in January and March. Barrie said that she started selling at craft shows in 2007 and "went to market” in 2009. She started with two swimsuits and one pair of shorts at the Magic show in Las Vegas.

Heather said they started in a tiny studio with 10 – 15 of each style, and it was a matter of either going to market or closing down. They went to market at a children’s show in New York in 2010 as that is where you have to go for children's clothes. She said that all the big accounts (major chain stores) place their orders at the August and January shows, so they have spent all of their money by the October and March shows. The boutiques and small chains come to the shows in October and March to place their orders. She said that this can often work out better for a new brand as it is hard to meet the production needs of the big accounts when you start out.

An information handout for attendees said the major U. S. markets are: Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta. There are trade shows conducted in these markets, with two of the biggest being the ENK show in New York and Magic in Las Vegas.

Heather and Barrie were asked what the costs to participate in trade shows are. Barrie said it started out as low as $2,500 for a booth at the Pool show, but that show costs $4,600 now. Then, you have to add in the cost of either renting or building "walls" for your booths. She explained that all booths have to have "walls" on three sides, so the booth is only open to the aisle. You can build the "walls" out of a variety of sturdy materials and cover them with contact paper.

Heather said that the children's show in New York costs $3,000 for a 6' X 10' booth and besides the costs of building the "walls," you have to add the cost of hotels, which in New York can run $5,000. Both ladies were leaving town at the end of the week to exhibit at one of the trade shows held the first week of August.

Heather said that you need to make a commitment to participate in trade shows for at least a year, so the buyers can gain confidence that you are going to stay in business. She added, "Our first New York show paid for itself. The accounts that make a show worthwhile don't write orders at the show." Barrie said that her biggest customer is Mod Cloth, and they were her first customer.

The next question was whether or not they used "reps" and had "showrooms." Barrie said she doesn't have any "reps" now, but is looking into it. Heather said they have reps, and have show rooms in Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta and London. She added, "Reps that go after them work out better. We pay a 12% commission and have show room fees in Los Angeles and Atlanta."

The meeting handout explained that "reps are individuals you hire in different market locations to show your line for you. They usually carry 12-15 lines. They are paid by commission of the sales they make for you and also often charge a showroom fee."

An audience member asked where they buy their material. Heather said you need to start with the streets of L. A. (the garment district) to buy smaller lots of material because to buy wholesale, you need to order 60 – 70 yards. She said they started out simple ─ solid colors and no trims. She advised, "Always be honest." [In other words, don't inflate the size of what you may order in the future to get a cheaper price for your small order.]

Neither Barrie nor Heather felt people are willing to pay more just because their lines are "Made in USA." They both said they have a problem with "knockoffs," that is, copies of their styles made mainly by foreign companies in Asia. I learned that the design of an article of clothing is not something you can patent, so there are no intellectual property rights to protect your designs. You can only trademark your brand of clothing. Thus, manufacturing of clothing is even riskier than the high-tech products with which I am familiar.

It is good to see the manufacturing side of San Diego's clothing industry resurgent after better-known apparel lines of companies headquartered in San Diego outsourced their manufacturing offshore. If boutique apparel companies can be successful making their clothing in San Diego using American workers, then think of the outrageous prices other apparel companies are charging by manufacturing their clothing in countries like China, Vietnam and India. By their success, Fables by Barrie and Fiveloaves Twofish have exploded the myth that one must manufacture their apparel offshore in order to be profitable. We consumers need to check labels and support companies that are manufacturing in the U.S. and creating jobs for other Americans.

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