Buyers from all over the world flock to Gitman Bros. to get a piece of timeless American style: oxford shirts, plaids and rep ties often cut slightly slimmer to appeal to the trendy and urbane.
But when the company’s president, Chris Olberding, attended the venerable menswear trade show Pitti Uomo in Italy this month, the brand’s “Made in USA” label was an unexpected liability.
I always thought it was a good thing to keep our production in the U.S., and all of a sudden the conversation changes because of this one person.
Chris Olberding, president of Gitman Bros.
Clients flung jokes at the then-president-elect’s expense. There was talk about avoiding travel to the U.S. during Donald Trump’s four-year term. And one of the Ashland, Pa.-company’s accounts was almost canceled because a customer wanted to boycott American clothes.
“I felt like the wind got knocked out of me,” Olberding said in a phone interview from Florence. “I always thought it was a good thing to keep our production in the U.S., and all of a sudden the conversation changes because of this one person.”
By all appearances, Trump should be a boon for the “Made in USA” brand. The nation’s 45th president swept into office pledging to get American factories humming again.
“We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American,” Trump said during his inauguration speech Friday.
But the negative reaction at Pitti Uomo underscores the pitfalls of these polarizing times. Trump by association can act as a double-edged sword.
A backlash against American brands would be a painful and ironic twist for the apparel and footwear companies that have fought to keep production stateside against innumerable odds.
Long before Trump campaigned on the promise of reviving domestic manufacturing, time-tested labels such as Gitman Bros., Filson and Red Wing Shoes were touting their “Made in USA” roots and encouraging customers to buy American menswear at a time when competitors had long fled to cheaper countries.
They rode a wave of popularity in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis as trendsetters began rejecting fast-fashion brands like H&M and embracing traditionally stodgy ones like Brooks Bros. – an acknowledgment that it was better to buy pieces that lasted than support wasteful fads. With a modern cut and higher prices, the movement essentially made your grandfather’s clothes cool, at least among a certain subset of fashion-savvy men.
New Balance suffers
Now, some of those same companies, as well as more recently established ones, are wondering what the “Made in USA” label will mean under the new administration. Will it continue to stand for craftsmanship and style, or amount to an endorsement of Trump’s policies – or even the president himself?
It’s a question made all the more important because many of the labels’ newfound fans are ensconced in left-leaning enclaves.
“Is ‘Made in USA’ in danger of becoming ‘Make Made in USA Great Again’?” said Jonathan Wilde, editor of GQ.com, a men’s fashion bible that has been at the forefront of reviving interest in so-called heritage American brands.
Wilde sees a contradiction unfolding. On one hand, U.S. apparel makers could benefit from an administration that favors local producers and makes domestic manufacturing more cost effective. On the other, these brands could lose their cool among their prime demographic if Trump turns “Made in America” into a political slogan.
“He can support things that aren’t entirely wrong,” Wilde said. “But can you separate that from the rest of him? He could be your largest ally or your worst ally. He could make what was a very good phrase almost something of a third rail.”
New Balance, whose retro sneaker designs have enjoyed a popular resurgence, may be the first casualty of this new dynamic. The company, which makes some of its footwear in the U.S., found itself at the center of a social media firestorm in November after an executive was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying the Obama administration “turned a deaf ear to us” and that “things are going to move in the right direction” under Trump.
Customers were outraged, pledging a boycott and posting videos of the company’s chunky sneakers getting tossed in the trash or set ablaze. White supremacists began claiming New Balance as the shoe brand of white people. The company, which did not respond to a request for an interview, quickly released a statement saying it did not tolerate bigotry or hate and remained committed to manufacturing in the U.S.
A similar controversy befell L.L. Bean this month (albeit without the white supremacists) after Trump tweeted support for the Maine clothing brand, which had landed on a list of companies to boycott because of its ties to the president. Those ties, however, were limited to board member Linda Bean, a Trump donor. In a public statement, the company sought to distance itself from Linda Bean, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean’s founder.
“We are deeply troubled by the portrayal of L.L. Bean as a supporter of any political agenda,” said the company, which still produces some items such as boots in the U.S.
The recent politicization of fashion labels is the stuff of nightmares for executives like Geoff Clawson, president of Birdwell, a surfwear company that’s been manufacturing its signature board shorts in the same Santa Ana factory since 1961.
