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Inside the Factory Where Marc Jacobs Manufactured His First Pair of Pants

InStyle USA is one of the last full-service production companies operating in New York City’s Garment Center. Fashionista meets the manufacturing team behind many of the city’s most beloved fashion brands.

It’s eight days before the official start of New York Fashion Week, and the team at InStyle USA is feeling the pressure. “There’s a lot going on right now,” says Pauline Lock, running in and out of a conference room to answer an urgent phone call. “It’s the pre-fashion week madness. Things get a little crazy around here.”

Despite launching around the same time, InStyle USA is not connected in any way to the magazine. (Other than the fact that they both are, directly or indirectly, in the business of selling clothes.) Instead, the InStyle I’m visiting today is a full-service manufacturer of garments, which means you can produce a piece of clothing from start to finish in the confines of its two-floor operation. The basic services offered include pattern-making, production of samples, production of duplicate samples, grading and marking — which means marking up a pattern so one can see what it should look like in different sizes — as well as cutting, sewing and assistance with sourcing fabric and trim. InStyle does not require a minimum order for pieces produced domestically, which means a designer can order one — or 100 — of the same dress and the company will happily make it. It also offers off-shore production, but that requires ordering at least 400 pieces.

Lock and owner James Mallon — along with Tina Yu — formed InStyle USA in 1993. Unlike many garmentos, Mallon was not born into a family of apparel workers. He spent the first 22 years of his career at Oxford Industries, an Atlanta-based company that currently owns Tommy Bahama, Ben Sherman and Lilly Pulitzer, among other brands. “It was by accident,” Mallon says of how he ended up there. “I turned the job down, but two weeks later they called me again. I hadn’t gotten anything better, so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try it.’” After Oxford, Mallon spent time importing garments from Italy with his wife, who continues to run her own high-end suiting label. “Then I met Tina and Pauline, and we became a team.” Yu — who manages the day-to-day production — was unavailable to speak on the day I visited, but Mallon called me afterward to stress how crucial she is to the business. “She runs the factory,” he says.

Lock’s initial involvement was almost just as unintentional as Mallon's. “I was a law major on a sabbatical, and I started by just doing basic book keeping for the company,” she explains. Unlike Mallon, though, she was the daughter of a seamstress and a pattern maker. “I understand sewing and the basic drafting of a pattern, but I never thought it would become a career.”

Today, Lock works with each designer to figure out exact what they should produce and how to produce it. “We offer an objective view,” she says. "If it's been over three fittings, that means it’s not working, whether in fabrication, design or concept.” 

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Over the years, the sort of brands and clients InStyle attracts has certainly changed. “When we first started, we were working with the largest designers — Calvin Klein, Donna Karan — who were, at the time, still doing most of their manufacturing domestically,” Lock explains. As more luxury labels moved their production abroad, InStyle began a “haven” for upstarts. “The senior designer at Calvin or wherever would break off on her own, and since we had worked with her so closely, she would come to us first.” In fact, after Marc Jacobs was fired from Perry Ellis in the early 1990s and decided to officially launch his namesake label, he landed at InStyle. “It was a production of 11 pairs of pants,” Lock says. “He came in a dirty t-shirt and sat on the floor. We thought, 'Oh, so this is Marc Jacobs?!' His collection grew, and we grew with him. It’s a rarity in this market to actually make it that far, so it’s great to have [traveled] with someone to that level. It’s great to be a part of it.”

Today, InStyle’s domestic client base is a mix of contemporary and ready-to-wear designers. There is Jacobs, as well as The Row and Derek Lam. Unsurprisingly, Theory CEO Andrew Rosen — and Garment Center champion — is one of the company’s principal customers. (Pieces from Theyskens’ Theory were manufactured at InStyle, and items from the Theory main line were being made the day I toured the offices. InStyle’s client list also includes Helmut Lang, which is owned by Theory’s parent company, Link Theory Holdings, as well as Alice + Olivia, of which Rosen is an investor.) The company has also made a point of renting studio space to young designers. Up-and-comer Chris Gelinas is currently stationed in a small studio space. Previously tenants have included Holmes & Yang as well as Marchesa. Explains Mallon, “They can see their product being made, and it also helps us pay the rent.”

Indeed, despite its prominent status in the industry — albeit behind the scenes — paying the rent is becoming more and more difficult for InStyle, which currently employes 75 people. “When we moved in here eight years ago, we were paying $16 a foot,” Mallon says. “We’re currently at $22. Up the street, they’re getting $45.” There are other challenges, too, specifically tied to the structure of the building: the elevators are too small, the entry ways are too narrow. And the buildings aren’t wired to support the amount of power InStyle needs to use to operate each day. “We are fully air-conditioned, which requires a tremendous amount of power,” Lock says. Adds Mallon, “We max out at 200 amps of power. I couldn’t put in another buttonhole machine if I wanted to.”

Upgrading equipment is also a struggle. This year, InStyle was one of 23 grant recipients in the inaugural Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, spearheaded by the CFDA and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. However, Lock and Mallon intended to use some of the money from the grant to purchase an automatic fabric-spreading machine. (To be clear, it does exactly that: spreads difficult-to-stretch fabrics.) When they went to a trade show in Atlanta to look at different models, they discovered that it would be impossible to transport any of them into the building. “You can’t even crane it!” Lock says. “You want to upgrade, move forward and embrace the technology. But there are hurdles and obstacles at every level.”

InStyle’s lease is up in two years. At that time, tough decisions will have to be made about the company’s location, and also its future. For now though, it’s fashion week, which means skyrocketing rents are out of mind. After our conversation, Lock and Mallon give me a tour of the facilities, from the pattern-making station — where traditional hand-drafted patterns sit alongside computer-generated versions — to sewing machines, where we watch a dress being stitched together. After touring a fair share of domestic factories, what struck me most about InStyle was its cleanliness. The cement floors aren’t raw and dirty. Instead, they're shiny and clean: an indication of the sort of meticulous care Mallon, Lock and Yu put into their work. “Customers appreciate that,” Mallon says. “They look around and they see an organization that’s running smoothly.”