Made in America markets create communities of like-minded consumers

 

They could've gone shopping much closer to home. Instead, Tomo Adachi and Lauren Kennedy packed up the car, drove six hours from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago, got a hotel and made a weekend of it.

This wasn't your typical outlet mall excursion or antiquing road trip. The pair of 20-something graphic designers were in the market for quality American-made clothing and accessories, and they wanted to meet the people behind the goods.

They arrived in town late Friday night and were among the first to show up on a recent crisp October morning at a warehouse in Chicago's Fulton Market area. Music by Band of Horses played softly in the background, giving the airy, white-washed loft space an ambiance equal parts gallery opening and trade show. A large vintage American flag looming over the showroom signaled the common domestic origin of the clothing, accessories, shoes, bicycles and skin care products for sale.

Adachi and Kennedy were already fans of some of the brands at NorthernGRADE, a pop-up menswear market of American-made goods making its Chicago debut two years after launching in Minnesota. Meeting the crafters, designers and small-business owners behind the brands added to the appeal, they said.

"I like the idea of craftsmanship. I feel like the brands are doing it because they care and there's something about that that's very commendable. I'd rather support that than go to the mall and buy something made overseas," said Adachi, 25.

"We had to come, especially since events like this don't happen much in the Midwest," said Kennedy, a 23-year-old self-described "made in America freak" who was turned onto the concept by her boyfriend. "It's so awesome to see people doing what they love. It's evident in the quality of their products."

About 800 people turned up for NorthernGRADE Chicago, according to organizers' estimates, from across the Midwest and beyond, underscoring the growing popularity of the made in America movement in style and fashion, especially among younger consumers.

The markets are fueling the movement beyond the country's major fashion markets, where the concept has proven successful. NorthernGRADE is modeled after New York City's annual Pop-Up Flea, which began in 2009 as a showcase of brands mostly from the United States known for their quality goods. The creators of NorthernGRADE adopted the model for a Midwestern audience by focusing on brands from region. But the focus on quality brands hasn't changed, said Katherine McMillan of men's accessory line Pierrepont Hicks, which co-founded NorthernGRADE.

"I would not feel comfortable producing this market if I didn't believe in all of the brands we invite to take part," she said. "We all have similar philosophies and ethics about our products. If someone's products don't turn out to meet (our standards), we don't invite them back."

It's a phenomenon that draws comparisons to the slow food movement, farmers' markets and food and wine festivals as venues for showcasing artisanal approaches to crafting goods. By allowing consumers to touch the materials and talk to vendors about where the products came from, brands can educate them on why they're worth the markup.

"The Midwest has long history of manufacturing, but no one was cheering it on until now," said fashion and brand consultant Noah Zagor, who showed up at the market dressed the part in a vintage denim Levi's jacket and Alden "Indy" boots, both of which were made in the United States.

"There's a new generation of men learning about basics of getting dressed, and they want knowledge. They want to know where their stuff comes from."

It's tempting to want to stereotype supporters of American-made apparel as either a bunch of trendy urbanites who want to look like lumberjacks on the weekend or blue-collar workers expressing patriotism through their work boots. But this event brought in visitors of all stripes. Teenagers dragged their parents along for their wallets while middle-aged men scanned the displays for unadorned pairs of jeans and silver-haired couples, who remembered the days when manufacturing plants dotted the Midwest, tried on trapper hats.

One thing they all seemed to share was nostalgia for an era when clothing and accessories were made to last, regardless of whether they were actually alive during that time.

One man came from London in search of "a few bits of inspiration" for a potential American-made and UK-made retail concept in England, which is also experiencing a wave of nostalgia for a time when clothing was made closer to home.

"People like me want to stray from goods made in the Far East," said David Swetman, a 27-year-old freelance designer who resembled a menswear model in a Barbour jacket and fisherman's sweater over a flannel shirt, JW Hulme duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

"We're swinging away from fast fashion, and we're willing to invest and spend more on quality," he said. Sure enough, he left the market about an hour later with a $300 Archival waxed cotton vest,

a $195 shawl-collared Pendleton sweater and leather shoelaces of different colors. "A nice way to accessorize your brogues," he noted.

