Not normally big on New Year's resolutions, Mary has vowed to choose only USA-made, sustainably made and/or secondhand clothing this year
The sad shift from USA-made to fast fashion
Ever brought home a cute top or sweater, scored at an even cuter price, only to see its buttons start falling off within weeks, or a hole open up at the armpit after a couple washings? If so, what was your next move? Did you try to repair it for a longer life in your closet? Did you pass it on to a charitable organization, hoping against hope that someone in need could benefit from the subpar item? Or did you just give up and (ugh) toss it into the trash?
We’ve all done it. The “easy come, easy go” approach to dressing that’s taken root in many of our households is part of a global trend, whereby a stunning 60% of all clothing now ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of being produced.
It wasn’t always this way. Clothing used to be a rather special purchase, selected carefully and built to last. In 1960, the typical American bought 25 items of clothing a year at an average cost (in today’s dollars) of $150 per item -- and 95% of that clothing was actually made in the USA.
Today we purchase about 67 apparel items a year — more than one per week — at an average cost of $28. And less than 5% is USA-made. Let that last part sink in: from 95% USA-made to under 5% in just 6 decades.
Why the sad shift? Trade agreements like NAFTA cut tariffs on apparel manufactured outside the U.S., widening a path cut by big companies like J.C. Penney and the Gap, which had already pivoted toward low-cost non-domestic labor to boost profit margins while appealing to U.S. consumers on price. The more brands followed suit, the less feasible it became to produce here at home and still price goods competitively. Who would pay $40 for a t-shirt when an identical-looking one could be snapped up for $20, $10 or even $5?
There is some good news. American-made clothing is slowly coming back. The higher cost of manufacturing here seems to create, understandably, an aversion to fashion risks — so you’ll find many more basic, even bland silhouettes than on-trend outfits. And the prices, in general, will be higher than for non-USA made clothing, because they need to be. But with a little hunting, you can score genuinely stylish, non-disposable clothing that supports American workers and brings pleasure over years, not weeks or months of wear -- at prices still well below what high-end European and U.S. designer labels charge for clothing that is actually made elsewhere.
Here are 20 made-in-USA clothing brands to explore.
CLC by Corey Lynn Calter
“Limited edition, sewn in Los Angeles with love” is the inviting descriptor Corey Lynn Calter uses for her pretty, feminine pieces, from office-appropriate pleated skirts to playful babydoll dresses. A sense of wanderlust infuses her vibrant prints, and rich, saturated colors are a regular feature. Some shapes are streamlined, with flattering touches like the stretchy collar and cuffs of my CLC “Taylor” tops -- pictured above in mixed-snake-print and solid fuchsia -- while others are more fanciful. If you're a "more is more" type, rest assured this designer is not afraid to deploy ruffles, lace, tulle or sparkles when the mood hits.
My awakening to the drastically shrinking percentage of American-made clothing came by accident, two decades ago, when — at a small, well-edited clothing and accessories shop — I came across a display of soft cotton Ts in every gorgeous shade of the rainbow. They were by Michael Stars, sized back then in an intriguing “one size fits most” method, and per the care label, made in the USA. The thought hit me that while I hadn’t really noticed it until that moment, this had become a rarity. I went home, started peeking randomly at my clothing labels, and found very little made domestically. I didn’t buy a Michael Stars top that day, but soon after I picked up one that began a small collection, along with another for my mom, who also became a fan. In the years since, this LA brand has helpfully expanded its sizing (truth be told, the “one size” mainly fit small to medium) and range of styles, way beyond the original classic T. The ribbed “shine” fabric pictured here, above and below, is one of my favorites, especially in the flattering elbow-sleeve length. Founded way back in 1986, Michael Stars has stood the test of time. And its sale prices are not so painful for USA-made fashion.
I promise, I’m not obsessed with Los Angeles. It’s just where most of the cute clothes are made! Whether or not you’re looking to break loose of boring workout wear — like I did with the smooth, silky Dazey LA hand-print leggings pictured above — your mood will be boosted by a visit to young artist/designer Dani Nagel’s candy-colored corner of the web. Nagel jumped from designing Ts for fast-fashion players like Urban Outfitters to calling her own shots at this sunny, female-empowering label. Her collections are hand-drawn, handmade in small batches, with sustainable fabrics. Tops, dresses, loungewear & high-quality athletic fabrics are featured, shot throughout with a theme of female empowerment. Nagel’s shop even lifts up other female designers producing in the USA, from vintage-glam silhouettes by K.S. Garner (made in Arizona) to Lsea Swimwear (made in Hawaii) in sizes 2XS to 2XL.
From hipper-than-average basics to pretty party pieces like the satiny tiered dress shown above, clothing from LACAUSA (“the cause” in Spanish) is ethically manufactured in Los Angeles and “dedicated to transparency and giving back to our community.” Fair wages and low waste are hallmarks of this company, founded in 2013 to blend comfort and style for the modern woman who cares how and where her outfits are made.
