Sitting in her office at the 17th floor of a midtown building in the garment district of New York City, Karen Sadaka speaks with a hint of sadness in her eyes.
“This factory is here since 1949 and has never changed. If you take a picture of the workshop and compare it with one from 50 years ago the only difference you will notice is the black and white and the color,” said Sadaka, co-CEO of Apparel Production Inc., an apparel manufacturing company.
“It is a mess, in 5 years I don’t think there will be an industry at all, there will be space only for sales and design,” she said.
“Think about this, who would want their children into this business?”
Statistics don’t leave room for doubt: from 1990 to 2011 more than 83% of U.S. jobs in the industry were lost. Yet some say that this hemorrhage is compensated by gains in more sophisticated jobs, in particular in the creative and design fields.
Number of employees in the U.S. apparel industry from 1990 to 2011. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Marina Karides, professor at the University of Hilo, Hawaii is one of those who believe creativity and local fashion can represent an alternative for American jobs.
There are efforts to create a concrete strategy to build a “local fashion movement.” “Especially in New York City, there is smaller shops that deliver high fashion and ecological design,” she said. For Karides this represents “a fairly significant and alternative economic development” for the traditional manufacturing apparel industry.
In the eyes of people like Sadaka who spend her life in a workshop, the mutation of the industry is a disaster. But for Antonio Sarabia, a business lawyer with 25-years experience in the fashion industry, this mutation represents an opportunity. According to Sarabia a “physiological evolution” of the sector is underway. He points out that if on the one hand U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost, on the other jobs are expanding in the design and creative sector.
Jerry Eckstein, Vice President of Sales at Cannon County Knitting Mills Inc. (CCKM), a Brooklyn-based manufacturing company, has a similar perspective. “Sewing apparel is a very tedious job and I am not quite sure how high it is in the list of people’s choice in terms of getting a job. There are easy jobs to make money instead of sewing apparels,” he said.
CCKM manufactures in El Salvador, but Eckstein acknowledges that manufacturing in the U.S. has still its advantages. “The speed to market is obviously a key factors and some brands, if they can save 4 weeks on an order, strongly value how quickly you can turn in a number of pieces,” he said.
If you can turn in orders fast the brands are still ready to pay more, said Karen Sadaka, however “the problem is that the skills of the average worker declined over the years. If you want quality you got to be committed to the industry.”
A commitment that in some cases has found creative ways like that of ManufactureNY, a New York-based company whose stated mission is to “reawaken and rebuild America’s fashion industry.”
ManufactureNY director of communications Katya Moorman, said that allowing designers to work in close proximity to the manufacturers is one of her company’s key strategies. “They can collaborate on small runs or even just learn how they need to prepare their designs for production.” The problem, Moorman said, is that many of the designers have ideas but don’t know where to start.
Jane Collins, professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, strongly disagrees with the idea that creativity, small-scale local production and innovation are the combination of elements that offers a revamp for the dying apparel industry.
“I think the idea that the huge loss of jobs in the apparel industry over the years from the 70s to the present is counterbalanced by creative and design jobs is simply not true,” she said. “First of all, there is no guarantee that those more highly skilled jobs will be done in the U.S. And secondly there are very few of them.” Collins also points out that “the newer jobs that are created are not as secure or good.”