For anyone who might use the words "classic," "structured," "Americana" or "heritage" to describe their personal style, there was plenty to covet: colorful racks of Oxford cloth button-ups, thick shawl-collared sweaters, jeans from some of the hottest names in premium denim and all manner of vintage.

Footwear fanatics had their choice of leather boots and shoes in every imaginable color and texture from Red Wing and Oak Street, two boot makers representing old and new school establishments. Tables displayed unisex accessories, from sturdy canvas rucksacks, shoulder bags and pencil cases to wool trapper hats and candy-colored assortments of neckties, bow ties and blankets.

Like other market-goers, Adachi was dressed as though his outfit had come from the showroom: Red Wing Heritage boots (made in America), Raleigh Denim jeans (naturally), flannel shirt (no) and Hill-Side scarf (yes) over a henley (no).

Kennedy also looked the part in dark jeans, vintage pullover sweater and boots, though none of it was made in America, underscoring arguments that clothing made in America can be prohibitively expensive or hard to find.

What would make her wardrobe more patriotic, so to speak? "More shows like this would help," she said. "It's hard to find this stuff in person."

Maybe it's the election season or the state of the economy or the approaching holiday season, but industry insiders agree an increasing amount of products and services are coming out with the made in America tagline.

Radio host Glenn Beck last month announced his line of American-made jeans, which gets its denim from the same North Carolina mill used by many premium jean brands. Made Collection, an online flash site sale, launched this fall offering American-made products at discounted prices. In time for the holiday season, luxury and mass market retailers such as Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Barneys are continuing the trend of partnering with independent brands and designers who make their products in America.

It's also been a busy year for pop-up markets. The Chicago show marked NorthernGRADE's first incursion into another city, two years after it was started by Pierrepont Hicks and J.W. Hulme. Another show is scheduled for Minneapolis in December, which will be its third there this year. In 2013, it plans to expand to San Francisco, Nashville, Denver and Moscow.

Another pop-up, American Field, debuted in Boston the weekend before NorthernGRADE Chicago and featured 40 vendors, organizer Mark Bollman said.

"It's one thing to read about companies making things in the U.S. or to check a label, but I think it's a whole other thing to have a physical representation of like-minded companies in one place," said Bollman, founder of Boston-based outfitter Ball and Buck. "You can directly see and understand the growth of this movement and really understand the impact of a purchase, be it big or small."

The markets featured a combination of businesses that use American factories and workshops to produce their goods along with artisans and crafters who, by virtue of living in the United States, make their product here. Across all categories, the raw materials may or may not be domestically sourced depending on availability, with hardware such as zippers, snaps and woven fabric among the materials in shortest supply in the United States.

The growing hype has some worried that "made in America" is on the precipice of becoming a passing style trend before it actually has a chance to realize its oft-cited underlying goals.

"The initial made in the USA message was about bringing jobs back to the country to stimulate the economy, ending the dependency on other countries for goods and bringing back the education and know-how that comes along with the industry. All that's being diluted and boiled down into the message of buy made in the USA. The bottom has been taken out and become a selling point," said Chicago-based menswear blogger and digital strategist Brad Bennett, who helped coordinate NorthernGRADE.

It's unclear whether interest in American-made clothing correlates with an increase in industrial domestic manufacturing of clothing, which declined by 0.7% from September 2011 to September 2012, according to the Federal Reserve's numbers on industrial production. However, preliminary numbers for September showed a 1.6% increase over the previous month.

That's where the markets come into play, to create a movement by bringing together consumers, brands and retailers who are doing their part to raise the profile of American-made fashion.

"It's definitely a celebration of things made here but also a celebration of the people making it," said Bennett, whose blog, Well Spent, features "obtainable, honestly crafted goods" from the United States and abroad.