A New Yorker until recently (one guess where she’s moved...yep, it’s LA!),
Autumn Adeigbo is one of the most exciting designers producing clothing in the United States. Look to her for vibrant colors, playful pattern-mixing, gorgeous tailoring, and dramatic figure-flaunting shapes. Selected a Tory Burch fellow in 2019, Parsons-trained Adeigbo was inspired by her Nigerian mother, who made all of her clothing growing up, and launched her line with a collection of Africa-influenced dresses while working for W magazine as a fashion assistant. I don’t have photos for you because (sadly) her work is out of my price range — but don’t miss her website, the browsing of which is an act of self-care in and of itself! Each piece is currently made to order, which reduces waste, and while Adeigbo’s brand will surely grow through the impressive $1.3 million in capital she raised last summer, I’m betting she’ll find a way to grow gracefully, without abandoning the slow-fashion and ethical-production values that make her company so special.
Of all the California brands I’m touting here, Christy Dawn may be THE most iconically Californian. From deadstock fabrics, as in the “Paloma” dress pictured above, and eco-friendly original prints, this brand crafts lovely bohemian frocks that wouldn’t look out of place at a Laurel Canyon party circa 1968. My dress came packaged with a high-quality reusable tote bag, a sprig of lavender, a vaguely new-age missive that I’m too Midwestern to feel entirely comfortable with (“May Your Daily Dressing become a Celebration and Reminder of Your Radiant Presence” is, well, aspirational at best...), and a prepaid label for sending gently worn items from my closet to ThredUp, where they can find new homes and earn store credit on my next Christy Dawn purchase. Nice! Also welcome is the online shop’s detailed cost-breakdown graphic, including actual hourly pay for the person who sewed the limited-edition Christy Dawn piece you’re browsing, along with the label’s markup rate compared to industry standard. All of these touches, on top of the irresistible romance of a Christy Dawn dress, have earned the label a loyal fan base and even a page in the February 2021 issue of Vogue.
This LA-based family business, started by Ms. Kane and her husband as newlyweds out of their garage, produces wearable, size-inclusive pieces that won’t break the bank, especially at their sale prices. The styles at Karen Kane are a little conservative for me overall, but I love the Piper pant (pictured above), this year’s versions of which are offered in sizes XSP to 22W so that virtually everyone can get in on this comfy, flattering piece that can be easily dressed up or down.
Zero Waste Daniel
Finally, we’re moving to the East Coast with this next USA clothing recommendation! As a young sweater designer, NYC 30-something Daniel Silverstein was devastated by the waste involved in bringing his designs to life. He began rescuing pre-consumer fabric scraps to keep them out of landfills, then “re-rolling” them into the coolest one-of-a-kind, made-in-Brooklyn hoodies, sweatshirts, and joggers -- like the gray side-stripe pair (above) I recently gifted myself as a reward for wearing my kid’s hand-me-down sweatpants until they fell apart! My sweet new Zero Waste Daniel joggers fit great, feel great, and even have decently deep pockets unlike so many cheaper ones I’ve tried. These unisex-sized pieces come in hues from neutral to bright, and adorable bucket hats and face masks are available too. For more info on Daniel, check out this CNN clip.
Started in Berlin, 2006, by identical twin sisters Daphne and Vera Correll, this wonderful label employs gorgeous saturated color and textile appliques, based largely on their self-professed “lifelong collective play with circles, squares and triangles.” A love of geometry infuses their online shop from start to finish, but above all their signature items: soft cotton Ts and sweatshirts centered around single, shimmering silk-blend velvet circles and squares. When moths eviscerated my sweaters and I vowed to start swapping them out gradually for moth-unfriendly sweatshirts special enough to stand in for sweaters, Correll Correll was my first stop. The cost is no joke, but watch closely for sales, like the one that brought me the purple beauty shown above.
Too luxe for me personally to go beyond coveting, this terrific eponymous label has been spotted on Beyonce and Michelle Obama, profiled on Oprah’s OWN network, and collaborated with Lebron James and Nike on a fabulous shoe design. Flowing from the vibrant creativity (and admirable work ethic) of Brooklyn-based, first-generation American designer Noel — whose family comes from Grenada — the brand marries proud Caribbean influences with sexy silhouettes like flowy sheer trousers, dramatically ruched crop tops, slinky robes and stretch bodysuits in gorgeous color palettes.
Want to look presentable but feel like you’re in pajamas all day? Do yourself a favor and search “jersey” at the Rachel Pally online shop. Pally’s drapey, smooth-as-silk signature jersey fabric is an absolute dream against the skin. Made in L.A., her classy, versatile pieces look way more put together than they have any right to, given the intense comfort factor. I avoid jumpsuits as a rule, for convenience’s sake, but the matching Pally top & pant pictured above do a reasonable jumpsuit impersonation, don’t you think?
