It’s a February morning in the ramshackle two-storey Chinatown workspace of New York menswear label Bode. Coronavirus has yet to change life in the US: it hasn’t even hit Milan yet. For this young fashion brand it’s business as usual. Three twenty-somethings sit around a homemade table surrounded by stacks of brightly patterned fabric and plastic tubs filled with buttons. They are using coloured pens to draw whimsical illustrations on corduroy shorts. Most people would think that this was an art class. But to the brand’s founder, Emily Adams Bode, and an increasingly large pool of industry insiders, this scene – involving young people making things with their hands (and in a studio rather than on an industrial estate) – looks like the future of US fashion manufacturing.
“This is production,” she says, gesturing towards a pile of brown corduroy shorts, jackets and trousers in her signature boxy shapes. Every piece will have 10 to 15 illustrations drawn onto it by hand. “Every [wholesale] shop gets its own version of these ‘senior cord’ shorts,” she says. “Sometimes the illustrations relate to the actual account – to where they’re located, or the shop might have asked for something in particular – but part of it is up to our discretion. And because everything is hand-drawn, nothing is identical.”
This hands-on craftiness is typical of Adams Bode’s approach to production, which has played a big part in turning her brand into one of the most exciting players in the menswear industry since it launched in 2016. Bode clothes are not like any other brand’s: they feel at once ancient and contemporary, combining quirkiness with elegance. The label is best known for jackets made from 100-year-old quilts but there are also vintage-lace shirts and jackets sewn from 50-year-old cotton and other deadstock materials. Many pieces are one-offs, or close to it. Even new fabrics, such as the corduroy Bode manufactures in the UK, look like they come from a different century. It’s a refreshing change from the minimalist athleisure that has been dominating fashion for the past decade.
In the year prior to the current situation, the growing brand had taken off. Its runway shows in Paris were applauded by critics; 105 stockists around the world carried its products; and it recently opened a flagship in Chinatown, not far from the studio.
In order to meet demand while keeping its handmade essence, a lot of people are needed in the workspace. “On any given day we have up to five people drawing,” says Adams Bode; on the floor below there are more people hand-sewing, embroidering and cutting fabric. Bode’s sales have increased by 100 per cent in the past year but, unusually, the aim is to do more, not less, in-house as the label grows.
When monocle meets Adams Bode, she is celebrating winning the Woolmark Innovation prize for a collection that combined traceable merino wool with deadstock fabrics and repurposed horse blankets. “What I’ve noticed from doing fashion competitions [Bode was also a runner-up in the LVMH and CFDA competitions] and having friends in the industry is that a brand at our age typically has three to five members of staff and hardly any of them work on garment construction,” she says. “You don’t really employ in-house embroiderers, drawers, sewers or painters, yet my first hires were within those departments.” Bode’s lower floor contains two large cutting tables and seven secondhand sewing machines. “Often we have more than 25 people working in there. It’s quite close quarters.”
Why work this way instead of using factories? It must cost a fortune – and doesn’t it take ages to make things? “Yes. But I’m looking at how to create the best product we can at the price we want – that means having a larger studio team than most companies,” she says. Even the pieces that are sewn in factories are often pattern-cut in the brand’s studio first. “For clothing made from antique textiles the fabric has to be placement-cut,” she says. “Typically at a factory you could put dozens if not hundreds of pieces of identical fabric on top of each other and cut them out. For us it takes an individual to place it and cut it out, based on the embroidery or the print. It costs more to do that at a factory so it makes sense for us to do it ourselves.”
Bode’s workspace is a hive of activity and a picture of youthfulness. “We just hired an operations and business person who’s the first person here older than me – I’m 30,” says Adams Bode. Many staff are recent graduates, including illustrator Gabriel Rosen and embroiderer Mackenzie Schmaltz, who finished at FIT (New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology) a year ago. “I had prepared myself to do a computer-based fashion job – that’s what most of my classmates do – but luckily I didn’t have to,” she says. “There are not a lot of jobs in New York that revolve around handiwork and craftsmanship. It’s very interesting to find one. Here we get to take our knowledge as designers and apply it.”
“We get to take our knowledge as designers and apply it”
This is a big part of why Adams Bode runs her business the way she does. “Frankly these jobs don’t exist,” she says. “I think it’s magical to be able to employ people to draw or embroider all day. It was important to me to create jobs and to employ young artists and people right out of school.
“Young people are lacking in this workforce,” she adds. “There are hardly any working in [New York’s] Garment District. In Italy they’re investing in young craftspeople and recruiting them out of high school. They’re putting a value on the job of a tailor and that gets lost in the US. Here people don’t think it’s a good enough job.”
But how can a brand based on what Adams Bode calls “an antiquated business model” grow? “The reason why we can’t do even more of this is space,” she says. “The goal would be to have more in-house sewers and cutters. The malleability of young people and where they can work has been very helpful but more space would allow us to employ a different group of people. We’ve had older tailors working in here but it’s cramped; it’s not the atmosphere they’re accustomed to.”
During uncertain times it’s unclear whether it’s better to have all production under one roof. As international supply chains become disrupted, centralised production could offer protection. But if your manufacturing hub is in one of the epicenters of a pandemic, your staff could be ordered to stay home and production will grind to a temporary halt. “We are playing it day by day,” says Adams Bode. “We have converted our homes into working studios, with drawing, sewing, cutting, and production.”)
In the long term, however, it’s possible to imagine Bode becoming its own kind of factory, perhaps developing a production model that other small brands could follow. Adams Bode’s focus, though, is on making what she wants in a way that works for the brand. “You simply couldn’t do this in a factory,” she says, looking around a room full of artisans. “I want to keep working this way for as long as we can.”
What comes next?
By Jamie Waters
The coronavirus saga has highlighted just how dependent many western fashion brands are on overseas manufacturing, especially in China. There are concerns that, with factories slowing production, upcoming collections won’t be ready in time to hit their tight seasonal delivery windows. Looking to the future, could this encourage a shift in industry attitudes towards bringing production closer to home where it’s easier to monitor proceedings and there are fewer logistical hurdles?
Of course, the virus has affected manufacturing across the world but if a brand’s factory is nearby, it might feel more in control of things. “I do think [coronavirus] is changing consciousness at a very important level,” says London-based luxury analyst Sagra Maceira de Rosen. “Companies will have to make their supply chains more resilient. They are going to try to become more nimble and take advantage of things that are closer to them so that they don’t have the burden of these logistical nightmares happening miles away from them.”
This trend of bringing production back “on shore”, as well as brands buying factories so that they control their supply chains, has been gathering steam in recent years anyway, she adds. From luxury powerhouses – Chanel and LVMH-owned brands – to small independent labels such as Country of Origin and Anglo-Italian Company, we’ve seen many brands snapping up factories closer to home.
The coronavirus outbreak could well give this movement an added boost. One challenge for brands, though, will be finding talented workers: as Emily Adams Bode says, in countries such as the US and the UK, skills such as pattern-cutting and sewing are dying out. The challenge is on to train the next generation.