If Louis Vuitton can make handbags in rural Johnson County, why aren’t more fashion brands bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States?
A small Dallas fashion accessories maker is finding out how challenging it is by trying to move its longtime China-based manufacturing home.
Barrington Gifts has annual revenue of about $5 million. It’s not big like Nike or Apple, which also produce goods in China. It’s a family-owned business whose journey the past five years illustrates the difficulties of being caught up in a global economy gone awry.
In 2019, Barrington and other U.S. companies were hit with a whopping 25% tariff on goods imported from China that’s still in effect. Then the pandemic’s stay-at-home lifestyle killed the market for its daily commuting and travel-focused merchandise. No one needed a new tote in 2020.
“We haven’t recovered yet,” said co-founder and CEO David Gowdey, but now the little-known brand with a loyal customer base has a plan.
Inside a small Deep Ellum brick building painted preppy navy blue, Barrington Gifts is making its most popular totes and shipping them to customers in all 50 states.
The building has an attractive showroom in front, an open office in the middle and a tiny factory carved into warehouse space in the back. There’s just enough room for eight pieces of machinery that cost a total of almost $200,000.
In an email last April, Barrington told customers that it had to raise prices slightly on some products. Its most popular tote, the St. Anne, which was $160 three years ago, is now $200 after two increases.
The email went on to say: “We have begun transitioning our production to the USA and are currently making most of Barrington’s best-selling products in our new Dallas, Texas, factory. We will continue to move additional production to the USA over the months ahead.”
The online retailer said customers didn’t push back on the price increase, and some of them wrote back to thank the company for bringing jobs back to the U.S.
That task is easier said than done, even for a small but nimble fashion company.
Barrington is just one of many U.S. manufacturers that have come to the conclusion that China won’t be the place for low-cost production going forward because wages are rising there, too. The pandemic accelerated the trend of moving production to North America, including Mexico. High U.S. tariffs on goods from China and an uncertain operating environment are among “myriad” reasons Barrington and others want to move manufacturing, Gowdey said.
Barrington, which was founded in Dallas in 1991, has operated its factory in China for 22 years and still employs 40 people there, down from a peak of 100.
“Our employees in China are aging, and it’s harder and harder to attract younger workers who would rather work in hospitality — at Starbucks or a new hotel — and not in a factory,” Gowdey said.
So far, Barrington has hired four people to work in the Dallas factory on the sophisticated machines that require training to operate.
Barrington recruited from the Gilbreath-Reed Career and Technical Center, which trains students from seven Garland ISD high schools to work in all kinds of manufacturing, including the software and machinery used in fashion design and production.
Demand for the center’s graduates has been growing steadily, and many of them go on to college and are recruited by design institutes, said Coleman Bruman, director of career and technical education for Garland ISD. Graduates are earning $20 an hour, and students advance quickly in some industries to six-figure salaries, he said.
The St. Anne, a tote made of water-resistant nylon canvas with leather handles that’s designed and personalized by customers, is being made one at a time and shipped from Dallas.
“I was hoping we could lease a building here and hire people so that all production could be in Dallas,” Gowdey said.
Louis Vuitton has 300 employees making handbags in Johnson County, south of Fort Worth. That’s up from 150 when the French fashion house opened the facility in 2019. Louis Vuitton plans to eventually have 1,000 employees there.
But, as Barrington co-founder and president, Gil Sheehan points out, “at $2,000 each, they are charging 10 times what we do for our bags.”
Gowdey and Sheehan realized the numbers weren’t going to work if all they did was move production to Dallas. They needed a lower-cost production facility, too.
In walks Dave Munson
Gowdey and Sheehan met Dave Munson at an industry trade show in January 2019. Munson owns the Saddleback Leather Co. in Azle and the Old Mexico Manufacturing Co., which has factories in Leon, Mexico. That region is rich with leather tanneries and workers skilled in making leather goods. And it’s a 2½-hour direct flight from DFW Airport, Munson said.
Munson’s 200 workers in Leon make Saddleback merchandise and products for other companies as long as “they’re kind-hearted and have a high-quality product.”
Barrington fit the bill, Munson says.
Before the pandemic, Gowdey traveled to China once or twice a year. This year he’s been to Mexico four times to work on the expansion. “It took me 24 hours from door to door to go to China, and to Leon, I can be down one day and back the next,” he said.
By the end of March, Barrington will move some of its China production to Mexico and have 15 to 20 employees inside one of Munson’s factories, Gowdey said.
Barrington goods made in Dallas and Leon will both be free of the 25% tariff imposed on its goods from China and a 7.4% duty assessed on bags arriving from China. “That 32.4% (deposited into the U.S. Treasury) is what we used to call our profit,” Gowdey said.
