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Posted Date: 9/10/2009

Hipster Patriotism Fuels the Market

"America, F**k Yeah"

The headline was a jarring juxtaposition of words that grabbed your attention, then made you stop and think. The sentiment expressed was a patriotic one, but the way it was worded was boldly in-your-face. Stranger still was the source: not Second Amendment advocates from Montana, but a popular New York-based men's wear blog called A Continuous Lean, run by apparel industry publicist Michael Williams.

The subject of the post was a trucker hat by hip streetwear brand Supreme. The hat pictured an American flag and the phrase: "Love it or leave it." At any other point in time the canny viewer would take the gesture as ironic, but this is no ordinary fashion cycle.

Meanwhile, across the blogosphere, CondeNast's men.style.com ran a post with an American-flag themed bow tie, a collaboration between Mordechai Rubinstein (who works in fashion marketing and blogs at mistermort.com) and artist Baron von Fancy. The headline here? "And yes, it's made in the USA."

Call it hipster patriotism. Before the economy tanked, expressing an unabashed love of country was gauche for urban sophisticates and bohemians. But now, not only crotchety provincials in flyover country, but young people in typically creative and cynical industries such as fashion and media, are picking up red, white and blue pompoms and cheering for goods made in the US of A.

Michael Williams, who recently co-founded Pop-Up Flea, a kind of flea market-cum-men's wear trade show, is known for his love of vintage Americana. So much so that he created a well-publicized directory of domestically made goods in apparel, accessories and related categories called The America List.

"Up until recently, people didn't look at the label to see where things were made," he says, recounting a series of comments left on his blog in which readers debated the merits of a brand's China-made products vs. its Canadian ones. What it told Williams is that even brand loyalists are paying attention to where individual items from a collection are made.

Keeping U.S. manufacturing alive
Several factors may be motivating a new breed of consumer eager to support domestic manufacturing, says Williams. There's the sense that buying domestic helps our country during the recession. "'There's also the idea of buying heirloom-quality goods, things that are durable and that you'll own for a long time, made by people who were paid a decent wage. You're not just putting a lot of money into marketing, and I work in marketing."

For decades consumers have largely put disposable novelty above all else, and they may finally be realizing that their dollar largely goes to covering advertising budgets. "When you see shirts made in China that are priced at $200," says Williams, "you wonder: 'What does that money go to?' It's all margin. Meanwhile Gitman Brothers manufactures in New Jersey and their shirts don't cost that much."

As for what motivates Williams himself to sift through the country's archives in search of arcane Americana? "It's a romantic or idealistic thing, but it's rooted in my being afraid for our country that we'll never make anything again," he says. "And if we become that, I'd think it was just disgusting. I don't think it's bad for things to be made in China or Pakistan, I just don't think everything should be made there."

Brendon Babenzien, designer at Supreme, who created the "Love it or leave it" trucker hat, says that many young people feel they don't fit into any political category. Calling the response to the hat "strong and positive," he adds: "You can read a lot of things into it, and part of it is ironic, and part is very real. It depressses me when I hear that it's not cool to love your country. I find that almost offensive."

Seeking the charm of the slightly imperfect
While many Americans may have years ago stopped paying attention to where their clothes were made, overseas there has always been a cult following for American-made clothing, perhaps nowhere more so than in Japan.

Though it only entered the U.S. market five years ago, Engineered Garments, founded by Daiki Suzuki, has been manufacturing in New York and selling in Japan for 20 years. "Everywhere in the world they value U.S. goods," says sales manager Angelo Urrutia. "There's a huge appreciation of them."

"There's a certain charm and characteristics American products have," he continues, "whereas in Japan, if they try to get the same effect, it feels contrived. American sportswear - oxford, denim, chambray - isn't perfect; it's meant to be used, and that's what's great about it."

Urrutia says that the current interest in domestic goods "will be sad if it's just a trend."

It's like shopping for vegetables at the farmers' market
For Rag & Bone, manufacturing domestically has not only resulted in a better product, the company believes; it's also its way of trying to help American workers keep jobs. After unsatisfactory results with an overseas contractor, "from that point on we decided to try and make everything we could in the U.S., using factories with specialties in what they do," says co-creative director Marcus Wainwright. "We make T-shirts in South Carolina, suits in Brooklyn, shirts in New Jersey, bags in Kentucky and nearly everything else is made in New York's garment district."

While made in America may be cool for some customers, says Wainwright, others don't care. "But the point is that we care," he says.

When Los Angeles-based Scott Sternberg started Band of Outsiders, he made everything himself. After the retro-hip line caught on, he began using a shirtmaker in Los Angeles, Bentley Cravats in New York for ties, and Martin Greenfield for suits. Though initially done for practical reasons - being small, it made sense to source production domestically - it's come to mean a lot more. "For me, production is a function of the integrity of a garment," he says, "and made in the U.S. is important."

But while Sternberg was motivated by practical considerations, he's aware the consumer may increasingly be motivated by idealistic ones. "It's definitely a plus for buyers; they love it. It's like going shopping at the local farmer's market to buy things that are from right around you. It's responsible, and feels less ostentatious and wasteful."

However, also for practical considerations, the Band of Outsiders designer women's collection is made in Italy. Which brings up another point: Is the cult of made in the U.S. largely a men's wear phenomenon? Sternberg thinks so: "It's totally a guy thing," he says. "Women are buying fashion, and guys are buying clothes they want to have for a long time. It's guys today who are reading the labels."

Christian Chensvold is an Apparel contributing writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.





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