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A Made in America Journey

September 06, 2021

I had never considered working in fashion, but then September 11, 2001 happened. I was living in New York City, and I soon walked away from my senior role at a leading global public relations firm. I was burnt out with financial PR, and it was time for me to start my next chapter. I just didn’t want to relive that day over and over, reading multiple newspapers a day with cable news on in the background.

My intent was never to start an underwear or fashion brand at that time, but I had long felt my top drawer was not what it could be. If I felt that, other women must have too!

When I decided to start my company in the thriving fashion capitol of Vermont overlooking the Green Mountains in 2003, I had no idea what I was doing. Not only had I never designed anything before, but I had no idea how I was going to get the world’s most invisible and comfortable underwear made. I naively thought that coming up with designs for undergarments with no elastic or trim would be the hard part, and getting them produced was going to be easy.

I was wrong.

Trying to get someone to manufacture these pieces for me was more of a challenge than I anticipated. I started with the larger overseas factories, but it’s all a volume game and since my idea was unconventional, unproven and unsold, interest was nil. That could have been the end of that, but I didn’t quit there.

I’m a big believer in asking “if you can’t help me, do you know someone else that can?” I found a local sewing company called Vermont Bosna located down the road and run by refugees who fled Bosnia during the war. They had the skills, capacity, interest and patience to make my idea a reality. At our first meeting, the owner Ramadan shook my hand and said, “my friend, we are in this together,” and they have been ever since. That was almost twenty years ago. Not only did I avoid the manufacturing in Asia, where cost is king and margins and volumes are royalty, but I was able to manufacture in my home state! Score one for domestic manufacturing working in small town Vermont, USA!

As Commando continued to grow, we needed to expand capacity beyond Vermont, where trained sewers, were and are, still very rare. At the time, we were small potatoes to many other domestic factories, but because we needed continuous production in our customer-beloved core styles, we were able to keep a weekly line up and running, a rare phenomenon in the fashion manufacturing world that chases newness and seasons. I slept better at night knowing that by manufacturing in the US, my products were made responsibly, that I was helping to create jobs, and that product was arriving steadily, much from within a few hundred miles of our headquarters.

But manufacturing in the US, especially in the apparel business, is not for the faint-hearted. When the 2008-2009 financial crisis hit, Commando was down 50% for the first several months. It not only felt like a free fall… it was one! Our customers were reeling and our contract factories were on the verge of shutting down. At our largest sewing facility based in South Carolina, we went from being their smallest customer to their only customer.

At less than five years old, Commando was at a crossroads. If we halted manufacturing, which was the obvious thing to do, our factories would not likely survive. As a self-financed company, every instinct was screaming to slash orders and prepare for the worst. Instead, we dug deep—emotionally and financially—and kept our factories going. The bet was that if we could weather this together, we and our factories would be ready when the economy rebounded.
Happily, the strategy paid off for us and our vendors. When the economy rebounded, we stood ready to capture the opportunity with our plants fully functional and our partnerships stronger. Even better, during the economic crisis we focused on what we do best: innovation. Rather than circle the wagons, we developed and launched several lines that are still a significant part of our business today.

At the start of 2020 Commando and our partners were faced with yet another challenge, a global pandemic that consistently defies the experts’ predictions at every turn. Early lockdowns shuttered most of our manufacturers for the safety of their employees and their communities. When they reopened, they rightly shifted their focus to PPE, making them unavailable to produce our goods for much of 2020. We did the same, rapidly converting 100% of our internal cut and sew capacity to make desperately needed masks out of our stocked technical microfiber fabrics for New England hospitals. Thankfully, our long-term domestic manufacturing relationships have largely returned and have built back up to their strong commitments over through the years.

Domestic cut and sew production has become a critical part of our success; truly a pillar of our brand. Despite the pressure from today’s major retailers who demand higher margins and have eagerly encouraged us to continue to innovate and develop more and more complex garments, we have worked hard to maintain our domestic production channels. But certain fabrics and certain sewing techniques are simply impossible to source in the USA at production volumes. For example, we have been unable to find a domestic bra manufacturer with the technology and capacity to produce for us.

Despite these challenges, in 2020, 85% of Commando’s cut and sew production was domestic, with 94% produced on the East Coast within 945 miles of our headquarters. In total, we work with seven domestic factories in the United States across the country from California to Vermont, and we are constantly looking for high quality manufacturing close to home.

Today, our business has never been stronger despite considerable retail uncertainties. We are sold at the very best retailers across North America and Europe and on our own site at www.wearcommando.com. This week we will be walking the runway at New York Fashion Week yet again, helping our exciting designer partners with our favorite domestically produced styles such as our invisible Classic Thong, as well as custom collaborations.

At Commando, we continue to set our ambitions high, from putting people first and thoughtfully sourcing our fabrics, to producing as much as we do in the US. We have always done things differently and are so proud of the community we have built!

- Kerry O’Brien
founder, designer and CEO, Commando
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