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Made in America: Fine suits and a middle class life

In the age of globalization and offshoring, English American Tailoring stays put

Dan Rodricks

2:08 PM EDT, September 1, 2012

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Mark Falcone enjoys telling people that the cutters and sewers in his factory in Westminster made 300 suits for Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and the numerous extras of "Men In Black III." But, while the MIB movies might have popularized the black suit for men, mass-produced sameness is hardly English American Tailoring's thing.

This company, rooted in Maryland for a century, quietly produces thousands of made-to-measure suits — in solids, pinstripes and plaids — for customers around the world. English American makes suits for the Tom James label, preferred by attorneys and business executives who can afford to have a tailor visit their offices for a fitting. The company, with sales representatives across the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, just opened a showroom in Dubai.

So making clothes for the movies isn't the core of English American's trade. But the MIB3 job was memorable, and a result of the company's place in an integrated business, Individualized Apparel Group, or IAG.

The MIB3 order came two years ago on a referral from a sister company, Holland & Sherry, which provided the fabric for the suits. "They sent us custom measures for the three stars and then we made stock sizes for all the movie's fill-ins," says Falcone, divisional president of manufacturing for IAG.

The company has produced other costume collections, at least one for a Broadway show. And there have been some celebrities over the years, a Secret Service agent or two, professional wrestlers and the owner of an NFL team.

But English American's primary customer base is the busy professional willing to spend thousands of dollars on custom-fit Tom James suits, sport coats and pants and, from another IAG company, shirts and ties.

Even during the recession, English American had some impressive growth years, and 2012 is looking good, Falcone says. He's hired and trained 50 new sewers since January, bringing the workforce close to 400. The plant finishes between 600 and 700 orders a day.

Let me emphasize: American company, American factory, American workers — and unionized at that.

"We have a great relationship with the union and always have," Falcone says. "We feel 'Made in America' and 'union-made' makes a statement about who we are and what we are about. We provide a very high quality custom garment with superior turn-around time, with super-convenient service."

Years ago, the owner of the company, Spencer Hays, invested in the customized apparel trade when others were pulling out, and the unions appreciated the commitment. Plus, customer service is key to the Tom James/English American business model; contrary to the globalization mantra, that's not something that can be sent offshore.

"To make suits overseas in the custom arena would take considerable extra time," Falcone explains. "And what if there's a mistake? How long would it take to correct? You're fitting a body, not building a garage."

Sen. Ben Cardin visited the English American plant recently to promote the Bring Jobs Home Act. It calls for an end to the ridiculous tax benefits the country provides to companies that move American jobs overseas. The act would instead give tax credits to U.S. companies that — you ready for this? — move production back here.

"American manufacturing is hurting because we have not done enough to support U.S. companies and jobs," Cardin said. "That needs to change. I am working hard to make sure that job creation is our number one priority and that U.S. companies are rewarded for bringing jobs home — not from sending them overseas."

That sounds good. But it also sounds like an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. The bill is going nowhere in the current Congress, and no surprise that.

In their latest book, "The Betrayal of the American Dream," the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele lay out Congress' complicity in the decline of the middle class and the creation of an economic elite — by supporting with tax and trade policies the movement of millions of good-paying jobs overseas, allowing corporations to erase 85,000 pension plans in a generation, and cutting taxes on the wealthy. All of that, Barlett and Steele say, has undermined the notion of shared prosperity and class mobility.

"Betrayal" is important reading in this election year. The question is how to reverse these trends. We have the example, remarkable in the age of globalization, of a company that stayed: English American Tailoring of Westminster. We need more companies like it — and companies that come back, startups that stay and leaders who see trade deficits as important as budget deficits and American workers as important as their rich campaign contributors.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com