EYE OF THE NEEDLE

Kellwood's taking fashion forward by making virtually all our clothes in the Third World. But the St. Louis giant carefully cloaks its operations, its plant locations and its monitoring of labor conditions.

Beyond the brands lies the 30 percent of Kellwood that's private-label, manufactured to bear a retailer's exclusive "brand" name. Private-label used to mean uninspired knockoffs of last season's bestsellers, but today, stores want their label to become a coveted brand in its own right. What customers forget is that Polo Ralph Lauren doesn't make Polo Ralph Lauren belts; they sell the manufacturing license to Kellwood, which contracts them out. Kellwood's Smart Shirts subsidiary makes Nautica dress shirts and $30-something woven shirts for Land's End; other divisions make clothes for L.L. Bean, Talbots, Dayton-Hudson (Target), JC Penney and Dillard's. Last season's hot news was a contract to make women's sportswear for Perry Ellis International.

In its prosaic years, Kellwood never bothered to advertise. But now they have the license for Levi's Slates (producing such "fashion-forward" garb as a $45 see-through hooded jelly jacket), and suddenly there are ads by fashion photographer Richard Avedon -- portraits of Gen X men talking about changing their careers in Out, P.O.V., Rolling Stone, GQ and Wired. The French would cringe; they've always believed good design should sell itself. But Kellwood knows that today, money and marketing alone can create a strong brand.

The company's even "branding" itself: Last year, top executives hired a firm to study perceptions of Kellwood, reevaluating even its name and logo; they plan to launch a "global-imaging campaign" early in 2000, ending their anonymity.

David Dartnell designs Kellwood's David Dart line.
David Dartnell designs Kellwood's David Dart line.
Human-rights activist Bill Ramsey (right) at a candlelight vigil outside Wal-Mart, asking for information he never got
Mark Gilliland
Human-rights activist Bill Ramsey (right) at a candlelight vigil outside Wal-Mart, asking for information he never got

STITCHES IN TIMEKellwood grew up as a manufacturer, then reinvented itself as an apparel-marketing company, investing in software instead of high-speed sewing machines and using sophisticated electronic linkages to keep its long, complicated supply chains flexible. Today, Kellwood may not pump its own sewing-machine pedals, but it can shift suppliers at the drop of a pin, enjoying free-trade-zone incentives and cheap labor while avoiding civil wars and export quotas. Overseas factories still cloud with lint, their floors littered with scraps of Tencel and stretch jersey. But what Kellwood emphasizes is the clean high-tech of concept, trend forecasting, marketing, management and global sourcing expertise.

"We manufacture less and less," Upbin boasted to an industry audience last May, emphasizing how fast Kellwood clothes fly onto the warehouse racks. The factories run through more than 200 million yards of fabric a year, constantly nagging mills for shorter runs so they can churn out the current formula before customers tire of it. The whole industry's moving at warp speed: Clothes hit a season ahead of themselves and get marked down in nine weeks; the leftovers are shipped to apparel hell soon after. Fresh designs don't have time to catch on.

But Upbin -- described by one associate as "a nice guy with vision, a big-picture thinker" -- likes the pace. Dividing his time between St. Louis and his native New York, he makes $1.66 million a year masterminding the manufacture of affordable clothes -- and buys his own suits at Sam Cavato, Plaza Frontenac, because, as he told one interviewer, "dressing sharp, including head-to-toe grooming, is impactful." In the same interview (in the Daily News Record, April 16, 1999), he admitted to a closet tie fetish: "I'm always culling, but I never have fewer than a hundred."

CEO since 1997 and recently named chairman of the board as well, Upbin has guided Kellwood's spate of acquisitions since his arrival in 1988. But his real baby is Vision 2000, a massive $40 million "information system and supply chain management reengineering project" that's setting industry precedents. Vision 2000 ties everything together, zapping instant information, digitized patterns, warehouse inventory and buyer feedback all over the world.

It's a bit different than the '50s, when a Maplewood clothier drove down to the Washington Avenue garment district every morning to buy one or two dresses, depending on how many had sold the day before. Kellwood supplies thousands at a time -- but it wants the same feedback, flexibility and precision the 1950s clothier enjoyed. Luckily, the technology's here to provide it. Upbin predicts that Internet linkage will have an impact on his industry as profound as "what the railroads did to this country." He also promises that in another decade, they'll use body-scanning and digitizing to dress us individually.

"Us" means the U.S.; Kellwood has enough trouble keeping up with "tribes" distinguished by age, marital status and coffee-bean selection, let alone trying to market worldwide. "The barriers of taste and product and packages and languages ... are almost insurmountable," Upbin told Apparel Industry Magazine last month. Besides, the clothes don't travel electronically; by selling American, Kellwood's been able to consolidate its distribution centers into a handful of colossuses, all on home soil. (In California's City of Industry, for example, various Kellwood divisions share a 630,000-square-foot edifice on Temple Avenue, reverently sited at the intersection of four freeways. There they share gizmos -- the Intellitrak overhead power monorail trolley, the Salpomec Magic Tube slick rail -- but design and market independently, each for its own niche.)

SILENT AND SEAMLESSWhen The Riverfront Times asked to profile Kellwood by following a few products from concept to consumer, the company hesitated for two weeks, then offered a David Dart publicist. Great start -- now what about a Nautica shirt from Smart Shirts Ltd., a Kellwood subsidiary that operates nine of its own plants in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, China and Costa Rica? And an example from a lower price point -- maybe Crowntuft, the "vertically-integrated manufacturer of chenille robes"?

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