Dress for Economic Success {An American Daydream}

"It wouldn't take much. It would take two lots from some of the top designers in America to decide, I'm going to be socially conscious today. I'm going to try to save our country. I'm going to try to bring manufacturing back to this country so we can have a thriving middle class base."

--Nanette Lepore, Nightly Business Report, PBS

My Dad was equal parts inventor and filmmaker. He would often sit at our family's white Formica kitchen table, lost in thought. It may have been something in the news that got him wondering, or maybe a scene in a script he'd just read. In the 1950s, he may have been thinking about how long it took a restaurant waitress to make his chocolate malt. "Hey, what if I designed a malt machine…"

I caught that what-if / imagination bug from my Dad. My teachers used to tap me on the shoulder. "Christine, are you daydreaming again?" Of course I was daydreaming again. Didn't everyone?

So it's logical that I would be thinking and wondering about sitting down in the Rose Garden for tea and {healthy} cucumber finger sandwiches with First Lady Michelle Obama. Surrounded by masses of red, yellow, and pink tulips, cherry trees in full bloom, I would find the courage to speak. I would begin by telling Mrs. Obama something she must already know: Our country is captivated by her wardrobe.

"You have such power," I would say, lifting my cup to sip. She would, hopefully, nod and smile. The chiffon ruffles on her foreign-made, navy-and-white polka dot H&M dress would, I'm certain, flutter in the breeze. I'd lower my cup, lean in just a bit. "A single fashion endorsement from you translates to $2.7 billion to that industry."

Is she still smiling? I would continue. "Imagine using that power to re-energize apparel manufacturing in our country. Imagine creating jobs simply by wearing American-made apparel in public. Imagine the savings to taxpayers in government benefits. Imagine the capital created when sewers and cutters can find work, then spend their money on consumer products. Imagine the cycle created by simply wearing a dress that's been manufactured here. You could launch your own project, called 'Make It Here!'"

Mrs. Obama sips her tea. I can't tell if she's annoyed. Hmm. Maybe.

The secret service moves in closer. Communications director Kristina Schake, standing behind Mrs. Obama, checks her watch. Stylist Meredith Koop shifts in her seat. Press secretary Katie McCormick Lelyveld paces the lawn, chatting on her Blackberry. I sense everyone's ready to end the meeting, and yet I still have so much to say. I look down at my teacup, see Dad's face. You're doing fine. Narrow the topic. Tell her about Nanette.

"Mrs. Obama, how about if you did an experiment…? Wear a dress by New York designer Nanette Lepore. Perhaps you've met her? I believe she attended a fund-raiser for your husband...? Have you seen her clothes?"

Here I would pull out several file folders, pass them around. "Hope you don't mind. I went ahead and printed out examples from a few websites where Ms. Lepore sells her clothes. Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus. Aren't these stunning?"

Everyone's opening file folders, looking over pictures. They're showing them to each other. I sense a receptive vibe. But I sip my tea, take a deep breath and a bite of sandwich. What's not to like? Of course they're smiling. I debate whether to show some other printouts tucked away in my briefcase; affordable American-made casual wear from kikaPaprika. Maybe next time. If there is a next time.

I'm waiting for the right moment to explain that Ms. Lepore--born in Youngstown, Ohio, graduate of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology--is not only talented and successful, but also has a social conscience. She believes in manufacturing locally, is passionate about saving New York City's garment district, and says it simply doesn't make sense to shift high-end designer production to China.

Maybe I would ease into it by telling the group about a news clip I found on the "Save the Garment Center" website. In the clip, filmed in October, 2009, Ms. Lepore stands at a podium, and speaks to hundreds of people gathered for a rally. She tells them how, 20 years before, she'd come to New York City as a fashion student with a $5,000 loan and a dream of building a business. The loan, from her father, allowed her to set up shop in a penthouse office in the garment district.

"Fast forward to the present day," I would say. "Nanette Lepore's privately held company earns about $150 million in revenue a year. On PBS's Nightly Business Report, she told reporter Erika Miller that her workers cut, pin, sew and box 20,000 garments a year. And she's determined to manufacture here rather than offshore."

The group is interested. They've grabbed some sandwiches. Time for me to get in some statistics. "Did you know that New York's one-square-mile garment district is home to 9,000 fashion-related firms? And yet, according to Ms. Miller's research, there are only 16,000 jobs? That's half the number of jobs there were only six years ago. All those jobs, likely lost to manufacturing in other countries. Meanwhile, our unemployment rate nationwide hovers at 9.5%; some would argue it's much higher." I debate whether to apologize for that last statistic. Why? We're in this together. No finger-pointing at this gathering (which I decide should be dubbed "Dress for Economic Success Summit").

Before I get up to leave, I slip in some last thoughts. "Nanette Lepore says she hopes her top designer colleagues will try to bring manufacturing back to this country so we can have a thriving middle class here once again. I believe she's onto something here. It's such a critical time for our country. Hope you'll consider wearing American-made clothes during your White House tenure."

We shake hands, and I'm on my way. Maybe I'll stop over in NYC, pop in to meet Ms. Nanette Lepore. My newest American hero.

I know. It's just a crazy daydream. But Albert Einstein said "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I think what he meant was we shouldn't let what we don't know stop us from thinking and dreaming. I don't know how the First Lady goes about choosing what clothes she will wear or which projects she will undertake while in the White House. I don't know, ultimately, how to get offshore manufacturers to return home. But if we all put our heads together and imagine, maybe we can figure this thing out. If we begin with apparel, maybe we could move onto electronics. We have to start somewhere, right?