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.
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.