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.)
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?’"
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."
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.
"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."
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."
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[Images: courtesy of HMX; Romney: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]