Made in the USA.
Those simple words have been on quite a journey over the past few years. They’ve entered political discourse, formed a trend in manufacturing, and have progressively become intertwined into American identity and corporate marketing. As a company that values transparency, we wanted to share our story about making clothes in the USA. The concept of being “Made in America” seems so simple, but it turns out to be as complicated as our country itself.
Before we had any idea about how to make things here, we just needed to make things period. More than ten years ago, when we started branching out from graphic tees, we partnered up with factories located in both Canada and China. Our journey back to the US began when our partner in China decided that the amount of business we were giving them didn’t quite justify the persistent tweaks and improvements that we wanted to make. Only after we had submitted final production numbers for a particular season were we were told by the factory that the order would not be fulfilled.
We didn’t have much time to get our orders produced in time for delivery, so we patchworked together a group of suppliers domestically – factories that were not afraid of taking on smaller orders (at a higher cost, of course). We used a small one-room production house in NYC’s Garment District for button downs, as well as a larger factory in Santa Ana for shirts and outerwear. For our first run of jeans, we turned to a denim production manager by the name of George Wilson in Los Angeles. George had extensive experience in denim and helped us find factories to run our production. Most importantly, under his tutelage, we learned quite a bit about making jeans. It wasn’t our idea at the time to be denim-focused, but our jeans started taking off from the very first release in 2008. And, for this and other reasons, it soon became apparent we’d need to find a partner who didn’t quite have as much going on as George did at the time. It was a mutual parting of ways and we are still grateful to him for his help.
Facing a pivotal crossroad, we considered two options to continue making our jeans: another local production manager in Los Angeles, and a factory in San Francisco who we had first met with a few years back. Because we were based in LA, we opted for proximity and went with the local option. It made most sense on paper since everything was a short drive away and the manager had extensive experience. But that’s where things went south. Communication was consistently challenging with the production manager, and at one point he completely stopped returning phone calls and messages when we tried to get status updates on our jeans. As a small business, we were all-in on every production run - meaning, we would take all of the cash we had to produce as many jeans as we could on every production run. The order that was in limbo represented the bulk of our assets and, therefore, the ability to earn revenue and start another run of jeans thereafter. If we lost the order, it could have sunk our business.
We were left with no other recourse but to try and track him down face to face. We drove over to one of the factories we had met him at before, in hopes of getting a more concrete update on our order. He wasn't there – but we did speak to the sewing floor manager there, who told us that he had not heard from or seen our production manager in weeks and was pretty sure that he’d left the country. What’s more, he informed us that he and his team had not been paid by our manager, so they had stopped working on our jeans. We found the garments in an assortment of bundles of semi-completion. In order to rescue what belonged to us, we agreed to pay the lead sewer what he and his team were owed, even though we had already paid the production manager for this same order.
Our unassembled jeans led us to Freda and her factory in San Francisco, Skyblue. This relationship began atypically; it’s not often where a client’s first order consists of reassembling an incomplete production run. Imagine having a few dozen people start puzzles, taking them away halfway through, and asking another team of people to complete them. In retrospect, we are so thankful to them for bailing us out from such a difficult situation. We’ve grown together with them over the past 8+ years to where Skyblue makes almost everything we sell now: tees, jeans, bottoms, shirts, and jackets. They’ve become more than just partners, too. They’re part of 3sixteen’s family. We stop by every few months to check in and have gotten to know them well. We get birthday gifts for each others’ kids. We cater meals for the sewers.
Working with a factory that is relatively close to us comes with other benefits, too. We get to see firsthand the dedication, attention to detail, and hard work that shines through in everything they work on for us. We also see that the employees are well cared for, and that our small company plays a hand in helping them put food on the table for their families. This is not to say that there aren’t facilities elsewhere in the world that can do this level of work and take care of their staff too, but it’s meaningful to see this happening so close to home. Skyblue occupies a three-story building in downtown San Francisco and is the last remaining jean manufacturer in the city. When we started with them, we were submitting orders of 100 pairs at a time; we are proud that our business relationship has grown to the point where 3sixteen is now their biggest client.
Over the years, we’ve built an internal team based in Los Angeles and New York (with a little outpost in Phoenix too!). With this came the realization that what we can achieve as a brand directly impacts the livelihood of our own team. Seeing everybody commit so deeply to what we’re trying to accomplish together, and also being able to visit Freda every few months – which puts faces, names, and lives to our business decisions - is a real game-changer. And what we see is that they care for us, too. Something we’ve always known but have been reminded of year after year is: if you take care of the people who are an integral part of your business, you’ll both flourish in ways that you can’t even imagine.
As 3sixteen has grown, so too has our ability to invest into our employees. Not only by paying salaries, but also by recently being able to provide core benefits like health insurance and retirement savings accounts. These were not easy things to achieve for a privately-held company of our size, but we wanted to invest into our team’s long-term success and show that there’s a future with us - even while progressing through life milestones like getting married and starting a family. We don’t pursue growth for the sake of our egos; we press forward so that we can do more for the people who surround us. Providing the level of support we strive for becomes much easier to do at a certain size, so we’re always aiming higher.
Going back to SkyBlue. When we initially went to photograph the factory, the workers weren’t too comfortable with showing their faces for reasons of privacy - but as you can see, most of them are of Chinese descent. For all of the talk about making things in America, maybe what doesn’t get mentioned enough is that many who work at factories across the US are first- or second-generation immigrants. This resonates deeply with us, since we (and we suspect, many of you) have parents or grandparents that came to this country to make a better life for their families, to pursue a dream that didn’t feel within reach in the country in which they were born.
To us, this is as American as it gets. We’re a country of immigrants, and from our perspective, we are at our best when we welcome those who can contribute what they can, lift each other up when we need help, and acknowledge that we’re all in this crazy ecosystem together. Because here’s a wild idea: what if what we’re all making in America isn’t a product, or a service, but America itself?