SPECIAL REPORT: BACK IN THE USA
Becket New York dresses are sewn at 270 West 38th Street in Manhattan, the home of Ruby Fashions. Bunny Donahue, a fashion designer from Salisbury and the owner and creator of Becket, said she contracts with domestic factories like Ruby because they produce the highest quality product. “The Becket customer appreciates fine quality,” she said. (Or “good needle,” as it is called in the fashion industry.) Quality is one feature
Becket customers will pay for, as her line averages $300 per dress. Her price range, a small business loan and financial help from others in the industry help to offset the higher cost of domestic manufacturing, a cause that means a lot to Donahue. Donahue’s commitment to domestic manufacturing contributes one small portion of a larger movement to save New York’s garment centers. The Save the Garment Coalition in New York is an organization working with Manhattan’s fashion industries to keep production close to home. The manufacturing industry that thrived when Donahue entered the dress business in 1995 is now dominated by China, India, Indonesia, Italy, Vietnam and the Philippines, according to the International Trade Administration. China tops the administration’s list as the No. 1 American exporter for dresses of silk, cotton and man made fabrics. Despite higher costs, manufacturing in the United States has its benefits. Time from factory to store is just three weeks in the United States. In Asia, you have to book factory space six months to a year in advance, Donahue said. Manufacturers in top U.S. exporter China get paid significantly lower wages than their U.S. counterparts. According to the site tradingeconomics.com, Chinese manufacturingjobs in 2014 paid an average of $7,428.96 per year. In the United States, textile, apparel and furnishing workers earn an annualsalary of $23,170, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The bureau has not provided information on Chinese wages since 2009.) Donahue also uses two other Manhattan factories: the Yee Cutting Room for fabric cutting and the New York Embroidery Studio for laser-cutting and embroidery. With Ruby, sheoperates on a contract basis in which she must produce a minimum amount of fabricfor them to cut and sew. As her company grows, Donahue said she’ll need more factories to sew her product, but she plans to stay in New York. The one exception to Donahue’s domestic manufacturing policy is her digital fabric printing, which is done in South Korea. “South Korea has made an investment as a country to pursue that industry,” she said. Although South Korea is respected worldwide for its digital fabric prints, it is pricier than other foreign options in India and China, Donahue said. facture the debut collection
for her own dress line: Becket New York. The name may read “New York” but the designs will be done entirely by Donahue, from her home in Lakeville. The
“New York” aspect of the company is in the manufacturing. These days, the area encompassing West 34th to 42nd streets and 5th to 10th avenues bustles with tourists and businesspeople, but Donahue has worked in the business long enough to recall when these streets hummed with the rolling racks of freshlysewn fashions, pushed from factories to their next destination.
WHEN SHE ENTERED THE WORLD OF DRESS design in 1995, Donahue said, 95 percent of all dresses were made in the garment centers of Manhattan’s
West Side, with 5 percent manufactured in Asia. Almost 20 years later, those numbers have reversed. The United States relies almost entirely on other nations to manufacture apparel, which Donahue finds tragic. “It was so exciting to see the rolling racks of garments along 7th Avenue, and now it’s gone,” she said, standing in what used to be the midst of the garment district. She echoed a previous sentiment expressed in her Lakeville design room: “America sold its soul by giving up our manufacturing. ”Becket, however, is conducted in the style of Donahue. Not only does this equate to domestically produced apparel, it also means a collection of elegant dresses that are classic and designed to make the wearer feel beautiful, such as a leopard print number Donahue adjusted on a mannequin in her New York showroom. “I’m famous for putting a dress on at the last minute,” said the petite designer with the strawberry blonde pixie cut. “My last dress is always my best.” Complete control over the design of a dress is a newfound freedom for Donahue. At the end of her career with the Jones Group, where she worked for the Jones New York brand (the dress division of the group also features the brands of Anne Klein, Nine West and private label Evan Picone), she became accustomed to seeing her designs turned down. She said she had been hired to revitalize Jones’ dress division, but there was a disconnect between what she envisioned for the brand and what the sales management had in mind. “No matter what I did, it didn’t work. It was very frustrating that I couldn’t solve the mystery as to what was wrong,” she said. “I wanted to create my own dresses the way I knew they would sell.” Donahue left Jones when Macy’s dropped the brand and her contract expired in October 2012. Life in the high ranks of the fashion industry was only fitting for Donahue. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1950s as the daughter of a fashion illustrator, she was immersed in the glamour of the fashion world before she was old enough to walk. Her mother “was always sketching, and as soon as I was in a high chair, she put a pencil in my hand.” The epitome of glamour, beauty and fashion, her mother sewed dresses for her Barbie dolls and taught her to sew dresses mirroring those in Vogue magazine, Donahue said. She took her daughter on extensive shopping trips to look for the perfect Calvin Klein or Oscar de la Renta piece. And then, of course, there were the parties. “Dance parties, garden parties, balls and galas ... that was her world, and I came along,” Donahue said. “My mom was my muse.”
WITH BECKET, DONAHUE IS infusing elements of nature into her designs from a new source of inspiration, the lakes and hills of Litchfield County. She has a New York showroom and a sales representative, ADK Fashions, which sells her line and books her business. The showroom boasts the 11 dresses of her fall collection. They are made with luxurious French and Italian fabrics. Some are solid, some are color-blocked and some feature Donahue’s own nature- inspired prints that are digitally printed onto fabric in South Korea. All are bold, fitted and made to flatter adult women, dresses that transition seamlessly from the office to cocktail parties.
While the Becket brand possesses the element of glamour her mother instilled in her during childhood, Donahue said thefashion manufacturing process is the exact opposite. “I’ve seen the underbelly of the fashion world. It’s not a glamorous business at all,” she said. Tucked away high in a West Side high-rise, the factory where she will send her fabric to be cut, pressed and sewn together teems with workers attending to their individual assignments. Red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling of a room filled with steam from the fabric press amid the hum of sewing machines. Her sample room, where models are fitted, resembles a walk-in closet. Donahue’s collection will debut this fall and be showcased at boutiques across the South (“Southern galslove dresses,” she said), particularly in the major dress markets of Atlanta, Dallas, and Birmingham, Ala. Northerners will be able to find the collection online at BecketNewYork.com (the site is under construction). She ordered 60 dresses in each style and hopes to sell out. The debut will be a testament not only to her talent but to the hard work it took to start up her own company. At Becket, she could no longer be just a designer, but had to be part bookkeeper, part fabric buyer and part advertiser, too. “You have to be the queen of multitasking,” she said.
DONAHUE SAID BECKET may be the final addition to an impressive resume which began in 1980 in the executive training program at Macy’s Herald Square. She then moved on to showroom sales for Diane von Furstenberg. A journalism degree could only get the Boston University graduate so far, so she realized she needed an education in fashion. She attended Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, graduating at the top of her class. That landed her a position as designer Charles Nolan’s assistant at Tahari and then a job as a technical designer for Pierre Cardin Knitwear. Donahue later found her obsession with the dress and designed for the Jessica Simpson brand, Tahari ASL and Ellen Tracy before moving on to Jones Group. She doesn’t envision Becket staying small for long. The spring 2015 collection already is in the works and will include an element of “fantasy” for weddings and other special occasions. The website is almost ready, arrangements for a warehouse in Winsted are being completed, and she hopes one day to open a second place to design in New York. Oh, and she would like to expand her repertoire to shoes — shoes that are a little more upscale than the tennis sneakers she wears on her nothing-but-business days in Manhattan.“If you’re passionate about it, you’ll succeed,” Donahue said. “I’ve refused to take ‘no’ for an answer.”