The bustle of workers and hum of sewing machines have long since left the old Kansas City Garment District.
At one time, however, garment manufacturing was the city's No. 2 industry, employing more than 4,000 people. An estimated one in seven American women wore a garment that was manufactured in Kansas City.
"We don't always appreciate the history we have here in Kansas City," says Kerry Duffin, owner of The Garment Factory in the West Bottoms and the Lucy Marie and Herman product lines. "Up until the early 1990s, we were second only to New York City in garment production. It fell off a cliff with NAFTA and China trade opening up."
However, Duffin believes the industry is poised for a revival that could create thousands of jobs and put the city on the national map for apparel.
"Kansas City has a huge opportunity to capture the Made in the USA apparel industry," he says. "Much of the manufacturing is done in Los Angeles, which is perceived as fake, but we are perceived as authentic. Kansas City has a heck of an opportunity to wake up and grasp. The growth can be exponential, because bringing in one business can attract 10 more."
Duffin has put his money where his mouth is. The Kansas City native, who started out working in the music industry, had a brainstorm while visiting the South Beach area of Miami. He noticed women wearing a style of jeans that were designed to flatter their figures. Market research convinced him that proper fit is a top priority for women purchasing denim. As a result he launched the Lucy Marie line for women and later the Herman line for men (both named after his parents) in 2013.Two years later, he opened the Garment Factory to provide contract manufacturing.
"We are the only cut-and-sew facility in Kansas City," he says. "Several people are working out of their homes and doing small, single-piece production. But as far as assembly-line production, The Garment Factory is the only one doing it."
A major challenge of trying to revive a long-dormant industry was simply finding basic equipment and skilled workers.
"Basic things such as shears would cost $100 here but just $19.99 in Los Angeles," he says. "Thread and other things we buy in bulk had to be shipped in. But the biggest hurdle is finding skilled assembly-line workers. It has taken two years to find around 10 good operators. Many have come from immigrant populations. It's a highly skilled position and difficult to teach.
"I initially had to import my entire production crew from Los Angeles. They fell in love with Kansas City and said they wanted to move their families here."
After frequent conversations with West Coast clients and suppliers, Duffin began to realize that Kansas City had a golden opportunity. California companies are being squeezed by high labor costs, suffocating regulatory burdens and environmental concerns.
"Many companies that have been in Los Angeles for 25 or 30 years are considering moving and see Mexico as their only option," he says. "Many major brands have moved to Mexico, but with tariffs, they are looking over their shoulder wondering if they made the right decision. There are not many options. Union labor makes New York cost-prohibitive. There are some in Chicago, which also is expensive, and in Kentucky and Tennessee."
This is where Kansas City, where the cost of living is 78 percent lower than Los Angeles, enters the picture.
"Kansas City has a central location, lower shipping costs and an ease of doing business," Duffin says. "I made a call to City Hall, and there is only one page of codes. By contrast, Los Angeles requires eight types of business licenses."
Kansas City also offers something less tangible but just as valuable – authenticity.
This is especially important with strong consumer demand for American-made products.
"Kansas City is perceived as down-to-earth, not contrived," Duffin says. "Many people are now willing to pay 10 percent or 20 percent more for something manufactured in the United States, where they know the quality."
The biggest challenge is overcoming inertia. Duffin has contacted city officials, civic leaders and bankers about his vision. He admits it has been a tough sell.
"I can't facilitate the moves myself and need assistance," he says. "It's a hard business to understand. Many people focus on a romantic vision of the industry, with fashion shows and galas, but our business is very blue collar."
Hardly a day goes by that Duffin doesn't receive a phone call from someone asking about Kansas City. He shares his enthusiasm for all the city has to offer, even as he works to grow his own business. With the proper strategy and persistence, he is convinced the sound of sewing machines again will echo through the garment district.
"Civic leaders are interested but don't grasp the economics, since we haven't had a garment industry here in 35 years," he says. "It will take a concerted effort to grow the apparel industry."