The black sports bra and matching leggings that Under Armour began selling Monday don’t look particularly distinctive from the rest of the workout attire on its website.
But, in fact, the garments are different in a key way: They were made in the United States, marking a key milestone in the company’s ambitious bid to significantly rethink its manufacturing strategy.
They are the first batch of clothing to be made at UA Lighthouse, a sprawling Under Armour facility that opened this summer in Baltimore. A 35,000-square-foot design and product development hub, it is an anchor of Under Armour’s attempt to figure out how to make clothing in the United States — an unusual venture in an industry where manufacturing has largely been done overseas for a generation. About 97 percent of clothing sold in the United States is imported, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association.
Just 2,000 of the garments are available for sale — 1,000 each of the bras and leggings — so it’s a small-scale start. But the process of creating them offers a look at what the future of Under Armour — and the wider apparel industry, for that matter — might look like. The company says that it was able to operate on a sharply shorter timeline for bringing the gear to market, and it says it believes the Lighthouse setup is cost neutral compared to making clothing overseas.
With President Trump talking frequently of finding ways to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, Under Armour’s experiment might end up drawing particularly close observation from retailers and Washington alike to see if it can be a blueprint for similar initiatives.
Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s president of innovation, said that the process for creating garments such as the bra and leggings would typically take 18 to 20 months. For the Baltimore-made pieces, though, it took just three months.
Haley said that’s because the Lighthouse setup has enabled the company to compress the creation process in several ways. Perhaps most important, when designers and manufacturers are in the same building instead of on different continents, they can combine their contributions to the supply chain into a single step.
“The designer is sitting in the Lighthouse facility with the person who’s actually going to perform the operations to assemble that garment,” Haley said. “So the person who’s actually going to be putting it together is effectively going to be teaching the designer, ‘Look, here’s how to simplify this design and do it more efficiently.’ ”
Haley also said that the technology in the Baltimore facility has enabled speedier garment production. By using 3D body scanners, Under Armour can figure out how a certain piece of clothing is going to fit and flatter a body without going the traditional route of producing a physical prototype.
The company also hopes this setup will generally enable it to work in a more iterative way on clothing, allowing the team to fine-tune pieces after they’ve started to hit stores. In the future, Under Armour might ship out a small batch of clothes from Lighthouse and see how customers react to the gear before making tens of thousands of pieces of it. If shoppers, for example, say that a waistband is fitting a little snugly on a pair of shorts, they could tweak that for a bigger production run of that item. And being able to adapt to that feedback in real time could be powerful: It could be the difference between selling thousands of those shorts at full price, or having to mark them all down because shoppers were just lukewarm about them.
Here’s why it matters that making clothes in Baltimore could shave time off Under Armour’s speed-to-market process: because doing so has become something of a holy grail in the retail world. Because of social media, live-streamed runway shows and other cultural changes, fashion trends go boom and bust faster than ever before.
You might be tempted to think these tectonic shifts mostly matter for fashion companies and not for performance athletic brands such as Under Armour. But, in fact, exercise attire has become a deeply trend-driven business. Printed yoga pants, leggings with mesh paneling, workout tanks with strategically-placed cutouts: These popular looks are all riffs on what’s happening on the catwalk.
“It enables us to effectively pull forward materials, fabrics, textiles, yarns that the consumer maybe wasn’t going to see until 2018, 2019 — and bring that into 2017,” Haley said.
But speed-to-market wasn’t the only reason Under Armour pursued U.S. manufacturing capabilities. The company has a lofty goal of contributing to a revitalization of Baltimore by creating jobs at Lighthouse and a planned roster of other facilities.
So what kind of labor force was needed to create these garments? After all, jobs going overseas is only part of the reason that the United States’ manufacturing industry has contracted — many such positions have been lost to automation.
The company said some 50 people worked on this particular garment collection, including design, manufacturing, marketing and other roles. Haley said the headcount of workers needed to create the products in Baltimore was “not all that different” from if they were made abroad.
“It’s not like these are being made by a robot,” Haley said. “These are being made by human beings using advanced manufacturing methods.”
Lighthouse staffers also work on Under Armour sneakers, though, and that manufacturing process is one for which the company has been working for years to reduce the number of workers and steps needed.
Some competitors, Haley said, “could have 300 pairs of hands touching every shoe that moves down the line. Which is at some level crazy, in 2017, to be introducing all that room for margin for error at each step along the way.”
Ultimately, Under Armour hopes that Lighthouse is a proof of concept for a bigger global initiative to embrace “local for local” manufacturing. In other words, Under Armour gear sold in Brazil would be made in Brazil; gear sold in the United States would be made in the United States, and so on.
The goal, Haley said, is to show that “if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere. And if we can make it here, anyone can make any product here.”
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