The need for multifunctional, seasonless apparel has driven a gradual change in the clothing industry. Add to this a pulling in of focus on comfort and technical innovation and what have you got? Sportswear, or to be more precise activewear, an industry where the ‘less is more’ approach is generating colossal growth.
While overall fashion sales are slowing to just 2-3% growth (McKinsey), non-core lifestyle-driven apparel – active, outdoor, sleep and lounge – is on an extremely healthy sales trajectory. Morgan Stanley predicts the active wear industry will be worth $83bn by 2020, with much of this growth likely to be driven by the US – the world’s largest activewear market.
The big brand players in this sector are already aware of the opportunity that exists in manufacturing more locally. The kick-back effect is surprisingly benefitting the smaller, hand-crafted luxury industry.
Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank, who now sits on Donald Trump’s manufacturing advisory committee, recently committed to producing apparel and footwear at the brand’s new innovation centre in Baltimore. The 35,000 sq ft UA Lighthouse facility opened last year, producing limited runs of around 2,000 pieces per line in order to test both manufacturing processes and prices that customers are willing to pay. However, the manufacturing processes being utilised focus on state-of-the-art technologies that aim to disrupt labour-intensive alternatives.
Meanwhile, Reebok is using 3D-liquid-drawing robots to draw the soles onto its shoes – removing the whole process of traditional mould making – at its manufacturing lab The Liquid Factory in Rhode Island.
Robots have been infiltrating the general apparel production process for some time now, with commonplace roles including making button holes, sewing on fastenings or cutting cloth. But what robots cannot do – yet – is produce a fully finished garment. This could all change with Sewbo, the new creation from entrepreneur Jon Zornow.
Sewbo looks to overcome existing hurdles by “temporarily stiffening fabrics, making it easy for conventional robots to build clothes as if they were made from sheet metal”.
“Currently Sewbo provides a solution for a pretty narrow application. Longer term, the tech will lead to more holistic, general-purpose solutions; modular, reprogrammable work stations that can be doing one task in one moment, change out the thread, and move on to the next task in the queue,” Zornow tells Observer.com.
When it comes to timings, Zornow explains that it will be “years, not decades” before fully automated apparel manufacturing is up and running. And while Zornow admits that he’s talking to factories in Southeast Asia, he tells Observer.com, “I would love to see Sewbo helping US manufacturing, and feel strongly that there are lots of advantages to creating near the consumer market.”
While automation certainly appears to be one solution to resurrecting large-scale manufacturing in the US, what it doesn’t deliver is the “artisanal craftsman touch”, Zornow tells Observer.com.
And that desire for something artisanal and handcrafted is on the rise in direct contrast to the slickness of sportswear. Good news for traditional, hand-made in the USA clothing companies, too.
New York-based menswear label Deveaux is one such example. The brand aims to deliver “American luxury”, with an emphasis on local production at the standard of traditional luxury fashion houses.
It’s something that co-founder Patrick Doss says sets the brand apart: “The commitment that we will do everything we can to manufacture our products in the US, using the highest quality components, sewing and pattern-making, is a differentiation that our customer values… it’s an added value and something that surprises them. Our production reinforces their decision to buy based on design and fit.”
And it seems the onus for a return to US manufacturing is on us all. “We like to think that we’re doing our part in keeping those jobs here in the US. Whether it’s our factories in New York, knit and wash facilities in LA, or small family-run manufacturing in Texas, it’s our belief that we have a responsibility to our neighbors in that way. Small or large, there is an impact,” Doss tells Observer.com.
So for now, automation – driven by the activewear industry – and an increasing appetite for handmade are having something of a polarising effect on US manufacturing that only looks set to continue. And while it seems almost definite that at some point our clothes will be made entirely by robots, for now there remains an appetite for the human touch.
Emily Gordon-Smith is head of fashion at Stylus, the global innovation research and trends company, where she helps businesses to understand the latest products and consumer lifestyle choices shapping trends and the fashion industry.