DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This morning, we have more troubling news from Bangladesh. Overnight, a garment factory fire killed at least eight people. And this comes just weeks after a garment factory building collapsed, claiming more than 900 lives. These incidents are just the latest in a series of deadly garment factory accidents overseas. Among other things, this is putting America's clothing industry, which often turns to other countries for production.
Eric Molinsky reports on efforts to make more clothing here, with a new website connecting U.S. designers with U.S. manufacturers.
ERIC MOLINSKY, BYLINE: There's a scene in the movie "Batman Begins," where Bruce Wayne has to order 10,000 Batman masks from a company in China - but they all come back with defects.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BATMAN BEGINS")
MICHAEL CAINE: (as Alfred) The next 10,000 will be up to specifications.
CHRISTIAN BALE: (as Bruce Wayne) Well, at least they gave us a discount.
MOLINSKY: This is actually a common problem with outsourcing fashion. And if you're not a billionaire crime fighter - if you're just a small businessman in Brooklyn, like Matthew Burnett - you can't write off 10,000 defects.
A few years ago, Burnett was making wristwatches - fancy designers ones. He thought the only way to manufacturer them was to use foreign companies. It turned out to be a nightmare.
MATTHEW BURNETT: There were the language barriers. There was the time zone differences. So I would be waiting up at one, two o'clock in the morning to respond to emails.
MOLINSKY: For his next company, a clothing line, he wanted everything to be made in the USA. The orders could be smaller. If there were problems, he could easily call up the factories. But he had no idea how to find factories in the United States. At one point, he went to local trade show, and looked through a print catalog. And for a guy raised on the Internet, a printed page can be frustrating.
BURNETT: You have about a two-inch by two-inch square to describe your specialty - and that's ridiculous.
MOLINSKY: So he and his business partners created a website where people who design things can find people who make things. The site is called Maker's Row. It's like a combination of The Yellow Pages and Match.com.
American manufacturers can put up a listing and even a video introduction. So let's say you want to find someone who prints T-shirts. This guy is on the website.
NEIL BRESLAU: Hi, Neil Breslau, I'm one of the owners and president of First 2 Print.
MOLINSKY: Or if you're a belt designer, you might check out this guy.
USH GADH: My name is Ush. I'm one of the owners here at Universal Elliot Corp. It's a family run business between myself and my father.
MOLINSKY: For designers, this is pretty exciting. Erica Murphy is a recent college grad. She spent six frustrating months trying to start a line of children's clothes.
ERICA MURPHY: It's very difficult, as new entrant into this community, to get information and to find contacts.
MOLINSKY: Then she learned about Maker's Row. She went on the site and she quickly found a company in South Carolina that makes elastics.
MURPHY: I contacted them and they got back to me and they told me about their product and they gave me information about it.
MOLINSKY: Nicole Levy is one manufacturer who likes the new website. Her small factory, Baikal, makes fashionable handbags in Manhattan. She got a lot of calls from designers who saw her video online. She even had to hire more workers to keep up with demand.
NICOLE LEVY: It could revolutionize the industry, domestically, because it could create a lot of labor for domestic factories and keep them around.
MOLINSKY: Also, a Made in the USA label could be a good selling point for American consumers who want to avoid ethical questions about overseas manufacturing. But there are still some kinks to work out.
Some new designers don't quite understand how domestic manufacturing works. Their rookie mistakes and naïve questions can be irritating to an old-timer like Terry Schwartz. His company, Sherry Accessories, has been in New York's Garment District for decades.
TERRY SCHWARTZ: I can't handle the ones who are making a product, who want to know why I can't make it for the same price as the Dominican Republic.
MOLINSKY: He did take a few jobs from these new designers, and he is impressed with their creativity.
SCHWARTZ: I do have some things that are very unique. I honestly never saw things like this before and I'm trying to create these for these people, to make them work.
MOLINSKY: And the site is still evolving, trying to be a better matchmaker. In less than six months, they've enlisted 1,700 manufacturers from across the country. Each factory is getting about 30 calls a month from potential clients.
For NPR, I'm Eric Molinsky.
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