Colm Dillane’s studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a dimly lit space that’s smaller than your average bodega. It’s located directly underneath elevated subway tracks—you can hear the rumble of the J train every 15 minutes—and packed with hundreds of clothing samples that complement Dillane’s bright paintings hanging on the walls. It’s difficult to fathom that this is where Dillane, the 29-year-old artist behind KidSuper, has built and grown a clothing label that hits seven figures in annual revenue.
The New York-born designer has come a long way since selling his T-shirts out of Brooklyn Tech’s high school cafeteria. Dillane never attended fashion school, but instead studied mathematics at NYU. He learned how to make clothing through YouTube videos and Google University. He built his first collection of T-shirts, hoodies, and hats when he was a college sophomore with $3,000 he borrowed from his parents. After Dillane was kicked out of NYU’s housing for running a de facto KidSuper store in his dorm in 2012, he rented a live-work storefront space in Williamsburg via Craigslist for $2,500 a month, which he still lives in and operates his brand out of today. This is where Dillane built the world of KidSuper, a brand inspired by his whimsical art that drew in fans like Joey Badass, The Underachievers, and Russ.
Since starting, he’s steadily grown the line with no additional financial help, collaborating with the likes of Jägermeister and Puma. He was recently nominated for the LVMH Prize, which he lost, but was one of the three designers to win the prestigious Karl Lagerfeld prize that grants him €150,000 and one year of mentorship from a team of experts at LVMH. But despite Dillane’s close proximity to the fashion industry having grown up in New York, his climb hasn’t been an easy one.
“Making clothing in New York is super expensive, it’s super difficult to know who to talk to, and it’s super limited,” says Dillane. “I remember [in the early days] going to a factory in the Garment District and they were showing me all this super high-end stuff they were producing. They told me it would cost $800 to just cut out the pattern for a jacket, not to even make it. [All I thought was:] ‘Jesus, how does anyone get anything started or made?’”
Dillane’s question is a daunting one for many young New York City-based designers. As clothing production has moved overseas to countries like China and India, young designers struggle to find local manufacturers that can make finished garments for an affordable price. Because of that, even small New York-based brands look to produce overseas to cut costs. But despite how expensive it is, many burgeoning designers seek to build their lines in New York to be closer to their work and to reap the benefits of domestic production.New York City has always been a refuge for people who want to create and build something, but is it still the most ideal place to start a fashion brand?
Augie Galan, a Queens-born designer who was hired to build Supreme’s cut and sew program in the 1990’s, doesn’t think so. Galan remembers when neighborhoods like Tribeca and Soho still had active fabric suppliers and trim stores on Broadway. But he says that by the early 2000s, many of those downtown stores closed because they were priced out. But the decline in New York City’s fashion industry started long before that, more than 40 years ago. Between 1958 and 1977, the number of garment manufacturing firms in Manhattan had already shrunk in half from 10,329 firms to just 5,096. And according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent quarterly census, the number of fashion manufacturing establishments in New York City went down 7.7 percent from 2019 to 2020, while employment dropped 32.2 percent.
Galan, who now directs production for the streetwear brand Teddy Fresh, which is based in Los Angeles, says it’s possible to make T-shirts and sweatshirts in America, but it’s more affordable to do it overseas. But Galan, who makes makes T-shirts, headwear, and socks in Los Angeles and New York, says once designers start making cut and sew clothing—pieces with unique designs; not pre-made blanks for screenprinting—it becomes very expensive, which is why bigger brands produce in Asia because it’s cheap and easy to manufacture garments there.
“There’s a lot of stuff you just can’t make here anymore because of the infrastructure,” says Galan, who finds it difficult to produce certain items domestically due to lack of raw materials. He notes that designers have to work harder to produce on the East Coast, whereas California has a more robust manufacturing industry that is bolstered by its proximity to outsource work to Mexico. However, he admits he still works mostly with factories in China. “You go to China because they offer it to you as a complete package. You don’t have to do everything separately and it’s just a one-stop shop.”