Mirror, Mirror: American designers are waving the flag

Posted: February 08, 2012

New York Fashion Week starts Thursday, and it appears the runways will be popping with a fashion flair that's unmistakably all-American.

Levi's is planning its first appearance on the runways next week. And J. Crew - a favorite of first lady Michelle Obama - will return to the Lincoln Center tents Tuesday for its second year in a row.

American sportswear stars Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg, Max Azria, Lacoste, Tibi, and Anna Sui appear as if they will even be more heavily attended - invitation lists have closed already. These collections promise to be striking and striped.

"We started seeing more heritage and sportswear brands becoming high fashion when the economy started to turn," said Gregg Andrews, creative director of fashion at Nordstrom.

"People had a real desire for authenticity. There was an emotional attachment to them because of where they are. There is an undeniable familiarity."

Yes, the all-American girl next door promises to be the most important look coming out of this week's fashion festivities. A peek at sketches of local boutique favorites such as Milly by Michelle Smith, Rebecca Taylor, and Nanette Lepore show a bevy of looks that incorporate bold mixes of colors and classic silhouettes.

"My fall 2012 collection is bold and modern," said Smith, who sent a sketch of a sharp Kelly green trench coat over a cobalt-blue shift with - drumroll, please - pockets.

But there is something more: I believe it's signaling that high fashion is beginning to focus on where clothes are made as much as what the clothes look like.

The words made in America are as important as the aesthetic.

"At one time it was a big deal to say that your clothes were made in Europe," said Ann Gitter, owner of the swanky Center City boutique Knit Wit, who said she noticed the shift about seven months ago.

"People make a big deal about things being made here. Shoppers care. They are aware."

The trend is being driven by more than our desire to look like Mad Men's Betty Francis in a pencil skirt or a vintage American flapper a la Boardwalk Empire.

For one thing, American-made clothing has a smaller carbon footprint. So, at a time when we are all going green, it's considered much more environmentally friendly.

And designers trying to break into the business are realizing the costs of sourcing and manufacturing overseas. Why not go to Fourth Street for fabric, find a pattern-maker in South Philly, and have the stuff made in North Philly, like in the old days?

Which leads us to the biggest motivation: saving American jobs. The last five years have been hard economically, and part of the angst is because of the death of American jobs.

New York wasn't the only manufacturing capital. At one time, Philadelphia was a leader in men's tailoring.

Americans want to work, and that means making clothing.

According to Cotton Inc., a trade organization that tracks the attitudes of shoppers, 56 percent of consumers say buying clothing made in America is important to them.

Furthermore, 87 percent of those consumers say they want to buy American to support the economy. And 38 percent believe American clothing is better made.

"The bottom line is that Americans get it," said Steven Capozzola, media director for the Alliance for American Manufacturing. "Buying American-made products means supporting good-paying jobs and strengthening our economy."

But the Cotton Inc. survey found that only 4 percent of apparel available in stores is made here.

And therein lies the problem.

Last Friday, the U.S. Labor Department released figures that showed manufacturing jobs were up 50,000 in January. However, it also found jobs in the apparel manufacturing sector fell from 148,500 in December 2011 to 146,000 last month.

"Apparel has had a very tough time," Capozzola says.

The good news is that the trend of wanting American-made clothes has the potential to boost the economy. But it's not going to happen overnight. We all have to want better-made pieces and let go of fast fashion so the demand for American-made products will be there.

So, at Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week, we are not going to just cover the trends, but also pay special attention to the work of designers who manufacture their clothes in America: especially Nanette Lepore, Milly, and Philadelphia's own Ralph Rucci.

Because it's more important than ever that we don't just look American, but try to buy American as often as we can.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215 854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonphl on Twitter.

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