Barrington Gifts faces a global economy gone awry

If Louis Vuitton can make handbags in rural Johnson County, why aren’t more fashion brands bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States?

A small Dallas fashion accessories maker is finding out how challenging it is by trying to move its longtime China-based manufacturing home.

Barrington Gifts has annual revenue of about $5 million. It’s not big like Nike or Apple, which also produce goods in China. It’s a family-owned business whose journey the last five years illustrates the difficulties of being caught up in a global economy gone awry.

In 2019, Barrington and other U.S. companies were hit with a whopping 25% tariff on goods imported from China that’s still in effect. Then the pandemic’s stay-at-home lifestyle killed the market for its daily commuting and travel-focused merchandise. No one needed a new tote in 2020.

Inside a small Deep Ellum brick building painted preppy navy blue, Barrington Gifts is making its most popular totes and shipping them to customers in all 50 states.

The building has an attractive showroom in front, an open office in the middle and a tiny factory carved into warehouse space in the back. There’s just enough room for eight pieces of machinery that cost a total of almost $200,000.

In an email last April, Barrington told customers that it had to raise prices slightly on some products. Its most popular tote, the St. Anne, which was $160 three years ago, is now $200 after two increases.

The email went on to say: “We have begun transitioning our production to the USA and are currently making most of Barrington’s best-selling products in our new Dallas, Texas, factory. We will continue to move additional production to the USA over the months ahead.”

The online retailer said customers didn’t push back on the price increase, and some of them wrote back to thank the company for bringing jobs back to the U.S.

That task is easier said than done, even for a small but nimble fashion company.

Barrington is just one of many U.S. manufacturers that have come to the conclusion that China won’t be the place for low-cost production going forward because wages are rising there, too. The pandemic accelerated the trend of moving production to North America, including Mexico. High U.S. tariffs on goods from China and an uncertain operating environment are among many reasons Barrington and others want to move manufacturing, Gowdey said.

Barrington, which was founded in Dallas in 1991, has operated its factory in China for 22 years and still employs 40 people there, down from a peak of 100.

“Our employees in China are aging, and it’s harder and harder to attract younger workers, who would rather work in hospitality — at Starbucks or a new hotel — and not in a factory,” Gowdey said.

So far, Barrington has hired four people to work on the Dallas factory’s sophisticated machines, which require training to operate.

Barrington recruited from the Gilbreath-Reed Career and Technical Center, which trains students from seven Garland ISD high schools to work in all kinds of manufacturing, including the software and machinery used in fashion design and production.

Demand for the center’s graduates has been growing steadily, and many of them go on to college and are recruited by design institutes, said Coleman Bruman, director of career and technical education for Garland ISD. Graduates are earning $20 an hour, and students in some industries quickly advance to six-figure salaries, he said.

The St. Anne, a tote made of water-resistant nylon canvas with leather handles that’s designed and personalized by customers, is being made one at a time and shipped from Dallas.

“I was hoping we could lease a building here and hire people so that all production could be in Dallas,” Gowdey said.

Louis Vuitton has 300 employees making handbags in Johnson County, south of Fort Worth. That’s up from 150 when the French fashion house opened the facility in 2019. Louis Vuitton plans eventually to have 1,000 employees there.

But, as Barrington co-founder and president Gil Sheehan points out, “at $2,000 each, they are charging 10 times what we do for our bags.”

Gowdey and Sheehan realized the numbers weren’t going to work if all they did was move production to Dallas. They needed a lower-cost production facility, too.

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