Label Spotlight: Unis


It’s not often that the head of an established and widely respected clothing label will take time out of their day to thoughtfully address the concerns of an anonymous naysayer. So, when Eunice Lee, founder of Unis, did just that last month, the response (at least amongst the menswear bloggerati) was big. Very big. I jokingly told her after the fact that she had struck upon one of the greatest marketing schemes of all time: five minutes in the comments section for a bounty of free press. However, as much press as her joining the discussion brought her, it was no PR ploy. Lee’s reply came from a place of wanting to set the record straight. She wasn’t trying to shame the commenter, or talk up her brand, she was telling it like it is – giving someone outside of her industry the inside scoop, as only a person who pours their heart and soul into their craft can.

After more than a decade in business, it makes sense that Lee would feel the need to respond as she did (and be able to do so in such an eloquent and passionate way). Remaining steadfast in her decision to keep Unis’ manufacturing in the US has thrust Lee onto the front-lines of America’s crumbling garment industry. It has forced the designer / brand owner to add a third equally important and time-consuming slash to her title: production manager. Consequently, if there was ever a label owner that truly knew their product inside and out – that includes the design, the materials, the manufacturers, everything – it’s Lee. It also means she’s one of the busiest designers working today, making the fact that she did take the time to write such a thorough and considered rejoinder all the more impressive.

I cannot think of – nor ask for – a better first interview subject for the new site. Lee was gracious enough to take (yet more) time out to answer a few questions through email. Here’s what she had to say.


How’s business?
Business is growing… And going through growing pains as a result.

How would you describe Unis’ code of ethics?
I think the major shift came down to my personal lifestyle. And through this, I just focused on what felt right to me.

Unis has been around for 10 years and I’ve learned a lot during that time. The saying is true: you learn more from your mistakes than your successes.

When I first started my company, I manufactured in China. In some ways it was easier because I didn’t have to run around to all the different vendors, but then in other ways, it was more difficult. As a small company, I was lost in China. If I didn’t grow fast enough the factories would drop me in two seasons. I wouldn’t go into mainland China much, most designers post up in Hong Kong. I rarely went into the factories to work and see the people making my product. The few times I did go into mainland China, I was really disturbed by the yellow air and after reading a lot about water quality didn’t want to eat much while I was there either. Let’s just say, I ate a lot of spaghetti, and definitely did not eat meat. I kept realizing how I missed being home. I was really tired of flying all the way to China to make my small production. I remember I had to get on a plane one month after 9/11 and I was one of a handful of people on that flight. I thought, “what am I doing?”

I moved closer to home when I started to manufacture in Italy. Maybe this is where I learned to care more about lifestyle. I also thought it was sad that all their manufacturing was pushed out to Eastern Europe and Asia. Italians are so prideful of their quality. It was, and still is, very important to them. But even there I started to get homesick. I was in Italy every 6 weeks. I was away for 10-14 days at a time. All the traveling became taxing to me physically and emotionally.

I started calculating the financial cost of flying to Europe and shipping my product to the US where most of my distribution was. Eventually, I realized that with all this traveling, I might as well manufacture back at home. It was the most cost effective for the quantities I was making.

When I finally moved my production back stateside, there were very few factories to chose from. Most of our manufacturing moved off shore years ago and it has made it much more challenging to make my product here.

Even with all the challenges, I’m so happy to manufacture my collection in the US. I can see all the faces of the operators sewing my clothing. I walk into every factory. I think it’s important to be present and to know and see for myself who is producing my product – responsibly. When you work inside each of the factories for days at a time, you know if the factory is to code and if workers are treated fairly. I see how hard everyone works to make my product, I can have a personal relationship with the factory owners who struggle every day to keep their doors open. We struggle and help each other. The best factories have always been the most helpful.


How is Unis able to maintain its code of ethics while producing affordable clothing?
Most consumers don’t really understand why one of my shirts costs so much more than a shirt made somewhere else. In order to be more competitive I have had to compromise my own margins. When my quantities were much smaller, I produced everything here in NYC. You get what you pay for: NYC production is great. But because the prices are so high, I had to explore producing in LA – the other city I like to spend time in. They have a much bigger manufacturing base, overhead is lower and it made sense to make the move when my quantities started to grow. So I have learned to align myself to less than a handful of factories: 2 in NY and 2 in LA.

I buy high quality fabrics from only a few mills in Italy and Japan, and as a result, I have been able to grow my relationship with them. I pay for all my manufacturing with reputable factories and I balance the price out because I have my own retail outlet. I hope to work on some better pricing in the very near future. The larger my quantities grow, the better the price on some components of each garment get. If I make 100 pieces vs. 1000 pieces the cost of sewing doesn’t get any cheaper nor does the price of materials or trims. What gets cheaper is the cost of shipping, making patterns, fittings per piece when it’s spread between 1000 pieces and not just 100. When you start shaving off a few dollars per garment it makes a big difference in the final retail price.

