The 1980s were, on the whole, a bad decade for fashion. Madonna’s cone bra aside, legwarmers and shoulder pads weren’t good looks for anybody, and let’s not even get into the permed hair and blue eye shadow. But there was one element that decade’s fashion had over today’s styles: 80 percent of it was made in the United States. Today, we only make about 2 percent of the clothes we wear in this country.
Like most industries in America, fashion and textile producers found that outsourcing their clothing manufacturing operations to places like China and El Salvador offered incredibly cheap labor and raw materials. In the early ’90s, after a handful of big retail chains like Gap and JCPenney stopped making their clothes themselves, other brands increasingly followed suit, designing and marketing their wares but moving the physical production overseas. In 2000, the first H&M store opened in the United States, and by the middle of the decade “fast fashion”— clothing with quick trend turnaround at mind-bogglingly low prices — had become the norm.
Then, in April of 2013, a building called Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh, collapsed due to structural failure and killed more than 1,100 people. Those people? Garment workers who made clothes for the likes of Mango, Wal-Mart and Primark. Were you to stop into Gap today to pick up a cotton shirt, it could have been made in one of 1,200 factories across 42 countries outside the U.S., most of which have little regulation when it comes to things like child labor and safety. Chances are, the only made-in-America piece of clothing in your closet right now is from American Apparel, and its founder was recently ousted amid allegations of sexual misconduct and corporate scandal.
Enter Victor Athletics.
Founded by Cincinnatians Abby and Chris Sutton as an offshoot of their Noble Denim brand, Victor, which recently opened as a brick-and-mortar in Over-the-Rhine on Republic Street, offers soft and cozy T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants, all of which are manufactured by factories in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Neither of the Suttons had any type of background in fashion before launching Noble, their first brand (which is also manufactured entirely in the U.S.), two years ago.
“Chris actually taught himself how to sew,” says Abby, Chris’ wife.
After deciding that his out-of-the-blue hobby could potentially work as a business, the couple quit their full-time jobs and found success as American-made denim producers.
While working on production for Noble, the Suttons got to know a man named Danny Swafford, a factory owner in Milledgeville, Tenn., who set up shop in 1988. Swafford at one time employed 161 people to create garments like football pants and blue jeans (the latter of which Swafford has a special passion for).
“You would walk out onto that floor with all the machines going and it would just sound like a beehive,” Swafford told the Suttons of the factory’s peak, a comment included in a video for their Kickstarter campaign. But when Chris and Abby first met Swafford, he employed only four workers and was on the verge of shutting down. With the passage of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), America lost almost 1 million jobs over a decade and a half, 78 percent of which were in the manufacturing sector, something that hit small, rural towns like Milledgeville (population 265) especially hard. There used to be 20 factories within a two-hour radius of Swafford. Now, there are three.
Chris and Abby initially started working with Swafford and his factory as a way to expand Noble, so Chris wasn’t the only one creating the jeans. Partnering with Swafford “really shifted the whole vantage point of the company,” Abby says. “It really changed it from a hobby business to having a bigger purpose. Chris actually moved down there for a month when we first started working with them. They’re basically family to us at this point.”
Victor Athletics grew out of the Suttons’ desire to continue to support Swafford’s factory and others like it. And they found that customers felt the same way they did about ethically sourced clothing: Customers wanted to purchase an American-made brand with a purpose, like Noble, but couldn’t always afford the high price point (a pair of Noble jeans will run you about $250). They had quickly sold out of knitwear created under Noble’s brand, so combining that knowledge along with their desire to give Swafford’s factory more work — “They get calls all the time asking for more jobs,” Abby says — led them to create Victor Athletics, a socially conscious brand of well-made basics with a lower price. (T-shirts start at $35 and sweatshirts and sweatpants will run you about $70-$95.)
Victor’s clothes are also all made out of organic cotton, grown without any environment-polluting fertilizers or pesticides. Conventional cotton is actually the most pesticide-laden crop in the U.S., and though it occupies only 3 percent of the world’s farmland, it uses 25 percent of its chemical pesticides and fertilizers. And it’s what the majority of your clothes are made from. But at Victor, “we can trace a sweatshirt all the way back to where the cotton was grown,” says Abby, who helped develop the specific cotton Victor uses with Daniel Sanders, a pioneering organic cotton manufacturer out of Asheville, N.C., who was responsible for outdoor outfitter Patagonia’s first line of organic knits.
“Because we care about organic and because we care about fair wages, there are only so many people making clothes in the U.S. right now that also care about those things,” Abby says of their partnership with Sanders.
Abby says she and Chris and the rest of their Cincinnati-and-brooklyn based crew ("Like Christman, Sam, Alex, Alex and Renee," she adds) hope that soon all people will care about organic cotton and clothing the way the public cares about organic food. For now, it’s enough to know that Swafford was able to hire more people back to work in Milledgeville and might even, one day, be able to pass his factory down to his grandson.
For more info on VICTOR ATHLETICS or to buy your own responsible basics, visit victorathletics.com.