HACKENSACK, N.J. — Shelton, founder of the East Rutherford-based men’s apparel company Todd Shelton LLC, is trying to do something many in the garment industry would call mission impossible. He wants to sell clothes made in the United States, and more specifically in the Meadowlands, rather than manufactured in China, Vietnam, Pakistan or the other countries that produce the bulk of the clothing sold in America.
Shelton also said he believes that his venture can demonstrate the benefits of making clothing in New Jersey, and he is hoping that the state will eventually see the value of encouraging the development of a new garment district in the Meadowlands or elsewhere in North Jersey.
The company is trying to capitalize on the quick turnaround times by having a U.S. factory that offers e-commerce customers ways to personalize their button-down shirts or jeans with multiple-fit choices, such as straight or tapered leg, or the length of a sleeve, or shirttail.
“If we do this right,” Shelton said, “this is a competitive advantage for us. Because our factory is in the United States, we can offer that kind of service to the customer.”
Most of the company’s sales are made through its website. However, two months ago Todd Shelton began testing how its personalized fit system works in a retail setting, placing its shirts and “fit kit” — sample sizes shoppers use to select the right fit — at Brower Club, a men’s clothing store in Hoboken, N.J.
Steven Tomasini, an owner of Brower Club, said the response to the Todd Shelton jeans and shirts has been very positive. Customers, he said, haven’t balked at the wait for a customized fit — usually a week to 10 days — or the prices, which are higher than mass-produced clothing, with jeans costing $200 and shirts $175.
“If you want the quality and you want the perfect fit, I don’t feel 10 days is a long time at all” to wait, Tomasini said. The prices for Todd Shelton, he said, are comparable to the other upscale fashion brands carried by the store.
Tomasino, who lives in Hackensack and has been a retailer for 16 years, called the Todd Shelton concept “a very easy and modern way of shopping. It’s not a dated way of doing custom.”
Shelton, 40, a Jersey City resident, launched his clothing line in 2002, at first selling his T-shirts on the street in Manhattan, and later offering jeans, shirts and khakis online through his website.
At first he used a supplier in China, but moved production to the United States in 2006, using small clothing factories in California, Virginia, New York and New Jersey to fill his orders. In 2012, he began renting space in a former clothing factory in a warehouse in East Rutherford, and by last year the company was making all of its clothing there.
Shelton said he first moved production back to the United States in order to be more connected to how his clothing was made. But he found that as a small designer, he was at the mercy of the manufacturing contractors he dealt with, who could delay his orders if larger jobs arrived.
“If you don’t have a lot of orders, you don’t have a lot of leverage,” he said.
And with overseas factories, if the company doesn’t have a representative on site, “things slip through the cracks,” he said — not good “if you’re a perfectionist, as I am.”
While growing up in Tennessee, Shelton, who still speaks with a slight Southern drawl, became fascinated by the J.Crew catalogue, and decided at an early age that he wanted to one day have a clothing company. He majored in retail and consumer sciences at the University of Tennessee and learned the clothing and direct-to-consumer business by working for Weehawken-based catalogue company Hanover Direct.
Contacts he made while at Hanover Direct first led him to a small West New York clothing manufacturer that allowed him to use space, and then to the warehouse in East Rutherford where he rents 5,000 square feet. The company has four full-time sewing machine operators and three marketing and customer service employees, and produces about a dozen pairs of jeans a day.
While Shelton declined to disclose the company’s finances, he said it has yet to turn a profit but has been able to grow because of an investor. The company, he said, needs to produce and sell 500 garments a month to reach the scale needed to turn a profit. “We’re about halfway there,” in terms of volume, he said.
“At this point we can start scaling this operation,” he said. “What we lack in impressive sales, we match or surpass it in infrastructure.”
Shelton is a board member of American Made Matters, an association of U.S. manufacturers.
“We’re trying to educate consumers about how buying American can strengthen America,” he said. He has been trying to connect with New Jersey lawmakers about efforts to make the state more friendly to manufacturing in general and particularly garment manufacturing, but thus far hasn’t seen much interest in the issue.
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