Nordstrom: Dinner and a Cardigan

In the name of research, Don / Richie C and I ate dinner at Nordstrom's Bistro Cafe. It was a warm spring evening. Easy listening music piped onto the rooftop terrace. Our Nicoise Salads with Salmon were delicious: organic baby greens tossed in Dijon balsamic vinaigrette with French green beans, capers, kalamata olives, petite tomatoes, sliced red onion, roasted baby potatoes, and sliced egg, topped off with herb-crusted filet of salmon hot out of the roasting pan. Yum. If you're so inclined, this too can be yours for $14.95 and a drive to your nearest Nordstrom.

But if you're in the market for USA-made apparel, be forewarned that even at upscale Nordstrom, it's slim pickings. While there are a few items, for the most part Nordstrom has hopped on the global manufacturing bandwagon. There was a time when Nordstrom was synonymous with American-made shoes and clothing. Indeed, its website touts America as the "land of opportunity" where its immigrant founder literally struck gold:

In 1887, a 16-year-old boy left his home country of Sweden for the promise of New York City. He arrived with only five dollars in his pocket, unable to speak a word of English. His name? John W. Nordstrom. The first years in the land of opportunity were hard. To make ends meet, young John labored in mines and logging camps as he crossed the United States to California and Washington. Then one morning in 1897, he picked up a newspaper and read the front-page headline "Gold Found in the Klondike in Alaska." The very next day, he made plans to head north.

In Alaska, Mr. Nordstrom discovered gold valued at $13,000. He returned to Washington state. In 1901, he and Carl Wallin, his shoe-repairman friend, opened Wallin & Nordstrom in downtown Seattle. Thus began a pro-growth American free enterprise business cycle, with manufacturing jobs created here and capital infused into the domestic economy. By 1929, both partners had retired and sold their interests to Nordstrom's sons. Success continued, unabated. The company soon grew to become the largest independent shoe chain in the United States. By 1960, Nordstrom had eight stores in Washington and Oregon, and the downtown Seattle store became the largest shoe store in the country.

In the 1960s, Nordstrom sought to "spread its wings." It bought an Oregon fashion retail store, merged it with its existing shoe stores, continued to grow, and eventually became a nationwide, publicly traded retail powerhouse. According to online site Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Nordstrom Inc's 2011 revenues have thus far totaled $9.7 billion.

Good for them. Now how much of that will be recycled back into our economy? How many American jobs and capital could've been created had Nordstrom insisted its wholesalers actually manufacture their products here?

After our alfresco dinner, Don took off for the men's department to find a blue dress shirt to wear with a tie for work. I set out to find the navy blue and grey striped Slub Knit Cardigan I'd already seen online, thanks to daughter Stephanie. "Nordstrom has this line called Splendid," she'd said. "I checked and their stuff''s made in the USA. You can probably find everything online, too."

Splendid's website says the Los Angeles brand was founded by Moise Emquies, "lawyer by day, t-shirt designer by night." In 1992, while awaiting the results of his California bar exam, Emquies designed a t-shirt for a friend's clothing store. He found the whole creative process enjoyable. Thus began a 10-year quest for comfort and style that led to "the prefect t-shirt, a t-shirt deserving of a name as beautiful as Splendid." In 2002, Splendid was successfully launched. The brand "can be seen in countless magazines, movies and television, and on some of the most famous women in the world including Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz, Kirsten Dunst, and Julia Roberts." Who knew?

According to a company representative, Splendid's fabrics are imported, but all manufacturing is done in Los Angeles. Splendid is owned by VF, a United States apparel behemoth. In 1899, VF began in Reading, Pennsylvania (yes, now home to Bills Khakis) as the Reading Glove and Mitten Manufacturing Company. Valuated at $7 billion, VF owns 31 brands including ella moss (also founded by Emquies), Wrangler, Lee, Vans, Eastpak, The North Face, 7 For All Mankind, and Nautica. Of those brands, how many are manufactured here in the USA? Only two: 7 For All Mankind and Splendid.

On my way to finding Splendid in Nordstrom's, I passed racks and racks {and more racks} of enticing, spring-into-summer, made-anywhere-but-here clothing. But finally, hanging on a far wall with about a half dozen other Splendid offerings, there was the striped knit cardigan I'd seen online. Soft, comfortable, made in the USA ($78). The salesperson folded my purchase, wrapped it in white tissue and placed it in a handled bag.

Now, if I could find a pair of American-made shoes for spring, that would be great. I'd already looked online at Target for some fun, inexpensive flats. I'd found 197 styles made by the brand Mossimo. Super cute, but not a single pair made in the USA. I remember Mossimo from the days when the brand first began making casual wear in Newport Beach, California. Founded in 1987 by SoCal native Mossimo Giannulli, Mossimo continues to be an American company (now based in Santa Monica, California). In 2006, Mossimo was acquired by Iconix, a brand management company based in New York, NY (Iconix owns 15 other highly recognizable brands as well). According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Mossimo designs and licenses men's, women's, and children's apparel and footwear, as well as cosmetics, fashion accessories, eyewear, women's swimwear, bodywear, and casual sports apparel. "It offers its products through third parties in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Mexico." In other words, not a single Mossimo product is manufactured here--including the perfect red espadrilles ($14.99) to go with my Splendid knit cardigan. I know, whine, whine, whine. But please, not one single solitary item manufactured here? Not one?

But surely Nordstrom, once known for its domestic shoe manufacturing, would have plenty of American made shoes from which to choose. I browsed the displays of flats, and asked a salesperson to please show me made in USA shoes. She winced. "Yikes. That's tough. Well, the only company that makes shoes in this country anymore would be Munro." I'd heard of Munro. The company seems to be well-known among Buy-USA devotees. In looking online, its offerings didn't grab me. And now, seeing the shoes in person, I still didn't feel the love. No canvas espadrilles, no fun, whimsical flats. In the name of fairness, I tried on a couple pairs, priced at $150 each. Do the Target / Mossimo vs. Nordstrom / Munro math. Even with white tissue and handled bag thrown in, that's a huge leap.

Meanwhile, Don couldn't find a single domestic-made men's dress shirt. "I can't believe it," he said, rifling through every brand Nordstrom's carried. "Even the most expensive ones are imported." Don hates to waste time shopping. He's a man on a mission: Look, find, buy, be done with it for six months. I promised to look online and find some dress shirts for him. We left the store. Our total American purchases? Dinner and a cardigan.

On April 8, 2011, The Wall Street Journal (which typically embraces global manufacturing on its editorial pages) ran a news item at the bottom of its Money and Investing section. Headline: "The Dark Side of Corporate Earnings." It began: A climbing stock market and strong corporate earnings aren't quite the beacon of light they once were for the U.S. economy. Here's more:

Companies have moved production and sourcing overseas to cut costs and to tap demands in faster expanding markets. Capital spending in emerging markets like China and India has more than doubled in the past decade…That is fostering growth abroad but undercutting prospects in the U.S. The nation's factors of production, such as factories and equipment, or capital stock, actually shrank in 2009 for the first time in postwar history…The moving of investment overseas and erosion of the nation's capital stock are no small matter. They imply a lower potential growth rate for the U.S. and higher structural unemployment. As that reality dawns, the corporate sector's strength may start to lose its luster.

How can we possibly sustain a domestic economy that increasingly creates capital elsewhere? I keep visualizing Swedish-turned-American Mr. Nordstrom, back in 1897, mining Alaskan gold. It must've glimmered with promise in his hands. Has Nordstrom's current generation taken care of its heritage? Has Nordstrom, under globalization, lost its luster? Has our country?