We don’t bat our eyes anymore when we see labels with “Made In China” stamped on them. Or maybe it’s Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam. That the world’s clothes are coming from developing economies is just the nature of fast fashion, so we just brush it off.
Yet in America, an immigrant from Korea bucked against popular convention and is making clothes in a first world country. He’s been there since 1988.
Johnny Kim was there when New York was the epicentre of ‘Made In USA’ fashion. In its prime, the NYC Garment District manufactured 95% of American fashion. Today only 3% are made here. Johnny’s Fashion Studio has thankfully never closed, but not without weathering a few challenges.
Johnny first came to New York in his early 30s lured by the freedom in American fashion. Working in various factories, he further honed his skills while learning the ropes of running a manufacturing factory of his own.
Johnny calls himself a “factory man” and finds comfort in being removed from glitz and glamour. He’s a trained pattern maker and sample maker, meaning he takes designers’ sketches and drawings and bring them to life. It’s a skill honed from years of experience and an understanding of technical processes that even fashion school graduates don’t have.
When the industry started moving manufacturing overseas, Johnny saw the opportunity to invest in his own team and in tools that would help him keep up with the competitive industry. He wasn’t going to buckle and pull the shutters. He innovated.
He introduced computers to streamline time-consuming handmade techniques. His team resisted, but he did it with faith that the fashion brands would return to New York and they needed to be ready. It turned out to be true, and indeed, Johnny’s Fashion Studio was ready.
This was in the wake of 2013’s tragic Bangladesh factory collapse, where fashion brands began to re-evaluate the true cost of manufacturing overseas. Giving the business to Johnny’s Fashion Studio meant they had a end to end product created in America.
The growing appreciation of artisanal labels have also benefited them. Small but premium labels like Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s label, Elizabeth and James, Alexander Wang, Suno and 3.1 Phillip Lim are among their clientele.
Jonny’s is an inspiring tale of perseverance, about staying on course and chasing your dream.
But more importantly, it’s a lesson for us all too that when your dreams seem out of reach, don’t be afraid to alter your course. Perseverance, hope and innovation makes for a powerful combination, and it won’t go out of fashion.
‘Factory Man’ is part of our Korean American Film Festival New York channel on Viddsee.