Move Over L.A. Detroit is Gunning to Become America’s Next Garment District
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
By Fast Company
The two best-known garment districts in the United States are located in New York City and Downtown Los Angeles. But soon, there might be a third: Detroit.
That’s the vision driving Tracy Reese, an icon of the American fashion scene for more than two decades, whose colorful, patterned dresses have been worn by everyone from Michelle Obama to Sarah Jessica Parker to Mindy Kaling. Three years ago, Reese moved her operations from New York back to her hometown of Detroit to be part of a movement to transform the former automotive hub into a center of ethical, sustainable American fashion manufacturing. In 2019, she launched a new label, Hope for Flowers, that is designed and partially manufactured in Michigan.
Today, 97% of garments sold in the United States are manufactured overseas. Reese has seen firsthand what it will take to bring back apparel production to the country. It’s a laborious process that involves training garment workers, investing in factories and machinery, and more. The past few years have shown Reese that such a transformation is possible, but it’s a process that requires support from the government, fashion brands, and us, the consumers.
Becoming Tracy Reese
Reese was born in Detroit in 1964 and left her hometown at 18 to attend Parsons School of Design in New York. After several years working at fashion houses, including Perry Ellis, she launched her own eponymous ready-to-wear fashion label in 1998 and became a fixture of the runways at New York Fashion Week. In the early days of her business, Reese manufactured in New York City, where there was a bustling ecosystem of factories. “Creating my collection meant going to one workshop for marking and grading garments, another for cutting, another for pleating, and another for embroidering,” Reese recalls. “When the Garment District was stronger, all of these factories were within a four-block radius. But then they began to close.”
Over the course of Reese’s career, U.S. apparel manufacturing hollowed out as brands moved their production to developing countries, where labor was cheaper. In the 1960s, 95% of all apparel sold in the U.S. was made here, but by 1993, that had plummeted to 52%. Today, only 3% of the clothes Americans buy are made in the country. But garment workers in the U.S. don’t always have better working conditions than those overseas. In order to compete with the low labor prices in Asia, garment factories in New York and Los Angeles often skirt labor laws by paying workers a “piece rate” amounting to pennies for every item they sew. This can work out to as little as $2.68 an hour, a fraction of California’s $14 minimum wage.
“Garment manufacturing in the U.S. is part of a global system that is based on an exploitative business model,” says Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, which is committed to eradicating sweatshops in Los Angeles. “Fashion brands at the top of the supply chain exert downward pressure, which decreases prices and weakens workers protections.” (This year, the State of California passed landmark legislation that bans the piece rate, holding factories and brands accountable for wage theft.)
In the early 2000s, Reese moved her production to Asia, where enormous garment factories had mushroomed and did every part of the production under one roof. Designers had to simply send over their designs and within a few months, the factory would ship clothes over, at a fraction of what it would cost in the U.S. “By the end, our collections were a hundred percent imported,” Reese says. “The circumstances almost forced you overseas, which is a shame.”
Reese was always concerned about the unseen costs of shifting production overseas, from poor labor conditions to highly polluting factories. But by the ’90s, consumers were hooked on low prices and it was becoming increasingly hard to sell clothes at prices that ensured workers got a living wage. Her mass market line, Plenty, which launched in 2000, started at around $150, but department stores pressured her to lower her prices. “Buyers would tell me that if I charged $79, the customer would buy two instead of one,” she recalls. “I don’t think the average customers understand how prices are built.”
The idea of moving to Detroit to set up a new manufacturing hub came to Reese in 2018, when she participated in a nine-month residency focused on sustainable design organized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Lexus. As she poured over the latest data about her industry’s carbon footprint and exploitative labor practices, she felt compelled to radically change her business.
Reese’s desire to upend the fashion supply chain coincides with a larger movement. Organizations like the Garment Worker Center, Remake, and the Sustainable Fashion Forum have emerged over the last decade to draw attention to fashion’s devastating impact on the planet and highlight the abuse of garment workers. Many consumers now express concern about how their clothes are made. In a 2020 McKinsey survey, 60% of consumers said that sustainability was an important factor in purchasing decisions and 38% said they expected brands to help low-paid workers in Asian factories. “The ethical fashion community did not exist 20 years ago,” says Nuncio. “Consumers are now more aware than ever about the problems in the industry and want to support businesses that are doing the right thing.”
Reese decided to move back home to Detroit, which had transformed radically since she left 35 years before. The auto industry had declined in the wake of the Great Recession, with Chrysler and GM filing for bankruptcy in 2009. Then the city itself filed for bankruptcy. But while parts of Detroit were devastated by poverty and blight, Reese saw an opportunity to be part of the city’s revitalization. New residential neighborhoods were being developed; hotels and restaurants were popping up downtown. Reese thought apparel manufacturing could provide skilled jobs for people who had previously worked in the auto sector and had been left out of the city’s renaissance. “I saw a lot of energy here, a lot of people doing interesting, meaningful work,” says Reese. “But I also saw a chasm between old Detroit and new Detroit. A fashion sector could help the two meet in the middle.”
Reese wasn’t alone in seeing Detroit’s potential as a fashion hub. She joined the board of a nonprofit in the city called the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC) that launched in 2018. In 2020, the organization opened a factory in midtown Detroit located above the flagship retail store of the workwear brand Carhartt. The facility was outfitted with cutting-edge apparel manufacturing equipment, like laser cutting machines that can be programmed to create customized garments.
