Is the apparel manufacturing industry in the US dying?

A recent study released by IBISWorld identifies ten dying US industries. Among these top industries is apparel manufacturing. Zintro experts had a lot to say about the survival of the industry and whether it is indeed dying.

Sanjita Prasad, an expert with more than 30 years in the apparel and textile industry, says that the industry is dying because of cost. “When the labor force of a country evolves from manual skills to technical skills, retaining labor in an industry such as apparel manufacturing becomes difficult,” Prasad says.

Prasad suggests that apparel manufacturing companies look at their geographic regions, consider making more premium products, and cater to those segments of the population that can afford and are willing to pay higher prices for better-end products. “In a country that is used to shopping merchandise by price, it is nearly impossible to compete with low-end products that are meant for the masses,” she says. Prasad says this could be achieved by tapping into domestic specialized skills, using higher-end technology and machinery, using specialized fabrics and other raw materials, or simply shifting toward cutting-edge design.

If manufactures partner with domestic ancillary industries and promote domestically produced products, for which discerning consumers may be willing to pay a premium against cheap imports, this may be a viable way for the industry to stay afloat in the US.

One of the major strength of a local manufacturing approach is the fact that these types of companies are not subject to long haulage and transportation costs. This means they are able to align with the season as compared to apparel companies that must factor in much longer lead time when planning their production. “Working off ready inventory or using materials that permit quick turnarounds greatly benefits retailers since this approach can decrease losses due to weather or economic conditions. The ability to ship repeat orders quickly is a big advantage,” Prasad says.

Prasad suggests partnering with likeminded retailers to sell products at lower store margins so that the domestically produced products better compete with imports. Attractive discounts and linking with complementary products would also boost sales for local brands. She also points out that “fashion buying is driven by current events, such as successful movies, music, and even elections. Local manufacturers can be attractive to retailers if they can offer products that tap into these fashion shifts quickly to maximize returns.”

Rekha Krishnamurthi, a designer of a home accessories and an apparel line, says that US apparel manufactures need to cater to the small batch designer. “The biggest obstacle I’ve faced is finding a US manufacturer that will produce small volumes at a reasonable cost,” she says.  The US manufacturer that she initially contacted would not produce volumes less than 480 pieces per style. Krishnamurthi’s customers are small boutiques that order six pieces per style. “I strive to keep manufacturing in the US, but now I am researching a manufacturer in Vietnam who will produce as little as 10 pieces per style,” she says. US manufacturing could look to implement plans to support the indie designer. This would create a market that allows indie designers to service higher end boutiques and potentially create lower cost apparel lines.

Susan Profitt, an executive who works with manufacturing and wholesale accessories, outdoor, and fashion clients, concurs with the industry outlook that the US fashion and textile manufacturing industry is in a major decline. “Companies that have solid long-rage plans may weather the storm,” says Profitt. She forecasts that as China’s pricing continues to rise, countries like Italy and the US – that are known for quality fashions – will no longer appear too expensive. Buyers will adjust their sourcing accordingly.

“Manufacturers that focus on what makes them unique and those that stay true to their core customer and focus on quality of product and customer service will have substantially higher survival expectancy,” says Proffitt. “Companies that plan for higher prices in commodities and raw materials will be poised for economic shifts in the market.”

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