Brooklyn Industries: U.S.-Made Not As Easy As It Seems


Just a few decades ago, cotton grown in America would make its way from fields in Texas and other southern states to textile mills further north in the Carolinas -- turning it from the raw bolls into skeins of yarn and then into bolts of cloth.

From there, the cloth was loaded onto railcars bound for the industrial neighborhoods of the Northeast, like the ones in the shadow of the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges that link New York's central island to the city's outer boroughs. There fabric was cut and sewn into shirts, pants and dresses.

But today, while America is one of the largest producers of cotton, most of it is shipped raw to somewhere else in the world, like Europe and Asia. There it's turned into yarn, then fabric and finally clothing. Then it's sent back to America for us to buy.

That 10,000-mile journey ironically makes our clothing less expensive than if it were made here. Such are the strange economics of global commerce.

But for Lexy Funk, the CEO of Brooklyn Industries, the journey makes it difficult for her to sew the word "Brooklyn" onto her clothing and really mean it.

"Brooklyn is in our name, so the expectation from our customers is that we are making things here," she says. "The idea that you can make everything here? Well ... " Her voice trails off as she thinks about the difficulty of making her products in America.

Chapter 1: Field To Factory

Funk co-founded Brooklyn Industries in 1998 with a line of messenger bags made from vinyl billboards she pulled out of a Dumpster. During the past 16 years, the company has grown into a manufacturer and retailer of clothing, bags and accessories.

In the early 2000s, Funk focused on growing the retail side of her business, opening 10 stores in 10 years. To meet demand, she turned to companies based in South America and Asia for products to sell in America.

But as the recession set in, she was forced to slow down -- and think. Maybe getting big wasn't the only measure of success.

"Could I change the world faster through business," she wondered. By sourcing more materials made in America, she could have an impact on companies and communities that grew cotton, wove fabric, dyed it, cut and sewed it and finally she would sell it.

But creating a field-to-factory model to make clothes in America has been far tougher than she ever expected. Just to produce a simple T-shirt in the U.S. has meant rebuilding a supply chain in which some steps -- like turning raw cotton into yarn -- have all but disappeared from the U.S.

"It's like a putting a puzzle together," Funk says of making things in America.

By contrast, she can have T-shirts made in Peru by working with one company that does everything. "Sometimes the cotton is even grown right next to the factory," she says.

In the U.S. several companies have to be involved, which means Funk has to hire more people to work with them. And still the distance cotton travels can be thousands of miles.

But after a couple of years of putting the puzzle together, this spring Brooklyn Industries will begin selling a line of T-shirts mostly made within 150 miles of its headquarters.

The yarn is woven into fabric in Clifton, N.J., then cleaned and dyed in Shoemakersville, Pa., and cut and sewn in to T-shirts in Allentown, Pa., by a company whose owner told Funk a few years ago that her business was too small for him.

The T-shirts finally come back to New Jersey or Queens, New York where they are screen-printed with the company's designs.

Most of the shirt is made in America. But Funk wants her customers to know that making this shirt here isn't an "all or nothing" issue. The yarn, spun of cotton and polyester fibers made from recycled bottles, is sourced from overseas as well as from mills in South Carolina. "We have to tell our consumers where everything comes from. We have to be super open about it."

But by bringing back much of the work to America, she's having an impact on communities. "Some of these companies are on the brink and trying to make a comeback," she says. Because of her orders, they are hiring more people and adding more shifts.

Chapter 2: Past, Present, Future

In the early 1900s, Brooklyn was one of America's industrial centers, despite being just across the river from Manhattan where skyscrapers were rising and a service economy was slowly coming into view.

In Brooklyn though, factories of every size and shape supported the clothing trade from button makers to skilled sewers. In the Gowanus section of the borough, printers set up shop and the area became known for large-scale screen printing on fabric.

Then came World War II, and Brooklyn turned to making warships in the Navy Yards that had been in operation since 1801.

But in 1966, the Navy Yards were shut down. The sewing factories were shuttered and screen printers closed as much of America's clothing production went overseas. Brooklyn's industrial waterfront deteriorated and jobs disappeared for skilled laborers like Meagan Buis's grandfather.

Buis, who manages apparel design and development for Brooklyn Industries, didn't know much about her grandfather until she moved in with him for three months when she started her job at the company.

Before he passed away two years ago, she learned just how close her life and career was following his own. "All I knew before was that he was in the Navy," she says. But she discovered that he knew a lot about her work -- fabric and printing -- because in the 1960s he had worked as a machinist at a company that printed designs on fabrics using giant rollers.

""He taught me about fabric roll printing, how you feed the fabric through huge machines," she says. Knowing how how the process works has given her a greater understanding of what she needs at a job where she feels like "more than a tiny gear in a big clock."


Chapter 3: Brooklyn, By Way of Barcelona

In Spain, there are trade schools for design, painting, and jewelry making that have been teaching people those skilled crafts since the 18th century and earlier. "You can go to a school where Picasso studied," says Nuria Royo, Brooklyn Industries' designer and production coordinator for bags and accessories.

Royo grew up in Barcelona and learned jewelry making at the same school her uncle did. "We have this long tradition of passing down the skills through these schools," she says.

Anymore in America, skilled trades are rarely taught in schools anymore or through family. Instead, they are learned on the job and from the bottom up. For Royo, combining the two training styles -- one traditional, one very American -- has made her understand her work in a whole new way.

Royo started her career at Brooklyn Industries working in the stores, a job she says helped her understand how a bag must be designed for functionality as well as fashion. "You're always listening to customers when you are in a store," she says. "You take them very seriously. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%You listen to what they need. I know who we are as a company. Then I need to figure out how those two meet."

At other companies, Royo might have to send ideas for a new bag to sewers in Asia. At Brooklyn Industries she can test out a design by walking few blocks to the company's warehouse in the Navy Yards -- now coming back to life with light manufacturing and warehouses taking the place of making warships.

Tucked in a corner of the warehouse filled with boxes of shirts, pants and dresses waiting to be shipped to stores or sent to online customers, a four-person sewing line makes it possible for the company to make its signature bags in Brooklyn.

""Sewers are the most difficult positions to fill," Funk says, because of the level of expertise it takes to work with different fabrics and sewing techniques. In other countries, the cost of labor is much lower for skilled sewers.

"On the pure cost of labor you can't win," Funk says. But winning on price isn't what's important to her. "I think we are at a critical juncture where manufacturing here in America is going to be the way we will compete."

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Originally published