“We have a history of advanced manufacturing in this city,” says Jen Guarino, president and CEO of ISAIC. (In March 2021, the World Economic Forum classified Michigan as an advanced manufacturing hub, with more engineers per capita than any other state.) “This region is positioning itself to be the Silicon Valley of apparel manufacturing, with forward-thinking solutions around logistics and automation. And all of this has been developed by embedding opportunities for Detroiters. ”
More than half of ISAIC’s 35-person staff are industrial sewing experts who train people in a year-long apprenticeship and a five-week long Department of Labor certification program. Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, 25 people have already been fully trained; now, ISAIC brings on 10 new students every six week. ISAIC’s factory is already producing clothes for big brands like Gap-owned Intermix and Carhartt, along with smaller brands. Over the last year, as disruptions have shaken the global supply chain, Guarino says ISAIC has seen a spike in inbound requests from brands looking for U.S.-based manufacturing.
ISAIC’s goal is to train workers in the latest machinery and production techniques, which will allow them to eventually earn a higher wage. Workers who graduate can expect to earn a minimum of $15 an hour, but that can go up as they acquire more technical skills. Four days a week, apprentices produce garments for brands, and on the fifth day, they focus on learning more complex skills. “They learn about the entire process of production, so we can put them on an exciting career trajectory,” says Guarino. “Traditionally, the fashion industry has been prehistoric as far as offering a career path to sewing operators.”
Deirdre Robinson was in the first class at ISAIC, where she learned about textiles, how to sew across multiple machines, and actually manufactured for brands. She says that her class was diverse, Some people were looking for basic training to launch a career in manufacturing. Another woman in her sixties had spent her career as a garment worker, but wanted to develop more technical skills. Robinson decided not to pursue a career in manufacturing, but put the skills she acquired at ISAIC towards her own fashion label, Eumelanin, which is largely manufactured in Detroit. “ISAIC opened me up to all the different options when it came to apparel manufacturing,” she says. “I’m now technically sound and can advocate for myself.”
The Challenge of Scaling
In 2019, Reese launched Hope for Flowers, a new label focused on sustainability. For the debut collection, she produced a capsule collection entirely made in Michigan. She worked with local artists to create patterns, which were printed on organic textiles. The ISAIC factory had not yet opened, so to manufacture the collection, she partnered with a small Catholic organization in Flint that trained women in industrial sewing. “It was a 14-machine factory in a gymnasium at a Catholic services center that trained women from all kinds of situations who needed a fresh start in life,” she says. “I wanted to prove that I could do it, force myself to build relationships, and understand the infrastructure challenges we would need to overcome.”
Hope for Flowers made a splash, getting featured in Vogue and picked up by Anthropologie. In many ways, Reese viewed the collection as a pilot to understand what resources were available in the city. Her broader goal is to build her brand’s manufacturing operations so she can produce larger collections and partner with more retailers. Eventually, Reese would like to work with ISAIC, but for now, the factory is focused on training workers to make T-shirts and knitwear, rather than the dresses her brand is known for. Next year, however, ISAIC is piloting a for-profit, worker-owned factory where the garment workers will have a stake in the business.
However, it is clear to Reese that even if she is able to tap into local factories that use automation, it will be impossible to sell clothes ethically in the United States that are as cheap as imported fast fashion. The success of American-made depends on some consumers willing to pay slightly higher prices for sustainable clothes made by well-paid workers. So far, she’s found a market for her garments, which start at just under $200. “Consumers have been trained on cheap, disposable merchandise,” she says. “It is absolutely impossible to get to those prices while paying American workers a living wage. So consumers need to come alongside us and support the work we’re doing as well.”
For now, Reese has a design studio in Midtown Detroit with a staff of five. She is building out an in-house sample room and partnering with local artisans who are experts in print-making and embellishments. She is also in the process of building her own, dedicated sewing workshop with dressmakers trained to make her designs. In the next year, she expects to make 30% of her collection in Detroit, and within a few years, she believes she’ll be able to manufacture entirely in the city. To make it work, Reese says they’ll need to design the kinds of systems that exist overseas, where garments are made under one roof instead of at multiple factories.
Setting up this infrastructure requires a lot of capital investment, and fortunately, Reese says that both the city and state are supportive of new businesses, particularly those in manufacturing. For instance, Detroit offers grants to residents—particularly from minority groups—looking to start businesses. The Minority Business Development Agency offers up to $400,000 to provide technical assistance and business development for companies doing advanced manufacturing. And the Michigan Economic Development Corporation has been helpful in connecting businesses with workers.
Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of Remake, the San Francisco-based organization that advocates for a more ethical fashion industry, says building out a sustainable and humane apparel manufacturing industry across the U.S. will require government support. In Los Angeles and New York City, she says legislators have had a hands-off approach when it comes to supporting apparel brands and manufacturers. So she’s heartened by how supportive Detroit has been. “Detroit has an opportunity to attract ethical brands, retailers, and manufacturers who have historically shied away from Los Angeles and New York because of their sweatshop reputations,” she says. “But it is going to take thoughtful policy-making and investments by the state and federal government to attract and retain these businesses.”
Despite all of this support, Reese says scaling her business over the last 18 months has been an uphill battle. Just as she was ready to launch the second Hope for Flowers collection, the pandemic hit, which meant that many of the training programs and newly-launched sewing facilities had to shut down for months. She had little choice but to turn back to her Asian factory partners to manufacture her 2021 lineup. Reese tried to make the most of the circumstances. “It gave me time to create a solid business plan and assemble a team of collaborators here in Detroit,” she says. “When the restrictions eased in the spring [of 2021], I started hiring staff.”
Now, Reese is pouring all of her efforts into scaling up her operations. And as turbulent as the last three years have been, she believes it is possible to bring apparel manufacturing back to the United States. “Moving back to Detroit feels absolutely right,” she says. “We’re creating a powerful manufacturing ecosystem here that satisfies more than just commerce; it’s about imagining what the future of the fashion industry could be.”