Spring fashion: Color it American-made

Posted: March 22, 2012

There are two tales to be told in fashion's look book this spring.

One is a color-driven story featuring classic skirt suits in daring neons, maxi dresses in popping primaries, and a bold array of rainbow denim.

The other starts with the label; we're talking Made-in-America chic.

"We have so many people come into our store and ask, 'Is this made in the U.S.A.? Is this made locally?' " said Ali McCloud, owner of the Northern Liberties-based, eco-friendly boutique Arcadia. "People are really starting to pay attention to the made-in-America tag."

And so are we. That's why Style & Soul's annual spring fashion issue is featuring the work of American designers who created and manufactured their colorful collections here.

Where's this Stateside love coming from?

Partly, it's a byproduct of an eco-friendly wave of thinking: What better way to lower your carbon footprint then buying clothes manufactured in North Philadelphia or Brooklyn rather than Beijing?

But our growing sense of red-white-and-blue pride also is the fallout from circumstances: Gas and food prices are rising, apparel-industry job opportunities are falling, and presidential candidates are vying to steer our future. So the idea of sending work overseas - especially for something as basic as clothing from a city that once was a textile giant - is unsettling to many.

"It's something my customers are really concerned about," said Ann Gitter, owner of the Center City boutique Knit Wit. "There was a time when people thought that pieces made in France and Italy were high fashion. That feeling is really changing."

More than 20 years ago, American designers started sending the bulk of their manufacturing overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor. But these days, the economics of the situation aren't as clear-cut - do you pay more for local labor, or spend resources traveling abroad to keep watch over your product? Do you save on supplies but miss out on today's fast-fashion trends? And so the ideology is starting to shift again.

"When you are working overseas, there is no such thing as quality control," said New York-based designer Nanette Lepore, who for the last five years has been at the forefront of the Save the Garment Center movement, a campaign to preserve the fashion industry-related shops in the New York district. "You can't monitor what is happening and it takes longer to turn around trends."

Then there is the challenge of quantity control.

Many overseas manufacturers require designers to make a couple of hundred pieces per style. What might only demand 50 ends up getting made 500 times. Profits, as well as that coveted one-of-a-kind cachet, erode.

"Designers are realizing that they have to react to trends quickly and eliminate the risk," explained Nancy Sheridan, associate professor at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "It's just as much about American pride as it is about business."

When starting out in the industry, often the only business model that works is a local one: Paying frequent plane fare to Asia is impractical, as is taking a loss - a standard business practice - when too much product gets manufactured. That means operations can't be far-reaching; the creation process is more likely to be on-site.

You can see that trend developing in Philadelphia.

Local designers Bela Shehu and Sarah van Aken aren't household names yet, but they are slowly creating Philadelphia-based fashion empires.

Although she initially manufactured her collections in Bangladesh, van Aken now makes her easy-to-wear women's line, SA VA, in the same building as her Rittenhouse Square boutique.

And Shehu, lead designer for the Philadelphia-based workout line of the Lithe Method and the creative force behind the contemporary chic NINObrand, makes all of her pieces inside her South Philadelphia studio.

"It's very important for me to be involved in the craft," Shehu said. "I'm in it for the whole journey so I manufacture here, so I can be a part of the entire process."

Further support for a made-in-America (and made-in-Philly) aesthetic came this month when Macy's launched its Fashion Incubator, where five up-and-coming designers will spend the next year building businesses, culminating in trunk shows, pop-up shops, and fashion shows. They will be encouraged to use local resources to create their lines.

Although the movement continues to pick up steam, trend watchers aren't saying America will return to its apparel-powerhouse status of the 1950s and '60s, when the majority of Americans' wardrobes were made here. In fact, in the immediate future, jobs are still disappearing.

In early February, U.S. Labor Department figures showed that manufacturing jobs were up 50,000 in January from December. But jobs in the apparel sector fell from 148,500 to 146,000 during the same period.

Even if designers choose not to manufacture locally, their spring collections embody a made-in-the-U.S.A. look - simple designs, bold colors.

Take denim, an American classic. These britches, in every imaginable color this season, are the key force behind several apparel companies' increased store sales in February.

"People aren't buying just one bottom," said FIT's Sheridan. "They are buying them in mint green, tangerine, pastel pink."

Other American-friendly silhouettes - classic sheaths, maxi dresses, and power suits - are enjoying a resurgence this spring, too. But instead of respectable shades of navy blue and chocolate brown, they are popping in persimmon and kelly green.

"The vibrant colors say that, yes, women can be serious and love fashion too," said Lepore, who predicted the summer power suit will be neon, and then plaid in fall. "The colors right now are so bold and happy. The mood is careful optimism, and the simplicity of the shapes combined with the excitement of the colors reflect that."

That's homegrown hope.

For a behind-the-scenes slideshow of Style & Soul's fashion shoot, go to philly.com/mia

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

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