In addition to its direct-to-consumer business, Barrington makes high-end personalized corporate gifts that cruise lines give to their best customers and colleges give to big donors. Those goods are still being made at its factory in China, and that part of Barrington’s business has recovered faster, Sheehan said.
Personalization and on-demand production
The pandemic encouraged Barrington to add more partnerships for its direct-to-consumer business. Social media was stepped up. It broadened its exposure through partnerships with more artists and designers who have their own followers who could become new customers. The Beaufort Bonnet Co. of Lexington, Ky., reached out to do a collaboration. New designs and patterns were added from Camilla Moss of Birmingham, Ala.; Dallas’ Caitlin Wilson and Jenny Grumbles; Fort Worth’s Allison Castillo and Brooke White; and Austin-based Katie Kime, who does city-themed toile designs.
One of Barrington’s most popular new designs is from artist Donald Robertson. His “Drawbertson” collection, which includes a print of brightly colored longhorns, was supposed to be a limited edition but now is in the regular line.
“I work with a lot of design houses and do a lot of collaborations, and I just finished a big one with Max Mara, but Barrington was absolutely lovely to work with,” said Robertson, whose family moved from California to Dallas during the pandemic. “The whole thing was so smooth, and they added the charity component.”
Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center receives 15% of sales from the “Drawbertson” collection of three designs, including the longhorns.
“It was all done so fast,” Robertson said. “The bags are made so well, and the price is fair.”
Barrington is doing what many believe is the future of high-end retail: personalized products and on-demand production instead of huge inventories behind each product on the shelf.
Customized bags are made when orders are placed. The tiny Deep Ellum factory can fill next-day rush orders. The move to Mexico will also shorten delivery times.
Barrington makes 34 products, including totes, diaper bags, small bags, laptop, passport and portfolio covers, wallets and luggage tags.
Customers can pick from more than 80 active patterns, four colors of leather trim, more than 30 monograms and typefaces and combinations of accent and stripe colors. The No. 1 pattern is the Axis animal print. The combinations customers come up with are in the millions.
The future is here
Barrington’s business model is one many in the industry are pushing as a sustainable method for manufacturing fashion in the U.S. and lowering apparel waste.
The big headlines of reshoring production are about the semiconductor industry, which is spending billions of dollars to build new chip plants in the U.S. spurred on by Congress’ passing of the Biden administration-supported Chips and Science Act. And while the U.S. economy is on a recession watch, manufacturing employment over the past year has increased by 420,000 jobs, including 14,000 jobs in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If the high-end fashion industry succeeds in moving more toward an on-demand and regional production model, that would be a big opportunity for Texas, said Kate Sheldon, CEO of The Fashioneering Lab, a Dallas-based consultancy and think lab whose purpose is to accelerate needed industry transformation.
“Thirty-five years ago, Dallas was a very robust manufacturing hub for the fashion industry,” Sheldon said. “It’s frustrating that it all but evaporated post-NAFTA, but there’s so much opportunity for Texas to be a serious regional hub for fashion production with our diverse labor force, international airport and proximity to a major port in Houston and pro-business environment — this is a great opportunity for job creation in Texas.”
The price has to be right
Sheldon said she believes “luxury and sustainable brands increasingly want to do this, and their consumers are well informed and understand that higher wages are necessary to return production to the U.S.”
Several North Texas companies are still producing high-end goods here, including Dallas-based women’s apparel maker Finley Shirts, fashion bedding maker The Pillow Bar and Garland-based Hat Brand, which makes Resistol hats.
Manufacturing a $10 T-shirt may not be possible in the U.S., but a $40 or $50 shirt can be profitably made here, said Lisa Morales-Hellebo, co-founder and general partner of Refashiond Ventures, a New York-based supply chain technology venture fund. Her other venture, Refashiond OS, is trying to build an on-demand apparel manufacturing regional network that will be vertically integrated from fibers to finished goods made in the U.S.
“Companies should have been panicking about China a long time ago,” said Morales-Hellebo.
“Mass-producing things in one part of the world and shipping it all over the world simply isn’t sustainable, and in the last couple of years, we’ve seen what can go wrong, even for fashion,” Sheldon said. “The desire for localized and on-demand production is there; it’s the infrastructure that is lagging.”
Barrington’s Gowdey, 63, and Sheehan, 65, believe they can expand their company and hire more workers. They’re in the process of buying equipment for Leon. They believe their personalization capabilities insulate them from the likes of Amazon.
“Marketing is our biggest challenge,” Sheehan said. “Once people hear about us and realize what we’re doing their response is, ‘I had no idea.’ “