advertisement
advertisement

This Rochester Fashion Co. Dresses Mitt Romney, Bob Costas, And Could’ve Dressed U.S. Olympians

When New York Senator Chuck Schumer suggested Team America remake its uniforms on American soil, he had a specific company in mind: Hickey Freeman, a Rochester, New York, manufacturer that has spent more than 100 years producing menswear and dressing politicians–Chuck (and Mitt) included.

This Rochester Fashion Co. Dresses Mitt Romney, Bob Costas, And Could’ve Dressed U.S. Olympians
Rochester

Chuck Schumer’s suggestion sounded a little cheeky. Two weeks before the start of the Olympic Games, the senior senator from New York proposed we ditch Team America’s uniforms and remake them from scratch, as quickly as possible, on American soil. Ralph Lauren, it came out in the thick of a Washington heat wave, had manufactured the things… in China! (This outsourcing plotline is not new to the 2012 Olympics, although it caught new political momentum at the confluence of a recession and an election season.)

advertisement

An American-born company, with an American-based manufacturing facility, Schumer promised, was waiting at the ready. The idea invited double takes, and not just for the apparent impossibility of stitching so many iconic suits in time for the Opening Ceremony. The senator’s campaign suggested another subtext (and, surely, this was his intention): Clothing is still manufactured somewhere in America? And in the withering Northeast industrial center of Chuck Schumer’s back yard?

“There is a little bit of a surprise,” says fashion designer Joseph Abboud, the president and chief creative officer of HMX Group. “‘Rochester, New York?’”

The label will outfit all of NBC’s on-air announcers for the Games.

That is, in fact, where Hickey Freeman, the HMX-owned label Schumer had in mind, has been since the late 19th century producing menswear and dressing politicians–Schumer among them. (“We’re politically correct,” Abboud says. “We dress Chuck Schumer, and we dress Mitt Romney.”) Hickey Freeman is the vestige of a long and powerful manufacturing history in Rochester. But it’s also the embodiment of the idea that it still makes sense to produce some things in America, even as many of our clothes, widgets, cars, cameras, electronics, and household items are now manufactured overseas.

“All people think about is Eastman Kodak,” says Sandy Parker, the CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance. She was talking, of course, about Rochester’s homegrown, 100-year-old photography giant that filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. “[People] hear we’re from Rochester, and they see the headlines on Eastman Kodak, and they have no idea what else is here. They probably view it as a ghost town.”

advertisement

At its peak, Kodak employed 62,000 people in the Rochester area.
Bausch + Lomb and Xerox were also founded here in the industrial era of
the Erie Canal, giving Rochester a pretty enviable concentration of some
of the 20th century’s most influential companies. As
recently as three decades ago, nearly 30% of the local workforce was
still working in manufacturing. Now, the number is about half as big, and the city is taking pains to diversify the local economy. Nevertheless, Hickey Freeman insists that its manufacturing will remain in Rochester. “Hickey Freeman was, quite frankly, one of the unique manufacturers
that continued to have a presence here,” Parker says, “and largely
because of its workforce.”

The company, first started as a family business in 1899, has long
served as an entry point into the city for immigrants with skills in
sewing and tailoring. And it is that talent pool, with local
institutional knowledge, that the company still needs as it continues to
stake out an explicitly American identity between mass-produced
made-in-China clothes and over-priced made-in-Italy cachet.

Ralph Lauren has argued amid the Olympic controversy that it’s
obviously an American brand (who else plays polo?), even if all its
clothes aren’t produced here. HMX, meanwhile, was acquired several years ago by an Indian company, although in parsing the fashion geopolitics of “made” vs. “designed” vs. “born” in America,
the jobs in Rochester certainly feel real, and Hickey Freeman has
remained in town precisely because of the workforce that exists there to
fill them.

There is innovation behind the fact that Hickey Freeman figured out how to keep manufacturing in Rochester amid so much outsourcing.

“Even with all of the efficiencies and the technology, there is still
a need for the craftsmanship of the workforce,” Abboud says. “They have
to be craftspeople, not just factory workers. When you’re making
something in soft goods, like a beautifully tailored suit, it’s not
spinning out sprockets or anything.”

advertisement

Hickey Freeman produces in Rochester about 150,000 “units” a year
(industry-speak for a single item like a suit jacket), and each sport
coat requires as many as 300 individual processes (sewing a button,
pressing a sleeve, inserting a shoulder pad) handled by an individual at
a machine. In some ways, there is innovation behind the fact that the
company has figured out how to keep doing this in Rochester amid so much
outsourcing.

Hickey Freeman did nearly leave town a decade ago, when it had to upgrade the factory–called “the Temple”–it has kept for
years in the same location on the northeast side of town. The state
helped anchor a $7 million aid package
to keep Hickey Freeman (and about 650 jobs) in Rochester. Since then,
and under new ownership, the label has also updated its style to be a
little less conservative.

“If there were a criticism of [Hickey Freeman] for the last 25 or 30
years, it was that there wasn’t a lot of innovation,” Abboud says. “This
factory has always had the capacity of doing extraordinary things in
terms of innovation, making softer construction, working with
interesting fabrics, really creating not just a suit to cover a guy’s
body, but to create fashion. So the capability has been there. What the
factory really needed was an infusion of new thinking, new ideas, new
products we could create.”

Now the company dresses younger professionals, in addition to a lot
of middle-aged politicians.But alas, Hickey Freeman will not, this
Friday, be dressing the U.S. Olympians. The idea was probably too
far-fetched (and Hickey Freeman isn’t particularly expert at making
ladies’ skirts). But, if you look closely enough, the label will be
outfitting all of NBC’s on-air announcers for the Games. And, well, Bob
Costas is going to get a lot more airtime than water polo team captain Tony Azevedo.

“We’re not trying to keep it alive because it’s archaic and
historic,” Abboud says of the label. “We’re trying to keep it alive and
doing well because it’s a relevant product.”

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #WhyHere.

advertisement

[Images: courtesy of HMX; Romney: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

About the author

Emily Badger is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area, where she writes about cities, sustainability, public policy, and strange ideas. She's a contributing writer at the Atlantic Cities and has written for Pacific Standard, GOOD, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Morning News.

More

Video