Why do you think bigger companies can’t (or won’t) do the same?
Most larger companies are public, they have to be responsible to their investors and must show growth. I think competition and our own capitalism is really the reason. They have taught the consumer to buy cheaper. Cheap = good. Now consumers expect that. I don’t blame them. All of this made sense… Until now. We have killed our own domestic manufacturing.

America is completely dependent on other countries for manufactured goods. It’s scary. China is already starting to show that they don’t really need some of our business. Their own domestic business has exploded.

If larger companies (not just clothing!) started to invest in even a small percentage of domestic manufacturing it would really help to jump start a lot of things here. It would increase quality as well as get production more affordable for everyone, because everyone has more work.


Do you think Unis’ code of ethics has helped to attract customers, or play any other role in the success of the company?
It definitely has attracted customers. But I don’t know if that’s enough to sway customers into actually buying something. It’s a fine balance. I have to get the best price possible so that I can reach as many cool guys out there as I can. I have to work hard on getting really great quality, fit and fabrication. I want my customers to be able to tell the difference from the quality of my product vs. the quality of something from a mass market line. Plus I have to do my best to be responsive to my customer base and design great clothes guys want to buy!

Are there any specific new ways Unis is currently working to increase its level of social responsibility? If yes, what are they?
I first need to make sure that Unis survives as a small company. I have a really great, hard working staff. We all want to do to the right thing. We learn different lessons every day. I think that as the company grows, it will be much easier to be more socially responsible, but we do what we can at the size we are now. These days, I’ve been concentrating on who I do business with. I choose Italian or Japanese mills who produce the product I buy in their own countries. I buy other lines for my store that I respect very much, like Makr and Common Projects. All these choices have been really fulfilling for me as a business owner.


On a personal level, do you think the growing demand for socially responsible products is a fad, or, representative of some sort of larger shift in consumer culture?
There is definitely a larger shift in consumer culture. I don’t think this is a fad, especially in menswear. It’s become really interesting to see how much more important some of this has become to men.

I think that with websites like yours, it’s great to read and watch the conversations that are being raised. Ten years ago, this type of conversation never happened. When there is more awareness raised and more knowledge spread, better choices are being made by consumers every day!

For price and purchase info, visit Unis.

  • http://www.joewasserman.com Joe Wasserman

    I’ve been wearing the hell out of the “chestnut” (seems almost like an army green to me) cardigan I got from Unis during the sale you posted about that triggered the comment dialogue. At first I was a little bummed it wasn’t browner, less green like it looked on the site, but actually it’s completely amazing. The purple buttons are the perfect complement, and it’s neutral enough to go with almost everything in my closet. A layering piece that’s going to see heavy rotation as this cool spring continues. I can’t wait to break out the Gios I got in the same color once I get them tailored.

    One thing you really need is some more detailed close-ups: the off-white button-down I ordered has a really amazing fabric that was totally unexpected; I thought it was going to be plain. It’s nice and airy, so I think I have at least one Unis piece for every season now.

    And I’m super tempted by the heather gray Ian blazer on sale in my size, but Portland is such a casual city that I almost never break out a blazer…

    Anyway, your products are fantastic, and I’d fill my closet with them if I could afford it. But for now I’ll treasure the few pieces I have and pick up a couple here and there.

  • hojo

    I think it’s funny that she tries to skirt the “social responsibility” issue. Let’s face it. We are all capitalist pig earth rapists. Our children will rape the earth even more savagely then we have. So all this talk about quality control and such renders all points moot. If big companies rape the earth and small companies rape the earth it just becomes “well we are raping the earth a little gentler”. Rape is rape. Let’s call a spade a spade. All this “Environmental friendly green crap” is just a PR gimmick to make companies feel better about themselves and better be perceived by the mass consuming public. For example, Levis has just introduced a “water less” campaign stating that they are using less water to make jeans. well that’s all good until you learn how many jeans they are making. So if they made like 1000 jeans in 1998 that used like 30 gallons to make a jean but in 2011 they make 10000000 jeans but use only 3 gallons to make a jean it’s less water per jean but since production has increased potentially they are using more water than ever. There is no such thing as social responsiblity unless you actually replace the carbon credits you actually have used and wait for a time period when the earth can be replenished. All this flying back and forth to china, europe, manufacturing in LA, it’s producing enormous amounts of CO2 emissions. So in the end all this backpatting about how we are a “better” company really doesn’t matter in the bigger picture of things. We’re all hurtling toward entropy. Just a question of when.

