A New York City-based clothing designer plans to put patriotism back on the runway by launching a luxury label that's 100 percent made in the U.S.
For decades, the American garment industry has been losing out to cheaper, mass-produced fare from overseas. All the major houses of haute couture depend at least partially on foreign textiles or labor to clothe the world's jet-set crowd. Even pricey labels known for their "American-ness" image, like Polo Ralph Lauren, can't boast a "U.S.A. all the way" line.
But that may change at the hands of Keith Jack Edward Lissner. The 29-year-old Highland Park, Ill., native is working to launch a full line of entirely American-made luxury apparel from his new company Lissner Haberdashery.
"Everywhere in the line it is American," he said. "The cotton, the zippers, the buttons, even the linings. There is a bit of alpaca in the wool, but it is milled here in the U.S."
Lissner, who worked as a designer at Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren before starting his own company, said he came up with the idea for an completely American-made line when he realized that most U.S. fashion was born on foreign soil.
"I was noticing how little business I did in the United States — almost all of the business is done overseas," he said. "I started wondering, is there a product here? I kept hearing all these stories from old-timers about the mills and the qualities of the product coming from this country."
But he also heard the stories about how American mills began to empty out as the fashion industry began focusing more on volume and relying more on the mass production and cheaper labor available in other countries.
"It used to be we could make a lot of things here," said longtime San Francisco-based designer Colleen Quen, who works hard to keep her line all-American. "But then maybe 20 years ago, there was this big boom of mass production in [Asia] and everywhere else. I've seen the changes."
Lissner said his research led him to view the sorry state of all-American haute couture. New York-based designers, who did their sewing in the Big Apple, were all using foreign-made fabrics, only because affordable, high-quality U.S.-made textiles just didn't seem to be available anymore.
Los Angeles-based American Apparel might be entirely made in the U.S., but could hardly be called a luxury line. In San Francisco, the all-American idea has already caught hold of a small group of designers, but they work in very small quantities or to order, offer only partial lines or specialize in ready-to-wear outfits.
Quen's been acclaimed in fashion circles, and regular Bay Area symphony- and opera-goers will recognize her designs. She makes an average 90 items a year for clients, but keeping it all-American hasn't been easy.
"It's because I've developed a good rapport with a few vendors I have faith in," she said. "It's really personal. And we need more of that. We need more support, we need to think globally but think locally about where we are in the U.S. Everything's going too far away, and we need to draw back into our treasures here. The way people are thinking, they all go to China, where it's cheaper, but we need to follow our own path."
Others, like designer Brenda Kett, who's been making high-end custom men's clothing in San Francisco's Mission District, said that today keeping a line all-American from harvest to showroom floor is nearly impossible.
"Everything I do is made in the United States, but the supplies we use are unfortunately not made in the United States because they don't exist in the United States anymore," Kett said. "I certainly take my hat off to this man if he's trying to do it, because it seems like a monumental effort. I wouldn't know where to start if I were limited to U.S. efforts. It would be a heck of a job, I think."
After extensive searching, Lissner found enough U.S. suppliers to justify his boast of an all-American line, with a couple minor compromises. The wool contains some alpaca that was raised overseas but milled in the U.S., and the lack of pure-silk sources led him to develop a silk-cotton blend with an American mill. His apparel will sell from $500 to $10,000, with an average price of about $2,500. The women's line will launch in fall 2007 and the men's in fall 2008.
Lissner said he's creating his label in honor of the turn-of-the-century immigrants from whom he's taking some style ideas, as well as from his grandfather, Charles Lissner, a Russian immigrant who turned his horse-and-buggy scrap business into a major recycling company.
"I think his line's really romantic and I've been sort of pegged as that sort of an artist myself," said Jennifer Constantine, a singer/songwriter who will be wearing Lissner to the Grammy Awards. "I would love to wear something romantic and pretty, and I think he can pretty much hit that on the head."
Among those rooting for designers like Lissner and Quen are American textile companies, like Jasco Fabric, which is located just outside of New York City and specializes in organic Jersey wool.
"I thought they were going to turn to things made in the USA, but they didn't to the degree I expected after 9/11," Jasco owner Howard Silver said. "Nowadays, everything is so cookie-cutter, homogeneous. Everyone's wearing the same thing because they're all using the same supplier, the same factories. It's hard to do anything personalized anymore. That's why this [all-American-made theme] isn't just buzz — it's got lightning."
Jill Siefert, professor of fashion design at the Art Institute of California-San Francisco, said Lissner faces good odds, but she offered a caveat.
"It sounds like he's focused and has a niche, and the more niche new designers have, the better chance they have of surviving; clients are looking for something different than what the person next to them is wearing," she said. "The only challenge he will face is being accessible to the right clients. He'll have to make a choice in buzz. Hopefully, he'll stay true to his notion of small and high-end."
Quen said she hoped that what she and Lissner are doing will lead to something bigger, not for themselves, but for the American fashion and textile industries.
"If we start thinking that we can do this and start helping [American] businesses, we can do it more and make it like it used to be, when we could make a lot of things here," she said.