A funny thing happened on my way home from an Army Surplus store 25 years ago. A pair of WWII khakis I had just purchased were about to unwittingly take me on a decades-long journey from a small college town in Ohio into the buzzing factories and workshops of the American apparel industry.
I didn’t just want to wear those khakis; I wanted to reproduce them in America with the same quality and care of that original WWII pair.
So I started Bills Khakis and along the way slowly added shorts, belts, shoes, sweaters, and all manner of shirts–all made in America with that same eye for quality and timeless value. Today Bills Khakis are sold through 500 men’s specialty stores across the country and online.
And while American-made products are having a cultural moment–one I celebrate–sourcing and managing domestic supply partners in a global economy is not an easy task. Here are few lessons learned that may save you a stitch or two in time:
In 1990, there was no momentum behind the cause of American manufacturing. The manufacturing jobs that had been lost in the North were now being lost in the South to factories in Mexico and Asia. Having grown up in Reading, Pennsylvania, a region that echoes the story of Rust Belt cities across the U.S., I was compelled to try to reverse the trend of outsourcing. Besides, I needed a job too!
Fortunately, there were still remnants of a once booming textile and garment industry throughout eastern Pennsylvania. I knocked on the door of many before finding a small factory that could tailor cotton garments with the same level of quality typically reserved for wool.
I quickly discovered the reality of domestic labor rates and the impact that would have on my retail price, which was more than 20% higher than most brands in the category at the time. To further the challenge, I was pioneering a market segment, premium khakis, to which consumers had not been exposed.
Would consumers buy khakis at a premium just because it was made better and in the U.S.? I told a story of quality through a product that conjured patriotic sentiment, but would it work for a product that was viewed as a commodity?
Price elasticity is a question would-be American-made entrepreneurs need to ask about their own products, and where the power of brand must be harnessed to satisfy the value equation.
Beyond the cost of labor, there are underlying conditions among domestic garment manufacturers that make it difficult to establish a long-term relationship and secure a reliable source of supply.
Many domestic apparel manufacturers operate in a “boom or bust” pattern, meaning they secure large production contracts, often for the government or work-wear suppliers, only to be followed by periods of inactivity and temporary shutdown. The process of starting up and shutting down makes it difficult to retain a qualified and talented work force.
Manufacturers who operate in this volatile state of flux typically are not reliable, especially to a brand with a “small batch” approach to manufacturing like ours. Variation to the manufacturing process in facilities not geared to change can result in poor quality and late delivery.
Furthermore, facilities geared to large production contracts will always prioritize large orders over small orders, often delaying deliveries to smaller customers. The result of this process is a limited number of qualified suppliers available to smaller brands. It’s best to have a straight forward conversation with potential manufacturing partners about the flow of work and the scope of how your work will fit into their ongoing production schedule. Ask the contractor about how you can best help them avoid issues with quality or delivery. This will set you apart as a customer with a partnering mindset.
Even with a dedicated supply partner, seasonality in the consumer buying cycle creates periods of high and low production, making it difficult for manufacturers to retain a skilled, reliable work force.
To offset the peaks and valleys in the demand curve, Bills Khakis works with key manufacturing partners to smooth out production through these demand periods. Consistent weekly work enables the manufacturer to dedicate a production line specifically to our products. The benefit to the manufacturing partner is consistency, employee retention and efficiency. The benefit to Bills Khakis is lower production costs, greater quality, and consistency.
There is renewed pride in American factories fueled by a budding generation of consumers looking for a closer connection to what they wear, eat, and drink. In simple economic terms, the United States is in demand.
With more domestically sourced brands telling a similar story, building and refining the quality of your story has never been more important. It’s not enough to just say “Made in U.S.A.” Your brand’s essence, fundamental selling proposition, and point of differentiation must be evident and relevant to the consumer at all points of contact.
Finding new ways to tell a meaningful story is an ongoing creative challenge. New products are the most likely source of news, allowing you to refresh your message. It all starts with what you are selling and how you sell it.
—Bill Thomas is founder and CEO of Bills Khakis.