“Made In America” Makes A Comeback

Head to any garage sale or swap meet in these recessionary times and you’ll notice people scrounging through old tools, metal work chairs, fans, factory dollies, kitchen appliances, and more. What are they doing? After decades of living in a throwaway society, they are searching for anything with MADE IN USA stamped on the bottom.

There’s something solid and honest and real about holding a heavy cast iron wrench in your hand, a feeling unmatched by today’s counterpart–the wimpy IKEA Allen wrench. There’s something “authentic” about holding a hammer that hits square and true. And, let’s be real, a metal trash can that thrums like a metal drum when you toss something into it is the sound of freedom flashing.

The honest to goodness quality of American industrial goods untainted by planned obsolescence cannot be understated.  There’s a reason people can still find tools, appliances, even bikes from the 1950s that still work. When we used to make stuff, we made it well.

When things came along that were cheap (inexpensive)—first from Japan, then from China—it didn’t matter that they were also cheaply made. We simply threw them away and bought another one. Over time, this changed something in the American psyche, we became the “throwaway society”. Tupperware replaced metal and glass. And when we stopped making things ourselves, to let other people and countries make them for us, it took away something in the Yankee spirit that was linked to Yankee ingenuity, and a culture that was accustomed to doing things first (first mass produced cars, first on the moon, first telephone, first personal computers, et al.) and best and biggest.

For the first time in years, consumers are looking back at the value of things that last. Whether this is due to creeping nostalgia, economic malaise, or trying to recoup something lost—or a combination of those things and more, is anyone’s guess.

Or not.

“There are two different movements. One of them is the Made in America. The other is an appreciation for older products. Not just antiques, but Vintage or Heritage,” says Jason Schott, chief operating officer at Schott NYC. At the turn of the century before last, Schott’s great-grandfather invented the motorcycle jacket. That black jacket Brando is wearing in “The Wild Ones”? That’s a Schott jacket.  So is Springsteen’s.

“Throwaway fashion has been thrown away,” says Schott. “People would rather spend more money on a product that’s going to last them a long time.” Schott jackets are made from real horsehide. Touch the leather, and you can feel the utility in the garment. This is not some rebel fashion statement, this jacket is functional and made to save your hide. “The jacket design is based on flying jackets of the era,” explains Jason, a  fourth-generation Schott. “My great-grandfather’s innovation was to sew a zipper down the front.”

What’s interesting to Schott is how Americana, which has always fascinated other countries, is finally taking hold here in the home country. “I was in Tokyo last week,” he says, “and it was really incredible. Japan is such a proper culture, but they’ve always idolized American bravado. We’re just starting to appreciate that in the U.S., whereas the rest of the world has always known.”

“I think what’s happened is that during bad economic times people go for comfort. Comfort is things that have been around for a long time,” says Fred Rosen, executive vice president of Lucky Tiger shaving products. The Lucky Tiger mark was founded by a Kansas City barber named P.S. Harris in 1927. “When people see the old Lucky Tiger packaging they get a comfort level.” Although today the company is owned by At Last Naturals in New York, the company’s principles remain true to their legacy. The packaging for Lucky Tiger men’s grooming products is vintage 1930s. “When we bought the company in the 1990s, we bought it solely for its manufacturing equipment,” laughs Rosen. “The trademark and formulas came along with it. Then we took a look at what we acquired, and saw that the trademark and formulas were much more valuable than the equipment itself.”

With lowered paychecks, higher gasoline prices and an uncertain economy, consumers want to attach themselves to something fine and clean and wonderful. There is something wondrous in first imagining something and then making it with your hands. The Wright Brothers first imagined a flying machine in their bicycle shop, and then tinkered with their idea until they got it to fly. The Steves–Jobs and Wozniak–imagined a computer for everyone and then created it bit by bit in their garage. This ability to tinker and to create is what experts say separates us, for example, from the Chinese. Despite a shoddy educational system that is the laughing stock of the world (today American students score 25th in math and 30th in science in global rankings) we are nevertheless able to figure things out. The Chinese are only able to imitate. “[We] Chinese are only able to copy things. The whole world knows that!” blurts a young Chinese woman during a consumer study in Shanghai.

Imagining and producing what you imagine is part of our American dream.

Perhaps we are snapping back to reality. Here and there, you find people who are actually making things again. Website etsy.com is filled to overflowing with products being produced in kitchens, family rooms, and second bedrooms across America. On the opposite side of the spectrum, American Apparel famously fashions its garments in downtown Los Angeles. There are Billykirk bags in Jersey City, Gitman Brothers shirts in Manhattan. Legendary companies like Pendleton blankets in Portland, Oregon. The Alden Shoe Company in Massachusetts. Heath Ceramics in Sausalito. According to their web site, Will Leather Goods in Eugene, Oregon are produced by craftspeople in Oregon, Colorado, Texas, California and New York, and “celebrate the pride and heritage that comes with the ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ mark.” This is and continues to be, they claim, an important part of their mission.

And not all products are fusty iron-mongering. There’s also VPL in Manhattan, a neo-hip designer of smartly fashioned women’s undergarments. The VPL (stands for Visible Panty Line) concept is a more athletic, more interesting underpinning that can be translated to ready to wear, swim, and underwear that is made to be seen. The short version? To wear inner wear as outerwear.

“Most of our clothes are made in the United States,” says VPL president Kikka Hanazawa. (Knits are harder to make and, so far, not priced competitively enough to be made in the United States.) “We actually pulled production from China to New York, because labor prices in China were increasingly not competitive. There is a shortage of labor. Chinese laborers are going home for a month, then not coming back because they want to work closer to home, or they want to work for Apple Computer who pays more.”

There are other advantages, too. It’s a lot easier to manage design execution when your manufacturer is blocks away, and in the same time zone. And shorter lead times make creative decisions more timely in the trend-sensitive fashion world.

And Hanazawa has something else on her mind. “I have consciously started approaching people who make things,” says the fashion company president. “North Carolina for soaps. Massachusetts for cold crème. More and more I see local production being favored.” In a world made up of LVMH, H&M, Burberry, L’Occitane, and now Uniqlo seemingly on every corner in the world, small shops specializing in unique goods become unique. “They need to keep their own identity,” asserts Hanazawa.

“We have tried very hard not to be gobbled up by mass,” agrees Lucky Tiger’s Rosen. And it’s also about principle. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is that Lucky Tiger has always been manufactured in the U.S. And as far as we’re concerned, it always will be.”

Perhaps Made in U.S.A. is just another passing fancy. A bump along the trendspotter’s trail. Or maybe this is the start of something big, all over again.

No matter how it turns out, when you get tired of that wimpy IKEA hammer, try the hard pounding Estwing, manufactured in Rockford, Illinois since 1923.