Why Clothing Startups Are Returning To American Factories
It’s no longer (just) about patriotism or marketing. These brands want to create the best, most innovative clothes in the world.
At the swanky Prudential Center in the heart of Boston’s shopping district, the Yogasmoga boutique stands out for its sparse, minimalist aesthetic. At the entrance, there is a large white orchid on a table surrounded by neatly folded tank tops and yoga pants known for their high-tech fabrics. Soothing, Eastern-inspired music is piped in, giving the space a peaceful ambiance.
Yogasmoga’s om-inducing clothes are made 60 miles south of Boston in the gritty town of Fall River, Massachusetts, where I recently met with Yogasmoga’s founder and CEO Rishi Bali to visit the factory. In the 19th century, Fall River was an important textile hub in New England, second in the world only to Manchester, England, in terms of textile production. Over the last few decades, however, the majority of factories in these parts have been shuttered as manufacturing has moved offshore to places such as China and Vietnam where labor is cheaper.
At Griffin Manufacturing, a grand eight-story stone factory built in 1936, this has-been manufacturing hub is showing signs of life. Three floors of this building are in production. While the factory is outfitted with state-of-the-art machines — one, for instance, is able to precisely laser-cut stacks of fabric so that very little goes to waste — it’s surprising how much of each garment is made by hand.
At one station, a sewer named Lee Almeida is stitching a thin layer of piping around the neckline and armholes of a shirt. She says Yogasmoga clothes require more focus because activewear materials tend to curl at the ends, so it is easier to make mistakes. I ask her how long she’s been sewing professionally. “Twenty-four years,” she says, without taking her eyes off the seam she is working on.
When Bali started his company three years ago, his decision to manufacture locally wasn’t motivated primarily by a desire to bring back business to dying factories or to ensure that workers were being well treated. “Of course, as the CEO of a clothing company, I’m haunted by the images of the thousand garment workers who died when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh,” he says. “I like knowing that that won’t happen here. But it’s also true that I simply couldn’t produce the clothes I wanted to make overseas.” This is a sharp turn from a company like American Apparel, which opened in 1989, advertising its American-made products as an alternative to those made in sweatshops in Asia.
Bali wanted to create his own technical fabrics, monitor quality, and have the flexibility to scale up his business as quickly as possible. He believes the only way he was able to accomplish these goals was to set up production in the U.S. And this decision is paying off: Last year, the company had a valuation of $78 million and opened its 12th store. “It can take 10 months to go from placing an order at a Chinese factory to receiving a shipment of clothes,” Bali says. “By using local factories, I’m able to meet demand much quicker.”