At our NYC tie factory, time-honored traditions are embraced by generations of skilled craftsmen.
It’s a widely accepted truism that the American garment industry has moved its manufacturing operations overseas. Nothing better exemplifies this, the thinking goes, than the New York City apparel trade, which is now little more than a shell of its once-vibrant self.
But a powerful counter-narrative, or at least a scrappy holdout, can be found in an unassuming building in Queens. Here, in an 80,000-square-foot space, a staff of about 120 turns out Brooks Brothers neckties—about 1.4 million per year.
“In theory, we can make a tie in an hour,” says Adriana Lucin, the shop’s production manager, who has worked for Brooks Brothers for 17 years. “A normal production run for a batch of ties usually takes about three weeks, but a Brooks Brothers run takes six to eight weeks, because the process is a bit more labor-intensive.”
That process includes 17 separate steps, beginning with the inspection of the fabric used to make the tie and ending with the tie being wrapped in plastic and prepared for packing and shipping. In between come various stages of folding, sewing, shaping, pressing, tagging, bar-tacking, and so on, all of which turn three pieces of silk, two pieces of tipping (the fabric seen on the underside of the tie), and one piece of interlining (the gauze-like interior fabric that gives the tie its body and heft) into a piece of Brooks Brothers neckwear.
Those 17 steps turn the plant into a hive of activity. Over here are workers cutting silk (sometimes by hand, sometimes with a machine that uses computer-programmed cutting coordinates); over there are workers sewing the silk pieces together; in the next room are workers attaching the “keeper”—the little flap of fabric into which you tuck the skinny end of the tie. Everywhere are piles of fabric waiting to be attended to, most of them tied together with scraps of silk left over from previous jobs.
The current facility also includes a division devoted to clothing alterations. If you need your Brooks Brothers suit altered or your shirt cuff monogrammed, this is one facility where it may be sent—but the tie operation is the heart of the factory.
Many people are surprised to learn that Brooks Brothers ties are still made in New York City. “That’s Claudio’s vision,” says Lucin, referring to CEO and Chairman Claudio Del Vecchio. “This is an American company, and he really values ‘Made in USA.’ ” In fact, the company has been making neckwear within just 10 miles of its New York City flagship stores for the entire 198 years of its existence.
But while domestic production has been a stable Brooks Brothers value, the nature of the necktie business has been fluid. “It used to be large volume and relatively few designs,” says Luis Nava, the factory’s director of operations. “Now it’s a wider variety of styles with lower quantities. The business is wider but not as deep, you might say. So we have to be more efficient in how we process all the different orders.”
A lot of that efficiency comes from the company’s willingness to invest in modern technology. “You see a lot of automated equipment here—still operated by an individual, but much more efficient than the way ties are made in other places,” Lucin says. “That helps us stay competitive with overseas manufacturing.”
The people operating that equipment comprise what is arguably America’s most skilled and knowledgeable necktie labor force, as well as one of the more diverse workforces in the city. Languages spoken in the factory include English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Italian, and Croatian. Some of the employees have worked for Brooks Brothers for more than 40 years, and the shop was recently honored with an Age Smart Employer Award, a program run by the Columbia Aging Center in New York City that rewards employers that value and maximize the potential of older workers.
About 95 percent of Brooks Brothers ties are made from silk, much of which comes from mills in the United Kingdom and Italy. The designs on the fabric—the stripes, dots, or other patterns—are created by the mills and selected by Brooks Brothers buyers. Once a pattern has been chosen for Brooks Brothers, the company secures an exclusive right to the design. The company’s preferred tie width, currently three and a quarter inches, changes over time and with certain collections, such as Red Fleece, which is two and five-eighths inches. “We used to be three and three-quarters, then we moved down to three and a half, and now three and a quarter,” says Lucin. “We adapt to suit our customers. They’re the most important piece of what we do.”
That type of can-do attitude has gone a long way toward helping the Queens factory stay viable and vibrant while the rest of the region’s neckwear shops are struggling. “You’d be surprised—there are tie factories scattered around Brooklyn and New Jersey,” says Lucin. “Little by little, unfortunately, a lot of them are closing their doors. We want to persevere.”
That seems likely, as Brooks Brothers recently renewed its lease there, ensuring that the company’s ties will continue to come from that same unassuming building in Queens—and that the brand’s commitment to domestic production will continue to buck the industry trend.