Seamstresses stitch Chantilly lace onto stretch satin fabric. Hand finishers apply crystals to silk organza gowns. Pattern makers cut shapes onto crisp, brown paper, for what will become fall cocktail dresses.
As sewing machines whir, designer Rene Ruiz moves through the rows of tables, checking a sleeve here, an appliqué there, at his new 10,000-square-foot factory in Hialeah.
Rather than following the lead of most clothing makers who manufacture in Asia, Ruiz has expanded his production here at home, creating new jobs and boosting manufacturing — and the economy — in Miami-Dade County.
“It’s great to be manufacturing here in Hialeah and providing jobs,” Ruiz said as he walked the factory floor.
Ruiz, a high-profile fashion designer whose evening dresses sell for $700 to $10,000, is at the forefront of a nascent trend. After losing manufacturing jobs for decades, Miami-Dade is seeing an uptick, particularly for highly skilled, specialized manufacturing workers, said Jaap Donath, senior vice president of research and strategic planning for the Beacon Council.
“It speaks to Miami-Dade’s strength as a creative design hub,” said Pamela Fuertes, the Beacon Council’s vice president of international economic development programs. “It complements what we have been doing in terms of promoting Miami as a place for fashion companies to do business.”
In addition to Ruiz, other apparel designers also manufacture in Miami-Dade, including Eberjey, Bogosse, Peace Love World and Liancarlo. And during the past year, Saint George Industries opened a manufacturing operation in Hialeah, making apparel, outer shells for bulletproof vests and slip covers.
“Hialeah used to be the Mecca for the apparel industry — that was 10 or 20 years ago, and then they started taking production overseas to the Dominican Republic and then to China and the rest of Asia,” said Mario Arus, executive director for Hialeah Dade Development, an economic development agency funded by the county. “Now, little by little they are coming back to Hialeah.”
While local manufacturers can’t compete on cost when it comes to mass market clothing made in countries like Bangladesh, where the average wage for garment workers is less than 30 cents an hour, local companies offer value when it comes to highly skilled labor and food products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and bio-medical manufacturing.
And it’s not just apparel that is expanding here; other types of manufacturing are also on the rise in Miami-Dade. Last year, Nutri-Force Nutrition opened a $13 million vitamin plant in Miami Lakes, with plans to add 400 jobs over a three-year span. Tierra Nueva Fine Cocoa also recently added a chocolate-making plant in Miami Gardens, with about 50 employees.
And after winning a Miami-Dade Transit award to build 136 Metrorail cars, Italian rail car manufacturer AnsaldoBreda plans to start building a plant in Miami-Dade this fall. By spring 2015 the company expects to open a regional headquarters to try to boost business in the Americas, said AnsaldoBreda president Giancarlo Fantappié, based at the company’s U.S. headquarters in San Francisco. The plan is to create 100 to 400 manufacturing jobs, he said.
“The manufacturing segment is growing, and unlike hospitality, manufacturing jobs pay well,” said Michael Casey, a partner in the law firm of Duane Morris, and chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s new manufacturing task force. “There are over 18,000 manufacturers now in Florida, employing 320,000 people, and the average annual compensation for those manufacturing jobs is a little more than $52,000 a year — more than people are paid in hospitality and tourism.”
For Ruiz, known for his elegant confections made of French fabrics, the newly opened factory will allow him to add three additional seasons — pre-fall, holiday and resort – to his spring/summer and fall/winter collections.
Eventually he plans to expand into a full lifestyle brand ranging from ready-to-wear to accessories and home furnishings. A line of men’s shirts and tuxedos will debut within the next year. And with some operations moving to the new factory, he can add a bridal salon, full-time wedding and event planner and shoe boutique to his Coral Gables showroom. All are slated to open by July 1.
The Miami-Dade additions follow Ruiz’s rise on the global fashion scene. In February, he opened his first showroom in New York, which has translated into 72 new accounts in the United States and abroad, doubling the number of stores where Ruiz’s designs will be carried to 165, said Ruiz’s partner Brad Rosenblatt.
And in a major coup, retailer Neiman Marcus has placed its first order. About 200 exclusive Rene Ruiz evening gowns will be sold at select Neiman Marcus stores nationwide, including Bal Harbour, beginning in August, Rosenblatt said.
In all, Ruiz’s factory is creating 2,000 evening gowns and cocktail dresses that will be delivered to stores in next three months — four times as many as he was able to create before from his small atelier at his showroom in Coral Gables.
It’s another step for Ruiz, who first began fashioning women’s dresses more than two decades ago.
“The goal is probably to have about 300 to 400 specialty stores around the world and a variety of high- end Neiman Marcus type stores in Canada and Europe,” Rosenblatt said.
Sales for the upcoming 12 months are expected to double from the previous year, to more than $5 million, he said. The flurry of orders prompted the need to expand, hire more workers and open a factory.
So, two weeks ago, the company leased out half of Leonora Fashions’ building at 1055 E. 15th St. More than 280 candidates applied for 50 jobs in the first week. So far, they have hired 22, and expect to hire 30 more by the end of the year, to bring the total to 75 employees between the Hialeah factory and the Rene Ruiz showroom in Coral Gables.
Inside the factory, sewing machines are humming, piecing together fall 2013 fashions, which will start shipping June 1. Neiman Marcus’ orders are also underway, to ship the beginning of August.
On a recent day, everyone was busy with their assigned role in the production process. Four seamstresses are now dedicated to just making the bustiers that invisibly underpin every Rene Ruiz dress — up from one seamstress in the former atelier. Other seamstresses drape fabrics or sew lace as hand finishers apply crystals and beads.
“We think it’s very important, said Fuertes of the Beacon Council, of Ruiz’s new factory. “It’s indicative of the strength of Miami’s position for design, and I think Rene really embraces that. He is committed to manufacturing and producing everything here locally.”