Celebrate America this week - and the possibility of an apparel maker revival

By Bart Taylor | Jul 01, 2014

As we celebrate this most American of holidays it’s appropriate to consider a manufacturing sector that’s largely been written off by business and consumers, shipped offshore, primarily to Asia.

It’s been decades since we collectively valued a thriving apparel manufacturing sector. Today we like our shoes and suits from Italy and everything else from We Don’t Care, China. We trust the brands we buy, and if those brands tell us the attributes of those products are best delivered by managing a supply-chain that spans five thousand miles, we’ve come to accept the proposition.

But things change, and business and consumers are increasingly challenging this premise. As we come to grips with what was lost as we offshored apparel jobs and expertise - like quality, control of intellectual property, the ability to innovate from product conception to delivery to customer service - we’re rethinking what truly can be gained by making and buying clothes, jackets, backpacks, shoes, and equipment here.

It’s far easier though to say we’ll cut-and-sew more stuff here than to do it. And as we’ve learned the past ten months in profiling some of the region’s apparel and accessory companies, the skills gap that afflicts much of manufacturing labor is acute in apparel. And that’s only that start. For businesses dealing in volume or in specialized production - like the Cortez, Colorado backpack company Osprey - making in the U.S. remains a bit of a pipe dream. Some of these companies, like Osprey, have invested millions to build capable and robust manufacturing operations overseas. It’s a tough investment to walk away from.

Yet a vanguard of companies are rethinking the business as they innovate, committed to brands and products inspired by the region and the people who come here to work and play. Brands like Voormi in Pagosa Springs, who source all the wool used to make innovate technical wear here, in the Rocky Mountain region. It’s a lifestyle brand inspired by place - and Voormi is sloughing off the premise that quality and innovation can’t be achieved with a domestic apparel supply chain.

Unfortunately Voormi and others will also tell you it’s not feasible, at least until now, to staff a capable cut-and-sew operation in Colorado that provides sufficient scale growing apparel firms need. That the thriving small-batch apparel manufacturing that Eric Peterson writes about today in CompanyWeek, remains too small or lacks technical acumen for companies who would grow the sector.

What makes this reality especially hard to swallow for those truly interested in a diversified economy that includes manufacturing is that the region is poised to grow this sector - if we choose. We can be at the beginning of a lifestyle manufacturing revival here, where clusters of industry grow side-by-side the tourism and recreational opportunities we’re keen to promote.

First we need to rethink the manufacturing infrastructure that would enable an apparel and accessory maker surge.

We’ll stay connected to this story as we return to profiling Colorado’s diverse manufacturers next week.