Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

A U.S. apparel company is increasingly an outsourcer. What's keeping it from sourcing in the States?

When Claudia Vargish launched her clothing business A Soft Idea 30 years ago, her whole line of products was manufactured in America.

Today, only a few of her best-selling items from her home furnishing and baby clothing collection are entirely made in the United States.

Vargish was not about to give up on a successful business but sourcing from foreign countries – while unappealing – was essential for her business to survive.

And it was also extremely personal.

Vargish’s great-uncle was George Vargish, who spent 50 years in the textile industry in New Jersey and New York. For 33 years he was the CEO of his own manufacturing companies – Vargish Knitwear Company and Knitco Inc. He was president and chairman of the National Knitwear & Sportswear Association between 1970 and 1983. He was also the chairman of the U.S. Apparel Council and an advisor to the United States government regarding bilateral trade agreements on textiles.

It is 50 years later, and the American textile industry is still fighting those same battles.

A Family Connection to Made in America

George Vargish saw the future of foreign-made textiles and subsequently authored two books on the subject: "What’s MADE in the USA?" and "WHERE HAVE ALL THE JOBS GONE? Why Americans Are Out of Work" before he passed away in 2007.

So, while Claudia Vargish is finding it nearly impossible to keep clothing entirely made in America, she keeps up the challenge in memory of her great-uncle’s impeccable garment career.

“This is our 30th anniversary year,” said Vargish. “We have blanket throws for the home. We basically have two categories, which is the throws and we have a baby collection. The baby line is very high-end, and we also have a small assortment of women’s accessories.

“The focus is really the throws and the baby line. I started business doing these blanket throws and added in some baby products and as soon as I added the baby, it took off as quickly as the throws.

“There are about 25 to 30 items in the baby line and two of them are made entirely in the United States. Thirty years ago, all the items in the baby line were manufactured in the United States. They were all produced in knitting mills in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx – the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“Some things aren’t just made here anymore. You can’t get some of the raw materials I need and labor costs are high. If I could make everything in America again, I would.”

Vargish’s great-uncle was known throughout the garment industry as a champion of keeping production going in the U.S. but he saw the writing on the wall. He witnessed Chinese companies taking over textile manufacturing with cheap labor and the beginning of the American-made garment demise back in the late 1960s.

Vargish had always had a passion for fashion and style. But she never envisioned that nearly all of America’s apparel would be manufactured overseas.

“I keep trying to (manufacture in the United States)," said Vargish. "In fact, my one factory that is still hanging on in the Bronx, I was thinking of starting a new category with him just to keep it made here in America.

“I can tell you as even as I try to continue to do what I am doing it’s challenging because the whole infrastructure of the of the process has fallen apart. I’m down to one potential dye house. All the rest of them have gone by the wayside. I struggle with finding yarn. I struggle with each piece of it.”

Recently Vargish saw the culmination of a two-year program of manufacturing a children’s sweater that is made in America and sold in the United States Senate Gift Shop.

"We did a custom embroidery that has an eagle and says ‘Future Senator.’ They just sent me a re-order because the buyer told me they sold out. So there still is a demand for clothes made in the U.S.A.”

"We literally have some stores that say they will only buy products made in the U.S." Claudia Vargish

One of her 100 percent American-made products is a kid-sized cotton rollneck sweater.

“One reason I am still able to make the sweater in the United States because it is made on a unique machine which they call the whole garment,” said Vargish. “The fabric goes on the machine and once it comes off the machine it goes to the dye house. There is virtually no labor. After it is dyed it comes back to us and all we have to do is tuck in some threads, put a label on it and pack.

“It’s high-quality yarn so it doesn’t pill. It’s kind of a unique manufacturing situation. There is virtually no finishing.”

Instances of Increased Demand

It is obvious Vargish is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the clothing manufacturing business. She has worked in fashion retail since age 14 and eventually attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

A Soft Idea company headquarters is located in Bridgeport, Conn. Its baby clothing and throws are sold online, but the company has a history of selling in brick and mortar stores including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“Probably in the last 10 years when we would go to trade shows people would come and say where is it made? The big question is they were really searching for what I call the ABC theory – Anywhere But China. We literally have some stores that say they will only buy products made in the U.S.”

Claudia Vargish is keeping up the good fight for American textiles and her great-uncle was always proud that she was pursuing production in the U.S.

“He was also completely fine that I imported because he felt I did it in very, fair manner, that I wasn’t going after this cheap production.”

George Vargish saw the decline of American textiles in the 1960s, but he never stopped fighting the import war. His niece, Claudia, has not given up the fight. The demand for American-made goods is there. Which firms will step up to meet it?