I’m guilty of it – bashing overseas production and praising domestically made products. At its core, that’s what this series, Handmade, is about. While I root for team USA, there are times when I side with China, India, and Sri Lanka. That’s what Nigel, owner of 611, taught me. A men’s clothing line based in Philadelphia, 611 only dealt with local manufacturers when it launched in 2007. Ironically, and at the suggestion of several domestic partners, he transferred a percentage of his manufacturing overseas. With a few points of reasoning, he proved to me that both have their strengths and weaknesses. While I’m still passionate about this series and its message, I think it’s important to look at both sides in order to make a fair judgment.
Hi, my name is Nigel and I am the founder of 611. Before I launched the line, I owned a music store called 611 Records, named after its address, 611 South 4th Street. In addition to selling music, we produced t-shirts with our logo printed on them, and that eventually expanded to bags and different varieties of t-shirts. After 14 years in business, 611 Records closed in 2007. About 2 years after, I lost a quite a bit of weight, and like any man or woman, became interested in fashion. I had the urge to bring the brand back to life, but this time, I wanted it to be something different. Working with a design consultant, I relaunched 611 as a clothing line for both men and women. Right before the relaunch, my wife and I attended Milan Fashion Week and seeing the international trends inspired the initial collection. The t-shirts that 611 Records made were laid back, but I wanted to make something more upscale. I had grown up and I wanted 611 to do the same. By adding special details such as a contrast cuff, under collar, or sleeve, I provide a product that isn’t just ordinary, but pops. As we evolved, we dropped the women’s line and have focused solely on menswear. I want 611 to be known as a brand that combines an Italian flavor of color and pattern with wearability and affordability.
I have no sewing background, but I have experience in fashion. When I was in high school, I ran a business called Smear Art that screen printed t-shirts with icons such as an eye or a smiley face. Then, when I was a freshman at The University of Rochester, I made tees that poked fun at the alcohol policy. Come one, when you’re 18-years-old, not being able to drink is all you think about! By my sophomore year, I was making t-shirts for the incoming freshman. They weren’t drinking related, but school oriented (i.e. Class of 1987). I also made tees for sororities, fraternities, and special interest groups.
When I first started 611, I manufactured solely in America. It was important to me to stay local. I developed a relationship with a manufacturer here in Philadelphia called Sample Solutions that has been in business for over 30 years. The owner, Bart, took me under his wing and taught me the ways of mass producing clothes. He’s the type of person if you asked him one question, you’d be there all day listening to his answer. He talks a lot, complains a little, has an accent – he’s awesome.
Ironically, Bart was the one who first suggested producing overseas. I liked working with him, and I was proud that I made my products in the US, but the business of it wasn’t working. Many retailers turned me down because they could buy similar products for less and the machinery was not very advanced. They were old and continued to break, which slowed down the turnaround rate.
I really started to think about going overseas when we had our first pop up shop at 18th and Walnut Street (Center City, Philadelphia). I placed a large order with Bart, but it wouldn’t be ready until the Tuesday after the pop up. So when the shop opened, I had about 12 shirts for sale and about 120 that were still being sewn.
After that, I searched for other local manufacturers. One I spoke to was located in Philly’s Chinatown. The facility was small, but it turned out a lot of product. Bills Khaki’s and A Pea In The Pod are two of their clients. I told them about the frustrations I had with the buttonholes not being up to par, the stitching not being straight, etc., and they told me that even if I ordered 500 pieces, it wouldn’t be worth it. Like Bart, they suggested I go to China.
At this point, I couldn’t find a reason not to go.
My friend and I made a guys trip to Hong Kong and China. We went as tourists to sightsee, but we also went to scout out manufacturers. When I stepped inside one of the factories, I was blown away. While the US factories I had worked with resembled sweatshops in every sense of the word, overseas factories were clean, bright, had lunch rooms, and were air conditioned and heated. And surprisingly, they were just as much into developing a relationship as US factories.
After the trip, I transferred a big portion of my production to China, and now, 611 produces approximately 70% overseas and 30% locally. There are a couple of arguing points I have about this decision. One, overseas production creates jobs. It’s not in the US, but in the end, employees are made. Two, the product is better, which results in a happier customer. Three, most of my non-garment items, my iPhone and computer are two examples, are made overseas. Four, domestic many times isn’t because the components are sourced from outside the US. If the sewing is done in the US, but the fabric is from Pakistan and the buttons are from China, is that really a domestic product?
On one of 611’s first bulk orders, the shirts came in under tolerance, the body length ranged between 1-2” less than what it should be, and the side seams twisted during washing. Because sewing was complete, there wasn’t much that could be done. It was an Indian company and they gave us a break on the price, but basically, we sold crop tops for men.
The biggest difference is quality. Using a USA made collared shirt as an example, the tension on the buttonholes is not very tight, which results in the threads coming loose. Also, the fusing is not high quality, so the collar will start to “wing out” over time and lose its shape. Other callouts include the edge and topstitching not being straight. In overseas factories, there is a machine for every operation. If you want it, they can do it and they can turn it around in less than 2 weeks, including shipping time. Any change at a local manufacturer takes 4-6 weeks.
Another difference is the relationships. While overseas factories value collaborating and working together – they took us out to dinner and served us 20 different kinds of fish – the friendship I made with Bart is unparalleled.
Sourcing fabrics starts with me describing to the vendor what type of weight and hand I want. I’ll mention terms like soft hand, nice drape, thin, and they’ll send me several swatches. I’ll check them for stretch, recovery, and fraying, and once we’ve selected one, we’ll work on the coloring/patterning and the design.
Throughout all of this, 611 Records and 611 menswear, I DJ(ed). I’ve been to about 30 countries in total, and I credit 611’s international aesthetic to my wanderlust. I used to travel 3 times a week, now, it’s only 3 times a month. I’m married, so being away several days a week wouldn’t make a great relationship. I’m happy with the balance that I have.