"It's a pretty cool thing to pick up a bag knowing it's going to last the rest

of your life and then shake the hand of the person who made it," he said. "You're not just coming to NorthernGRADE to spend money, you meet people and it's sort of like, here's your community."

It's a doggedly enthusiastic community of people who are obsessed with craftsmanship and design. They're not only entrepreneurs but experts and storytellers who can spin a loooong yarn on the virtues of selvedge denim, waxed cotton and Chromexcel leather. Like Tony Patella, co-founder of Tellason jeans, who explained in an hourlong phone interview why the weave and dye of his denim makes it more expensive per yard compared to denim used for jeans in the mass market.

A big part of selling made in America is educating the consumer on what they get from their investment, said Lesli Larson, co-founder of Archival Clothing, whose best-selling roll top backpack goes for $220.

"You pay upfront, but you buy sparingly and wisely with the idea that you're going to use this piece for many seasons and eventually you get pennies per wear," she said.

Her business grew out of her blog, which documented "long-lost artifacts" from Montgomery Ward catalogs and Americana-inspired fashion being produced in Japan with old machines and equipment purchased from the United States.

"The shift of moving past a state of nostalgia to what can we do to make this a reality using available resources has been the challenge," said Larson, who has kept her job as an archivist at the University of Oregon-Eugene even as her business has grown.

Larson relishes the opportunity to share her knowledge, which she did with fans including Adachi, who spent more than three hours floating around the showroom before deciding to drop $300 on an Archival vest. His girlfriend's big-ticket purchase was a pair of Tellason jeans for $198. They were confident that the purchases were worth the money, not only for their quality but because of the stories behind them.

It reminded Adachi of a TED Talk by Simon Sinek who put forth the idea that people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

"I'm the type of person who's more interested in why," Adachi said.

For others, though, the origin of the goods was not nearly as important as their quality.

"I came to the event for the uniqueness of the collections," said Jeff Medchill, a mortgage industry auditor who also picked up a pair of Tellason jeans. "American-made is not a strong point, I wouldn't go out of my way to avoid or buy American-made."

Collin Moody said he was drawn to the event because he supported Chicago-based retailers Haberdash and Penelope's, which were showing at the market. Normally, not everything they carry in their stores is domestically made, reflecting a commonly held position among consumers and stockists that buying made in America is secondary to sourcing high-quality products made responsibly regardless of their origin.

"We're interested in the ethics of the products. We try to be conscious of where they come from and who's making them," said Moody, 21, also a student. "It also helps us not be wasteful."

For retired carpenter Paul Hortenstine, the market was simply an opportunity "to find quality products made in the USA."

He and his wife made the trip from Shorewood, Illinois, after learning of the event on Twitter. He had his sights set on a Stormy Kromer trapper hat, but stopped on his way over to quiz George Vlagos, proprietor of Oak Street Boots, on the origin of material for his footwear (Horween Leather of Chicago).

"This guy from Oak Street Bootmakers, he's making quality product. I'm all for seeing people succeed making quality products in the U.S.," Hortenstine happily exclaimed as he walked away without purchasing a pair, which run from $200 to $500.

"The price is high but quality justifies it," he said. "Maybe you can buy it all or you can focus on one or two things."

He finally settled on two hats in different colors from Stormy Kromer, which have been made in Ironwood, Michigan, for more than 100 years. He also picked up a vest, a recent addition to Stormy Kromer's apparel catalog, reflecting the success of what sales rep Joel Anderson called "the Trojan horse approach."

"They come for the hats, because that's what we're known for, and they find our apparel," said Anderson, whose brand was one of few at NorthernGRADE that fell into the heritage category (along with Red Wing) for its long history. While Stormy Kromer is an established brand, being in the same space alongside up-and-coming brands puts it in front of a new, younger audience of consumers and potential wholesalers.

"It's a three-pronged approach. Educate consumers on our rich history and story, meet fellow vendors, and get new retail business," he said. "You never know who's going to come in."

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