29 November 2017
Today New England Shirt Company (NESC) has plenty of cause for optimism. Back in May, as you'll read below, that wasn't necessarily the case. It's been a long spring and autumn for Bob Kidder. He has woken up at 4:30 every morning to survey his options for keeping the NESC factory running for another month, another week, another day. As difficulties compounded thanks to a fickle, massive clothing retailer, Bob stayed the course. Now, at long last, a breakthrough appears imminent.
Bob is in the middle of negotiations, so details are scarce. Today he told me, "We have come up with an alternative plan, which is going to require some juggling, but when it's all finished, it's going to be terrific for the brand and the factory, and it will keep it here in Fall River."
To appreciate the importance of this moment, we have to go back six months.
17 May 2017
The future of New England Shirt Company (NESC) is in doubt. As NESC owner Bob Kidder tells me the details, we sit at a lunch table on a buzzing factory floor in Fall River, Massachusetts. Seamstresses and managers walk the aisles around us. Every few minutes someone hangs a newly finished Thom Browne or Epaulet shirt on a rack just to my left. Bob lowers his voice to keep our conversation private.
I just flew into Boston this morning from Chicago. My plan is to spend the next four days visiting independent New England clothing brands. It's for a series of stories called "The Real New New England Thing," which I intend to celebrate regional brands that safeguard traditional New England garment manufacturing.
I didn't expect the trip to start with this kind of news.
I don't ask Bob to go on the record, out of respect. I've admired this guy since we first talked in 2013, when I was researching a story about NESC for Trunk Club's ill-fated online journal. (In 2013, Trunk Club still carried NESC and still employed me.) So, right now, I'm not about to shove a voice recorder in Bob's face as he explains his company's predicament. After today I will call Bob about once a month, to see if NESC has escaped limbo. In mid-September we will finally go on the record. All quotes in this story are from that eventual conversation.
Bob grew up during the 1960s, when as much as 95 percent of all clothing purchased in America was made in America. Today that figure stands at 2 percent. A 93 percent reduction in domestic garment production over the course of five decades―that's a lot of American factories closing.
Some of those factories manufactured clothing that ended up at the Boston flagship store for Filene's, where Bob worked as a buyer after graduating Harvard in 1968. Others made clothing that Bob stocked at Robert Todd Limited, the independenct boutique he opened in Boston in 1973 and ran for a quarter-century. One factory in particular was the Hathaway Shirt facility in Waterville, Maine. Hathaway started making shirts in 1837, and in 1951 became a pop-culture icon, courtesy of David Ogilvy's "Man in the Hathaway Shirt." Immortalized by Ogilvy but sadly not immortal, Hathaway closed its Waterville location in 2002 after a 165-year run. (Bob worked for Hathaway after closing his boutique and managing his mother's dress factory.) Another factory was this factory, the one where Bob and I are sitting, on Alden Street in Fall River. A decade ago, Bob didn't own this place. He ran a private-label program for several clients, and the factory handled production. Bob was one of many accounts that the factory serviced, the biggest of them being Nordstrom. Specifically, the factory handled private-label shirting for the Façonnable brand, which Nordstrom acquired in 2000. The Seattle-based retail behemoth represented such a large share of production that it "dictated payroll," according to Bob. Of course, having so much business tied up in one account is dangerous. As Bob remembers, one day "Nordstrom told this facility that it was taking production to Hong Kong. I think this was before they sold the brand to the Lebanese investment firm." (That firm is the M1 Group, which bought Façonnable in 2007 and still owns it.)
With Nordstrom gone, bankruptcy became an immediate possibility for the Fall River facility, but Joseph Abboud stepped in and took over ownership. The factory produced shirting for Abboud's Jaz brand, but the designer became ensnared in lawsuits over the use of his name, which he had previously sold. After about a year and a half, Abboud had to shut down. So another factory closed. Another group of American garment workers were denigrated.
But this time, after 50 years of watching the American apparel industry slowly die, Bob was finally in a position to do something about it.
I remember that during our 2013 chat, Bob told me he started NESC specifically to save American jobs. I ask him about that at the factory. He tells me, "I wanted to say, 'Hey, here's a factory. We're not trying to be General Motors. That's not who we are. We are a factory of artisan laborers who have done this their entire lives and are proud of what they do. They do it really well, and it is their life.' Just to unceremoniously say, 'Well, you know what? We can make this in China or NAFTA's going to allow Mexico to do it ...'"
