In this guest post, WILD Outdoor Apparel founder Daniel Tiegs explains his recent move away from Asian manufacturing to domestic, local manufacturing.
I am a veteran of the performance apparel world, having worked for brands big and small in the athletic, outdoor and ski industry. Throughout my career, every product I worked on, whether I was merchandising, designing, sourcing or manufacturing, was made in Asia. When I started WILD Outdoor Apparel in 2013, the Asian apparel supply chain was simply how performance apparel was made, it was what I knew how to do, and it was what I turned to for my own production. Since then, I’ve decided to move all of WILD’s manufacturing to the United States, starting with my latest jacket, the Burnside Alpha. Here’s why.
Performance apparel is significantly more difficult to manufacture than non-performance outerwear or sportswear because of the special fabrics used (e.g. laminated, coated, and very lightweight fabrics) and the manufacturing time involved in building the features found in many performance garments (e.g. down-filled baffles, intricate pocketing, seam sealing, underarm vents, removable powder cuffs). All of the special handling and time-consuming sewing increases the cost of manufacture. Plus, the fabrics themselves are expensive due to the laminations, coatings, and special milling processes that give the fabric their performance features, like being waterproof and breathable. Therefore, almost all performance garments are made in Asia where labor costs are low.
This move offshore to take advantage of very low labor and overhead costs took the entire supply chain with it. Almost all performance fabrics, including some well-known USA brands, are made in Asia. For example, a typical apparel factory in China will have multiple fabric mills, zipper vendors, and snap and trims suppliers within 30 minutes of the factory. Local supply chain competition is fierce, assuring all components are also sourced as cheaply as possible.
The scale of production of these fabric mills and manufacturing operations is very large and they have driven down the cost of everything needed to make a performance garment. Almost every apparel brand in the world that you have ever heard of exclusively makes their product in Asian factories. And, after so many years of following this model, nearly all the know-how and innovation in this industry has transferred to Asia as well.
A recent New York Times article said that, “In 1991, American-made apparel accounted for 56.2 percent of all the clothing bought domestically… By 2012, it accounted for 2.5 percent”. The vast majority of that 2.5% is simple-to-sew garments like tee shirts, underwear, and jeans. This is understandable because the quicker a garment can be sewn, the less cost is tied up in labor. A tee shirt that takes 5 minutes to sew can be made much more competitively in the USA than a garment that takes up to seven hours to sew, like the Burnside Alpha jacket currently crowdfunding on Crowd Supply.
Given all this, making detailed performance garments in the USA the way WILD Outdoor Apparel does locally in Oregon is, as far as I know, unique. I am able to make garments here because there is know-how in Oregon due to the performance apparel industry located here. The factory I am using made Columbia Sportswear garments before Columbia moved everything to Asia. This local factory eventually went out of business with the rest of the domestic apparel manufacturing industry. However, with a business model that focuses on quality, flexibility, and small runs, this local factory is making a comeback.
Small batch manufacturing is vital to WILD because it does not require huge sums of borrowed money to be tied up in meeting large minimum order requirements typical of Asian factories. Local manufacturing gives me the ability to make what I need instead of making more than is needed and closing out the excess at deep discounts. With small runs come greater cost but also greater quality and greater attention to detail. Additional benefits include reduced sewing times, reduced transport times, no garment import duties, the ability to work closely with the factory in person, and the flexibility to quickly adjust my product line based on customer feedback. That we can do all this while creating local living-wage jobs and reducing WILD’s overall environmental footprint is even better.
A business like WILD can’t compete on price with huge brands that have enormous economies of scale. However, huge brands can’t compete with WILD’s craftsmanship, quality, and unique product concept and design, all of which are only possible thanks to local manufacturing. Without a local manufacturing partner, I would have to play ball with the big guys on their pitch and on their own terms - overwhelming obstacles for a new player like WILD. Being made in the USA gives me a shot at the niche market I am seeking and allows me to differentiate my products and brand in ways large, offshored brands cannot.