    • http://well-spent.com Brad

      hojo,

      I think your definition of a Social Responsibility is a little narrow. While not exactly an environmentally friendly company, Unis does her best to work with factories and suppliers that do not exploit their workers. Additionally, the quality of the clothes is such that they won’t have to be replaced for many, many years, which means less trash in the landfill. I realize that in your eyes, that’s probably not enough, and that Unis is still an “earth raper.” But to me, what she’s doing is commendable.

      You said it yourself, we’re all capitalists. And as long as that’s the case, we’re all going to be hurting the earth. So, since you know and understand that, what do you do? You can refuse to take part in the system, but you’ll most likely starve. You can partake in the system, but complain about it while you do, which sounds pretty miserable to me. Or, you can focus on what about the system you can change, and what good you can create. While you may call that “backpatting,” I call it doing something.

      Furthermore, I agree with you that green washing is rampant amongst most larger companies. However, accusing Unis of doing so is both unfair and unfounded. She doesn’t “skirt” the question, she simply answers it to the best of her abilities. Unis is a small company, populated by people who do what the can to be conscious citizens, while still earning enough to live.

      Thanks for reading,

      Brad

  • http://lifestylecoalesced.blogspot.com Marco

    Hands down great interview with Eunice. Her cheap=good assessement is very apropo of the moment. Let’s hope things change and this country has a manufacturing resurgence.

    • http://well-spent.com Brad

      Seconded.

      Thanks Marco.

      bb

  • hojo

    Well I’m not here to condemn people. I just feel that it’s a bit hypocritical in alot of aspects. You say that Unis works with factories that do not exploit its people but she used to and who’s to say that these factories don’t? Social responsibility is totally different from environmental responsibility. where is the accountability? a piece of paper? Also, in the end it’s like saying the wages are being diverted from dirt poor factory workers in china to middle class workers in Italy, or LA. Then it just becomes a different issue altogether about regional economics. Also you say that the quality of the “clothes is such that they won’t have to be replaced for many, many years, which means less trash in the landfill” but we all know that the people who can afford to buy UNIS are the demographic of people who can afford to buy a lot of things and they usually do. They are probably at the top of the consumer food chain. I doubt they are people with 3 articles of clothing rotating in their wardrobe. That my friend is poor people. People who can’t afford to buy UNIS. what we need to do is have less children. Or at least children without any environmental utility. Less population. We need to recycle the things we have. Shop at thrift stores. Things that have been made already that still have life in them. We need to make less stuff. Maximize the potential in things that have been already been produced. I’m not trying to attack UNIS. I just take umbrage with “we are trying to do the right thing”. The right thing is not to produce anything carbon wise and refuse wise. If everyone did absolutely nothing carbon wise then you’d actually see some global change for the better. but it’s always “well we live in this world, it’s the hand we’re dealt with, we are doing the best we can with this” that’s the kind of attitude that will make honeybees extinct in the next century, will make the price of fruit skyrocket in the next 3 decades and see your children’s children live like bladerunner/children of men. I guess I want to equate it to James Cameron’s Avatar. The dude is spouting about saving the environment and crap but he’s just made a 200 million dollar production with god knows how much carbon emissions produced from it. I mean everyone’s in business trying to shore up enough money so that their second generation will have enough money to live comfortably in the pre-apocalypse and that’s wrong. When you are talking about the environment you shouldn’t look at good and evil. It goes beyond good and evil.

  • Kyle

    hojo,
    I have to support Brad and the goal of this site as well as Eunice and her goals for production. If a piece of paper isn’t good enough for production facility accountability, then what is enough? A blood oath of the workers and stockists?

    One moment you seem like an idealist and another you seem like a cynic. If those buying more responsibly produced UNIS products returned to companies who lack any sense of responsibility then our hole would be even deeper. I have great respect for people trying to make a change in the negative habits we as a people have developed. These people are doing what they can, but they are not perfect.

    In the consideration of the UNIS demographic I would argue that it is in fact much wider than you let on. I am a college student, on very limited income, who bought a pair of UNIS pants because of the quality. I did it because I believe in quality over quantity even on a limited budget. Although my views were not always this way, they have been changed by sites like this and by companies like UNIS. There are plenty of people trying to leave a positive effect on the planet. Perspective is essential in presenting viable options. I mean could we all really stop producing anything carbon waste or refuse tomorrow? or a year from now?

    While the apparel industry can be very wasteful, what can we do but strive for progress. In my design education we are focusing on buildings with zero net energy consumption, utilizing renewable energy and materials and most of all minimizing waste. Despite current construction procedures we are making progress towards a more responsible future. The crucial aspect is that change does not take place with universal immediacy. It is a demanding process, which to be effective, has to cross demographics, classes and borders. It sadly is not an overnight occurrence.

    • http://well-spent.com Brad

      Nicely said Kyle. Thanks for joining the discussion.

      bb

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