Warning: these pieces run long, but raw hems allow for easy trimming to desired length. In my experience, they also wash beautifully at home if you set the machine to cool or cold, skip the dryer and hang- or flat-dry instead, and (hot tip!) zip them into a laundry pouch before throwing them into the washer, to protect from snags. I use this multi-size mesh laundry bag set for all special clothing items that can withstand the machine if properly protected. Often called "lingerie bags," these are good for so much more. While the smaller ones in the set are perfect for bras and other intimates (and, in the pandemic era, face masks!), the midsized and larger ones are good for washable-with-care tops, pants, sometimes even sweaters -- just check the label and use extreme discretion if it says "dryclean only." (While my Rachel Pally "dryclean only" jersey items survive a cool wash cycle just fine in mesh bags, my few wool sweaters that survived the moth invasion might shrink to toddler size with this technique!)
Argaman & Defiance
Tie-dye is literally everywhere in fast fashion, but this St. Louis fabric artist creates wonderful tie-dye-adjacent Ts, sweatshirts and joggers that leave mass-produced dye jobs in the dust. Argaman & Defiance offers exceptionally fair pricing, considering each piece is a one-a-kind bit of soft, wearable art.
I thought Michael Stars would be the O.G. of this made-in-America clothing list, but it turns out Helena Stuart launched Only Hearts way back in 1978! To say this label is the sexiest on the list is an understatement. Bringing indoor clothing – lingerie, that is – to the outside world has been a mission since the get-go. The ruffled-neck black mesh top (above) that I layer under jumpers is one of the more conservative pieces in Only Hearts’ collection of wearable confections “ethically manufactured in New York City using local, deadstock, organic, recycled and certified made in green textiles.” You may have seen the brand on Cardi B, Bella Hadid, Charlize Theron or Jennifer Aniston – but, says the shop, “mostly we’re interested in girls like you.” Aww!
Back west we go for this LA label, founded in 2004 and named after the French word for nail (clou), “a simple and graphic object.” The initial inspiration was reimagining the classic American t-shirt, but over the years the collection has evolved into a diverse and interesting range of sculptural pieces with cool textile mixes that playfully combine boyish and girly elements without going over the top.
Beautifully made basics are the focal point for this San Francisco based company that broke the internet (well, dented it at least) in 2012 with the cult-classic hoodie that many called the greatest ever made. Waitlists were drawn up, happy customers abounded, and American Giant kept expanding, sustainably, to meet the growing demand for American-made staples that are built to last. I picked up the silky heather-gray merino T pictured above to replace a fast-fashion version that had literally fallen apart after one wash. No more disposable fashion!
The brainchild of a Southern-French guy turned Californian, this brand traffics mainly in colorful, cozy loungewear, sweats and low-key athletic pieces. T-shirt slogans, so often cheesy, turn cute in Sundry’s capable hands, with phrases like “Make It Happen,” “Lost Without You,” “Locals Only,” and my favorite (plus a makeshift motto for the label itself?) “Almost French.” Ultra-soft leggings stand out from the crowd with fun little touches like stripes and (as pictured above) colorblocking on the calves.
A longtime editorial favorite based in NYC, this designer dresses independent thinkers with cool jobs: gallerist, development director for an edgy museum....maybe that brilliant doctor you once had to see for a consult was wearing this label under her lab coat. Comey’s background in sculpture shines through in her arty but not avant-garde designs, which in recent years have featured more organic color palettes than the bright hues in my swingy cropped tank, above -- scored secondhand, as this brand is beyond my budget.
Ruffles, stripes and polka dots are at the top of the toolbox for this designer of super feminine styles that are mostly manufactured in the USA. Born in Romania but of Hungarian heritage, Eva Franco began using fashion as a source of creativity and communication after moving to America as a young girl. A former actress, Franco loves to infuse her classic-with-a-twist designs with touches of Old Hollywood glamour.
Hackwith Design House
Made in Minnesota, here's a collection of elevated basics plus limited-edition blouses, tunics, jackets, even some smocked floral peasant dresses that could catch a Christy Dawn fan's eye. Hackwith goes the extra mile with intimates and a swimwear line. To reduce waste, each item is sewn to order, so nothing is made that hasn’t specifically been requested. Best of all, this is an inclusive label for all body types, with sizes offered from XS to +4.
Are you a fan of the venerable Liberty of London line of fabrics? If so, check out this Portland, Maine based designer, who hand-sews lovely shirt-dresses, popover tops and button-up blouses in Maine and NYC, using a range of Liberty fabrics. Sailor Rose offers a kids’ line, too, which is where the dress pictured above came from.
An excellent customer-education insert from American Giant provided some of the background information for the introduction to this article. I also drew info from these sources:
© 2021 Mary