The movement to support domestic manufacturing in the United States was growing prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 at a slow yet steady pace. With supply chains disrupted and early shortages of personal protective equipment, apparel makers were faced with difficult decisions. One option was to become essential businesses by making the supplies necessary for essential workers and, eventually, the public.
“This has been very fast. When the factories realized production was going to close, they were very fast in realizing that shifting to PPE was going to be important due to a big demand,” explained Edouard Macquin, president of the Atlanta-headquartered technology provider Lectra Americas. “It’s not something you can do overnight, but many reacted like that in a matter of weeks.”
At SEAMS, the organization that represents the interests of sewn products within the United States, Executive Director Will Duncan also recognized a desire from members on how to make and access PPE for healthcare workers and government organizations.
“They recognized it immediately. Our whole industry—we started getting calls immediately from people looking for PPE, especially face masks, but gowns as well,” he said. “We had some members that were up and running within a week. They pivoted their businesses, not only those in cut and sew but also textile mills.”
The initial manufacturing shift
Relying on a global network that included peers from China, which was the first region to experience the devastation of the coronavirus, Macquin was able to learn from these colleagues how to support his clients in the United States and guide them through organizing a PPE-production model within a short amount of time. With many questions regarding how to navigate this new manufacturing frontier, he had comprehensive solutions to meet the immediate needs of customers.
“There were a lot of goals and questions from our customers. The good news was that dealing with PPE is not very complex from a technical standpoint. It is probably more complex to deal with shirt measuring or something similar,” he said. “There was a lot of requests for mask patterns, but when you don’t know how [to do it], you need help.”
As his customers began to receive order cancellations, Ram Sareen, founder of the Los Angeles technology company Tukatech, knew he wanted to help. Recognizing that many manufacturers within the apparel industry were unfamiliar with PPE production, he was able to work with his staff to create patterns to guide businesses in need.
“These companies were making bras and panties, jackets and denim, outerwear and leatherwear—they didn’t know how to make PPE,” he explained. “I created a task force within Tukatech, and we started making patterns. Several people within our company had done similar products for customers. We started creating [patterns for] HAZMAT suits, caps, masks, gloves, boot covers and gowns. Since we are a technology company, we could make a digital 3-D sample and create sewing instructions to hand over to anyone.”
One of Tukatech’s clients, Marta Miller, co-founder of Los Angeles’ Lefty Production Co. was nearly devastated by the blight of COVID-19.
“My husband and I started getting on the phone with hospitals and we landed a $500,000 order in masks,” she said. “My team pretty much continued to work on our core business and help the few clients who could sustain their businesses during this time. Some clients actually found their audience improved because their audience was shopping from home.”
For Brenna N. Schneider, founder and chief executive officer of the Lawrence, Mass., manufacturer 99Degrees, the shift from creating performance activewear to making PPE was an easy decision after the state government announced the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team initiative to support production shifts. Through producing isolation gowns, Schneider was able to find her place within this new industry.
“First we recognized that COVID-19 would be interrupting our supply chain,” she said. “We started seeing some materials being delayed. Then, when it became clear that it was coming to the U.S. and would impact our operation, we started thinking about risk management.”
Initially, the COVID-19 pandemic was a scary new landscape for Jeoff Bodenhorst Jr., president of both SEAMS and the Lebanon Apparel Corporation—also known as LACorp—a Virginia-based cut-and-sew plant. By April, Bodenhorst had used his industry contacts to secure projects making face coverings for the Department of Health and Human Services, which eventually expanded to include isolation gowns. Following this shift, Bodenhorst’s regular clientele began to resurface.
“In the middle of April we saw a rebound in our typical customers, and new customers started placing orders again with new PPE requests and other needs from our historical customers. This all hit at the same time,” he said, expressing optimism for the continued domestic production of PPE. “From a manufacturing point of view, I think there will be a greater push for PPE production in America with American textiles.”
A new domestic-manufacturing model
Citing the potential for opportunities in a post-COVID-19 apparel-manufacturing industry, Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of the Americas President Michael McDonald believes that companies who invested in modern equipment will see a return by remaining competitive with their counterparts in Asia. Remaining prepared to incorporate PPE production in their offerings for the long term will afford new opportunities for brands who invested in these tools early on compared to those brands that were simply shifting to this type of product to maintain their businesses.
“We were seeing an increase in domestic manufacturing slowly. The industry is coming close to solving a lot of those hurdles through automation,” he said. “The hurdle has always been labor costs. We can be viable. If you come in and invest, you can compete with Chinese or Vietnamese labor, and you can make products that compete with those costs, but you can’t do it with the same equipment you bought in 1942.”
This rings true for Schneider, who has secured contracts for more than 2 million level one and two gowns. An investment she made a year ago with her technology partner, Lectra, prepared her for this very moment.
“Finally, a year ago, we purchased an IX machine. We’ve been doing automated cutting with Lectra for the last maybe six months or so,” she said. “It’s a newer machine for us, and we’ve been in business for seven years.”
Implementing social-distancing practices, 99Degrees management was able to retain employees. This ability to be agile and quickly change the course of her production has allowed Schneider to remain relevant now, and she also looks toward a future that allows her to support the brands with whom she has partnered.
“One of the benefits of U.S. manufacturing is the demand-driven production model, where speed enables more inventory turn. During any crisis cash is king, and if all of your cash is tied up in inventory that can be a problem and a risk. It works in brands’ favor to be responsive to demand and mitigate that risk during a period of uncertainty,” she said. “How can U.S. manufacturing help brands become more focused on speed and be demand driven?”
As a low-minimum manufacturer who made masks as one component of its product offerings prior to the coronavirus outbreak, FabFad founder and CEO Sean Saberi was well prepared with his Los Angeles-based “concept-to-closet” microfactory model that reduces waste and allows brands greater inventory management. He sees a post-COVID-19 industry that is more nimble and able to weather crises.
“This was our DNA from the get go. We’ve been talking about this model for the past two years, saying this is where fashion should be. We are showing how this can withstand a pandemic and tariffs,” he said. “We are talking about smart inventory. We have an algorithm to make sure we can make an appropriate amount of units, which means less waste.”
While the current apparel industry in the time of COVID-19 has seen a more-open environment that embraces working together as a benefit rather than a threat, more collaboration is needed, specifically from the government. From manufacturers to industry organizations, many who work in apparel would like to see a government initiative for PPE similar to the Department of Defense’s Berry Amendment, which requires funds spent on the purchase of many products—including clothing, fabrics, fibers and yarns—be dedicated to support providers within the United States.
“The country as a whole doesn’t want to see us in this shortage crisis again,” Duncan said. “There certainly needs to be some type of legislation for us to have a base and companies to have long-term contracts. Hopefully we will see that.”
While the made-in-the-U.S.A. movement was advancing steadily, Bodenhorst noticed that the coronavirus pandemic created greater support for domestic products due to the accessibility that solves supply-chain issues. He has also recognized a greater sense of community across the country as brands, manufacturers and consumers support one another.
“There was a slow movement, almost comparable to the farmers market movement in which people buy produce locally. This coronavirus is making us examine how we can help our neighbors. We can sew in the U.S. We can make fabric in the U.S.,” he said. “If the government was buying the products, it would support the industry, and then private companies would begin buying because it would be made more efficiently here.”