In 2009, Bob took out a small business loan and bought the Fall River factory. He wasn't able to hire back all 150 of the shirtmakers who lost their jobs. In fact, initially he only had four people on staff. NESC made its first sale when Bob drove eight hours to Buffalo and sold 50 shirts to the venerable O'Connell's shop. Business gradually picked up and NESC started appearing in boutiques throughout the country, and even in Bloomingdale's. In addition to the New England Shirt Company label, the factory also started producing private-label shirts for the likes of Thom Browne and Epaulet. (As Bob and I sit at the lunch table, I notice that nearby tables have surplus shirt fabric as tablecloths. Mark McNairy's nightmare-clown print is unmistakable.) When Polo needed a shirt for the 2016 Summer Olympics uniforms, the brand tapped NESC. Bob and his crew made 6,000 button-downs, one for each of the 558 American Olympians―with the balance going into Polo shops and retailers including Macy's.
Big-name clients are good for prestige, but NESC's most lucrative account was a little clothing start-up, which would cause big problems.
*This chapter includes some editoralizing, all of which comes from me, the writer and editor, and not Bob―JJ
Several years ago, Bob met the VP of merchandising at a men's clothing start-up. The VP was unusual in the world of tech-driven fashion companies. He valued product quality and personal relationships more than e-commerce utility. Each NESC shirt told a story about: the old Fall River factory, the town's textile heritage, and the workers. That story resonated with the VP, and his company quickly became the factory's biggest account. Whereas in 2009 Nordstrom dictated the factory's payroll, in 2015 or thereabouts, the VP's company represented a similarily outsized share of production. Once again, the factory was reliant on a single client. That was fine as long as the VP stayed at his company, but he left in 2016―and at that point, as fate would have it, the start-up had been acquired by a certain retail behemoth. Without the VP to stem the tide, data marketers took over. Commercial channels―how to sell―became more important than the quality, type, and origin of the merchandise being sold. This cultural shift was intertwined with a change in business practices, as the start-up began adopting its parent company's processes and practices. At some point, a spreadsheet maestro reviewed the NESC account. Numbers got crunched. Emails got sent. Ultimately, in 2017 the start-up ordered 1,000 shirts from NESC. The previous year, when the VP's vision still held sway, the company had ordered 20,000 shirts. From 20,000 to 1,000―that's a 95 percent reduction in business within a 12-month period, from the factory's biggest account. When in conversation with Bob I refer to this development as production being "scaled back," Bob corrects me, saying, "Basically eliminated." As he explains, "It gets scaled back for one season, but just so (the start-up's parent company) could basically say, 'Well, we didn't go from 20,000 shirts to zero and put him out of business,' but they certainly changed our approach to survival."
But Bob doesn't blame the start-up. He views his current situation as the result of various factors, both micro and macro.
*In November, Talbott laid off 38 workers from its California shirting facility. In 2014, the facility employed 110 people, according to the Monterey County Weekly. Now there are 55. After the layoffs, there will be fewer than 20.
"Have you ever met an idealist with gray hairs on his head
Or successful men who keep in touch with unsuccessful friends
You only think you did
I could've sworn I saw it too
But as it turns out, it was just a clever ad for cigarettes"
―Pedro the Lion, "Penetration"
Idealism is not naiveté. Bob Kidder is savvy, but he's still idealistic. He knows that making clothing in America is extraordinarily difficult to begin with, and getting harder all the time. But Bob keeps making his 90-minute early-morning commute to Fall River, where the factory opens at 6:30 and closes at 3:00 in the afternoon. (This schedule gives workers the flexibility to drop off and pick up their kids at school.) Bob keeps talking to anyone who will listen about the NESC workers and their skill and the beauty of what they create. He keeps believing that those beautiful creations don't exist unto themselves as abstract items, but instead they tell a story. That story is about people, methods, and motivations: in other words, culture. And despite what the current commercial landscape might indicate, Bob believes that culture is worth fighting for. In short, much like the presidential candidate in whose advertisement he appeared, Bob Kidder persists. So, when I consider Pedro the Lion's question, I answer in the affirmative. I have seen at least one gray-haired idealist, but the ad wasn't for cigarettes. It was an ad against hypocrisy, against the practice of touting the importance of American jobs while not actaully caring about them. It was an ad in support of a waning American culture.
In a flatlining American city, the Hartford Denim Company shows signs of life.