“It’s something we pay close attention to, but I don’t wish for that problem,” Clawson said of the controversies that usurped New Balance and L.L. Bean.
Keeping production in the U.S. is hard enough without having to worry about how partisan politics can affect the bottom line. Supply chain is a constant concern because the success of Clawson’s business is deeply linked to the survival of his nylon supplier in South Carolina and grommet supplier in Florida.
“It’s possible for ‘Made in America’ to come back, but it will require more of this source material manufacturing to also return to the U.S. and be profitable,” Clawson said. “Politics aside, it seems like that’s what the president-elect is pointing to. For us to be ‘Great Again,’ we need to reclaim these disciplines.”
Price still matters
It’s unclear precisely what Trump’s administration will do to bring jobs back other than to renegotiate trade deals or raise tariffs on imports. Fashion industry experts say that would be devastating for a broad swath of American apparel brands that either manufacture or source materials from overseas (including Trump- and Ivanka Trump-branded apparel). It would, however, shrink the gap between the cost of clothes made in the U.S. and those made overseas.
The fashion industry’s low margins have punished companies such as the recently sold American Apparel, which tried to sell affordable, mass-market clothes while offering its employees living wages. The share of domestically produced clothing in the U.S. in 2015 was 2.7 percent, down from 10.2 percent in 2005 and 46.2 percent in 1995, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association. Over the same period, apparel consumption has grown more than 60 percent.
“There’s absolutely no possibility of fashion making a reentry to the U.S.,” said Bjorn Bengtsson, a professor at Parsons School for Design in New York. “The reason is labor. Most U.S. manufacturers are having tremendous difficulty finding skilled labor. We have to train people. But even then, salaries are not going to be as low as in countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar.”
Higher wages means higher price tags, and Americans have shown an unwillingness to pay more for their shoes and threads. A recent NDP Group survey found that 80 percent of Americans considered “Made in USA” labels important to some degree, yet only 23 percent said they would pay more for it.
The apparel industry is also nervous about the effect that Trump will have on its largely immigrant workforce. Finding qualified workers to man sewing machines has been so challenging that companies such as Brooks Bros. have turned to refugees to fill out its ranks.
I saw this election as the best shot I may ever have to affect trade policies that could help my company and my employees – so I took a chance.
Designer Todd Shelton
“I’m not sure this work appeals to anyone,” said Marcus Wainwright, co-founder of Rag & Bone, which still relies on the shrinking New York garment district for production. “I wish it did. The only people left to work in this are immigrants. Cut down on them and it will make things a lot harder.”
Still, some fashion brands are hopeful about a Trump administration, arguing that his rhetoric is invariably bringing more positive attention to the “Made in USA” label and that his policies could level the playing field with competitors that manufacture abroad.
When designer Todd Shelton started selling his namesake clothes, he manufactured in China but hated having little control over production itself. So he shifted manufacturing back to the U.S., eventually making jeans, woven shirts and sweaters out of a factory in East Rutherford, N.J., where he can hover over his products as they’re made.
Still, Shelton believed that the odds were stacked against him, with local suppliers struggling to survive and competitors turning to low-cost foreign manufacturers. So he cast his vote for Trump in the hope that his administration would take action like levying import tariffs, which could make his products more cost-competitive and slow the deluge of imported clothing that’s driving over-consumption.
“As business owners, we’ve heard support for ‘Made in USA’ before from politicians, but with Trump, it felt sincere,” Shelton said. “In my case, I saw this election as the best shot I may ever have to affect trade policies that could help my company and my employees – so I took a chance.”
But any new trade policies may not keep up with changes in fashion. The American heritage look, which gave us sartorial curiosities like the lumbersexual, is already falling out of favor, according to men’s fashion experts. In its place is a return to European luxury, as well as a sort of gulag chic popularized by Kanye West, whose own label and popular Adidas sneakers are manufactured overseas.
“Even if policies are enacted to bring American manufacturing jobs back, that doesn’t mean there will be a demand for American-made goods,” said Brad Bennett, founder of Well Spent, a website that highlights up-and-coming brands and ethically sourced clothing from America and around the world.
Bennett added: “Most New York fashion editors wouldn’t be caught dead wearing Red Wing shoes now.”