Of course Ralph Lauren made the U.S. Olympic Team uniforms in China. Just count those blazers and berets with the little horses among the 98 percent of all clothing sold in this country that’s made overseas.
For all our patriotism this Olympic year, the recent uniform dust-up seems to have done nothing to lift our collective amnesia about what globalization has done to the U.S. apparel industry.
Somewhere around 1980, other countries figured out they could make clothes more cheaply than America. Unfortunately, American manufacturers tried to outcompete their foreign rivals on price… and lost.
What we should have done all those years ago is acknowledge we couldn’t compete on price. Instead, we should have upped the ante with a focus on design and quality.
Countries like Italy have always acted with the knowledge that price is not their competitive advantage. Instead, they’ve focused on tailor-made garments, premium fabrics, and fashion that speaks for itself.
So, what will it take for Ralph Lauren to bring our Olympic uniforms home?
For one thing, “Made in America” has got to make long term economic sense. The good news is China’s cost advantage has been slipping because of rising fuel prices and higher wages among Chinese workers. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to get our business back. Quality and design will be key, but technology just might be the best trump card we’ve got. If we can figure out ways to bring technological innovation to the shop floor, we can boost manufacturing efficiencies. It’s just one reason American-made socks are making a coming back.
We need our brightest entrepreneurs to roll up their sleeves, find what will make us stand out on the global stage, and sew it.
I’ve got to commend Ralph Lauren for reviving this much-needed conversation. In the meantime, let’s root for Team USA — no matter where their clothes were sewn.