Business & Economy

PHOTOS: Apparel makers 'insourcing' production back to Los Angeles from foreign countries

Antonio Herdandez, left, and Angel Guerrero spread fabric at the Karen Kane warehouse. The layered stack of fabric is then cut to make different components of the clothing.
Antonio Herdandez, left, and Angel Guerrero spread fabric at the Karen Kane warehouse. The layered stack of fabric is then cut to make different components of the clothing.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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On this Labor Day, one of L.A.’s largest industries is experiencing something of a jobs boom. After losing many jobs to China and Latin America over the past 20 years, the garment industry is now bringing clothing assembly jobs back. It’s responding to the demands of a faster paced fashion industry and a renewed interest in clothing made in the USA.

Karen Kane, Inc. has been in the forefront of the "insourcing" trend. It's been making women’s clothes for more than three decades. It handles design and cutting in-house, but it relies on contractors for the sewing and production. About half of that work used be done by contractors in China. Now, 90 percent of Karen Kane’s production is done by contractors in the LA area.

"It was a business decision," says company founder Lonnie Kane. "It made good sense to bring the product home and make it here."

Kane says his company started the shift about 4 years ago, when doing business in China had changed. Costs started rising and quality started falling.

"We just found that bringing it back, we had better control that we could sell, and ship a better product than we had coming in from China," he said

Kane discovered another advantage in producing locally: speed. He says Chinese contractors would take up to three months to produce and deliver a shipment. And in the world of retail, that’s hard to manage. He explains that he might send twelve of one garment to a store at first. If consumers come in and buy half of them in the first week, the store calls him asking two questions: 'can we get more?’ and ‘how fast?’

"Well, if it was made here, we can turn it around and get’em more..rather quickly," Kane says.

Ilse Metchek, President of the California Fashion Association, says fashion moves quickly now, and local production helps apparel makers respond quickly.

"Whatever you’re wearing is out of style in 10 weeks," she says, explaining what's come to be known as 'fast fashion.' "Someone somewhere in some magazine wore something that everyone else wants… for 10 weeks…and the point is the fast fashion manufacturers get on that… quickly," she says.

Metchek says the push to bring garment assembly jobs back to L-A started picking up steam about a year ago when retailers began to ask about making more clothes in the U.S.

She says the drive to reverse outsourcing has its limits. The L. A. market can’t do it all, she says, because it will never make t-shirts, socks, and hoodies as cheaply and efficiently as Asian and South American contractors do.

"But if you’re looking for the higher margin items, that are fast fashion, that you must have immediately, and you’re not gonna wait six months," says Metchek, "we can make that."

Youth Monument Clothing is another L.A.-based apparel maker that has learned the advantages of local production. Though its parent company is the well-established Antex Knitting Mills, Youth Monument started up less than two years ago, specializing in logo-licensed apparel for women. In this case, the production work has returned to Los Angeles from Mexico.

"It’s been a hard process to do everthing in the United States because of the cost," says company co-founder Nick Ventura, standing in a new sewing facility with 25 sewers, most of whom were hired in the last six months. "Retailers are always trying to beat you up as far as getting your wholesale pricing down. That’s been a tough road to travel, but we sell the quality and the 'made in USA' nostalgia [and] we're creating jobs with living wages."

On-site quality control and quick turnaround are also what drive Youth Monument to produce its more than 40,000 garments a month locally, but Ventura adds that the company also likes creating living wage jobs on its factory floor. A mainstay of its business is college and university apparel, so when a college sports team gets hot, the tank-tops and sweatshirts start to move quickly.

"If they’re winning all their games, they sell out of everything at the store that I’m providing, I need to have that stuff quick," Ventura explains. "With China and overseas, you’re looking at 180 days mininum, and I can’t make turnaround times, and a lot of my money is made off of re-orders."

Most companies that want to produce more here, says the California Fashion Association's Metchek, face barriers like high equipment costs and a shortage of workers who can be hired legally. The work requires training and skills, but doesn’t always pay a lot.