Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Ralph Lauren designed it – but small manufacturers like this one made this year’s Olympic attire.

Most spectators probably couldn’t emulate the tailored look of the athletes who competed at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio Del Janeiro. The form-fitting apparel just wouldn’t look attractive draped over our less-than-Olympian bodies.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t dress like an Olympian – and keep it Made in America, too.

The New England Shirt Company made the Polo, sport and T-shirts worn by the Olympians during the opening and closing ceremonies at this year’s games. While Ralph Lauren designed the pieces, the company procured clothing from American apparel makers like the Fall River, Mass., company, along with Rancourt & Co. Shoes in Lewiston, Maine; blazers from Hickey Freeman in Rochester, N.Y.; and wristbands from Scosha in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Robert Kidder, the owner of New England Shirt Co., has an extensive background in apparel and textiles. The facility where the shirts are manufactured had been making shirts for about 75 years when it was forced to close in 2009 because of the Great Recession.

But Kidder, who splits his time between Boston and Fall River, just couldn’t stand to see another American-made textile company close its doors.

The factory that houses the New England Shirt Co. has been a shirt-making facility since 1933. It originally was known as Flint Mills, and today is part of the National Register of Historic Places. In the early 1800s, Fall River was the largest cotton textile center in the U.S. featuring hundreds of spinning mills.

It was this American history that inspired Kidder to return apparel manufacturing to the historic Flint Mills.

“I had been here (Fall River) for a while when it closed down and I just thought the story, the quality of the product and the people that make up the story was just too special to let it close,” Kidder said. “When it closed back in 2009, I spent some time trying to get it organized again and because of those two reasons, started it up again in 2010. The people, the quality of the product and the love for American manufacturing. Well, it was the three of them combined.

“Fall River has high unemployment. It’s a factory city that has really fallen on hard times. The lack of manufacturing is evident. There are a lot of empty factories and while unemployment is better, it’s still based on the possibilities as when it was a manufacturing town. It’s certainly not as good as it could or should be.”

New England Shirt Co. is a manufacturing enterprise that sells its products wholesale. It has no retail stores of its own but sells to retail outlets throughout the country. Shirts can also be purchased online.

“There are lots of people that appreciate the American product. There is a larger market out there that needs to be informed about American product, so there is work to be done but there is progress being made.” Robert Kidder, owner of New England Shirt Company

Kidder employs 65 people, with anywhere from 45 to 55 workers doing the cutting of fabric, sewing, shipping and pressing. Every shirt is assembled, packaged and shipped out of Fall River.

He says working with Ralph Lauren when the designer needs American-made shirts is a feather in the company’s cap, but has not resulted in a substantial increase in sales.

“Business has grown obviously over the last five or six years, but we’ve had our ups and downs,” Kidder said. “It’s an American manufacturing business, and its market is defined by those better stores that can sell a shirt that retails between $145 and $200. That’s a much smaller market.

“Our heritage is basically American Classic and we try and make it a little more playful and funky and fun but its origins basically come from American Classics. It’s a New England-based company so there is a lot of prep to it in the sense of the colors and the styling," he said. "We don’t plan any changes. We’re an American factory and we are making product in the United States.”

There does seem to be a resurgence in Made in America clothing manufacturers, albeit a small one. According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, 97.3 percent of clothes sold in the United States are imported.

But these longshot odds have not deterred Kidder, who has nearly 50 years of experience creating different manufacturing and retail jobs in America.

“I happen to believe in American manufacturing,” he said. “I just think we are not going to reinvent the American factory. That’s gone, it’s history. We’re not going to make ourselves General Motors or anybody else big again. The horse is out of the barn on American apparel manufacturing, but that doesn’t mean that small factories can’t exist and make nice products. I believe they can and should and that’s why I am doing this.

“There are lots of people that appreciate the American product. There is a larger market out there that needs to be informed about American product, so there is work to be done but there is progress being made.”