“In 2011, we didn’t own a sewing machine,” Todd Shelton admits. “And that was a problem.” His brand, Todd Shelton, sold clothing. The operation was 10 years old.
Now 14 years old, Todd Shelton’s company owns 55 sewing machines, a fusing machine and a handful of other speciality machines that help make their line of T-shirts, button-downs and jeans. It’s a clothing company that makes their own clothes in their own factory with their own employees.
If Todd Shelton were a brewery, all this would be obvious. We don’t drink craft beer that’s made somewhere in a giant factory and then marketed and distributed by a brewery. Beer makers make their own beer, at their own breweries, and it’s a simple, mostly vertically integrated company concept. But craft clothing is not craft beer. Most all startup clothing companies make a design, contract with a factory and then get their goods made domestically or abroad. Shelton did that, too, for 10 years. But to him it never made sense.
One Sewer, One Garment
Ana De Ortiz and Isabella Fernandez make jeans; Carmen Romero and Lorena Ramos make shirts — from start to finish. Shelton has a reason for this. He believes in the dignity of the maker (“one operator on one machine isn’t a cool job”), and he’s fastidious about fit (“the fit is the value in this product”). So, for each piece of apparel that Todd Shelton makes, there’s one person who oversees its production entirely.
This also, naturally, slows things down — there’s a reason that the factory assembly line caught on. But for what Shelton loses in speed, he gains in quality and employee empowerment. Shelton points out things like how clean the stitching is in a garment, and how the belt loops don’t have unfinished ends, which can lead to fraying. He also believes that the pride that comes in creating an individual piece of clothing, as one’s own complete creation, is worthwhile for company happiness. It’s a small shift of creation over repetition.
“It didn’t feel authentic,” Shelton says. “We weren’t learning anything.” Shelton’s a native Tennesseean with a soft, near-extinct Southern drawl (he’s been a New Yorker since 2000). He has a lean build and wears his own clothing — blue jeans and a white shirt — fitted to his frame. Shelton uses terms like “authentic” and “dignity” without irony, and he believes that the core of a company needs to be close to home. Back in Tennessee, his father owned a paper-manufacturing company, and he grew up around factory work. He moved to New York to pursue a career in the fashion industry, and he started Todd Shelton on the side in 2002. In 2009, he quit his day job and took on the project full-time.
“We got into manufacturing because of supply chain issues, but now it’s opened us up to innovation. Manufacturing is the center of innovation.”
Other important dates are 2006 and 2012. In 2006, Todd Shelton moved all their manufacturing to factories in the USA. Then, as Shelton grew increasingly frustrated by the supply chain and being dependent on manufacturer’s timelines and frequent fickleness, he scaled things back and, in 2012, opened his own factory.
In the grand scheme of fashion, this isn’t wildly odd. For the majority of time we’ve bought and sold clothes, they’ve come from people who make them for you. And there are still companies today — big and small — that make their own clothes in their own factories. Canada Goose and Filson come to mind. But there’s a large portion of new companies starting up that follow a new concept, for cost and quality and scalability reasons. Today, apparel manufacturing is much more likely to happen in collaboration with a factory, abroad or at home, that works with the designs and prototypes of a brand to make their clothing at scale. It’s an intimate relationship, but it’s still an out-of-the-house operation. And that stresses Shelton.
Fabric and Fit
Fabric and fit are where any custom value is added. For fabrics, Shelton sources from factories he feels share his values in labor and environmental standards. Denim comes from Japan, button-down shirt fabric from a mill in Portugal. YKK supplies zippers and buttons. Thread comes from Germany. For T-shirts, Shelton developed a proprietary blend of cotton and modal that uses yarn from Georgia, is knit in Clifton, NJ and dyed in Jersey City, NJ.
That’s one side of the value proposition. The other side is fit. “We used to be designing for a middle ground, but now we don’t have to do that,” Shelton says. Before any order, Todd Shelton sends out a “fit kit”, which allows customers to try on sizes before ordering. A customer records their preferred size (it’s not full-on measurements, but is a combination of sizes and measurements — i.e. for a shirt, I measured a L/XL size with double-tapered body, regular length with 35 inch sleeves and a 17 inch neck; jeans have four different measurements — waist, fit, leg and inseam), then orders on-line. A product is shipped in 8 days, notably faster than production times from other custom manufacturers, which tend to be around 4-6 weeks.
Not that the move to running an individual factory is less stressful. Shelton says that now, about four years into creating the factory, things are stable. They have four operators and can make eight pairs of jeans and six shirts a day. It’s a humble operation, but an operating one, nonetheless. And, Shelton can adapt and modify as needed. “There’s certain things I wouldn’t want to tackle, but with what we want to do, there’s nothing we can’t do,” Shelton says of his operation. And the manufacturing is influencing the creativity. Shelton fears that the loss of American manufacturing affects more than just domestic jobs. It also affects our sense of creativity. “We got into manufacturing because of supply chain issues, but now it’s opened us up to innovation. Manufacturing is the center of innovation.”
Shelton, at the end of the day, is a high-end bespoke clothing manufacturer. His T-shirts are $60, button-downs $180, jeans $200. It’s an expense that comes with the added value of individual time spent on an individual garment made with top-level materials. This is a company that specializes in the unseen details that make something fit perfectly — finding the slight difference in a waist that sits perfectly, a thigh that’s tapered but still allows mobility, and the small manufacturing particulars that add value (his jeans’ waists are fused to add strength, his fabrics are all pre-washed). Shelton believes, as manufacturers who focus on craftsmanship over catchiness do, that the quality of this product will make his business long-term viable.
Shelton’s next steps are hiring more operators and moving more product. A women’s line is in the works, along with an expanded men’s line (khakis are nearing completion). And the company, though small, is stalwart. “A lot of businesses these days are built around an exit strategy,” Shelton says, then glances around his factory, full of costly machines and with highly specialized full-time employees slowly laboring on individual garments. “This is not.”