Workers at the Garland Shirt Factory produce as many as 5,500 shirts a week for New York-based Brooks Brothers. The apparel company has owned the plant since 1982.
By Bryan Mims
Inside a nondescript brick building across East Front Street from the Piggly Wiggly, and right across Warren Street from the Family Dollar, beneath the blue water tower that says “Garland N.C. Est. 1907,” a dress shirt is being custom made, perhaps for a moneyed man in Manhattan. All the specs are right there on the order: shoulder width, sleeve length, neck size, a little slack on the left cuff to make room for his watch.
Here at the Garland Shirt Factory, where Brooks Brothers apparel is made — yep, that Brooks Brothers, the 200-year-old brand favored by the jet set and Mad Men’s Don Draper — special orders for bigwigs are nothing all that big and special. Workers here tailored the shirt that President Barack Obama wore during his first inauguration. They’ve made shirts for Kobe Bryant, George Strait and Will Smith. (If you saw the movie Ali, you saw Smith wearing a shirt made in Garland.)
For Queen Clark, who sews made-to-measure shirts that retail for $150 to more than $400, it’s all in a day’s work. She grew up in Garland and lives a few streets over from the factory. “This is home,” she says.
A railroad depot, not spiffy shirts, put Garland on the map in the late 1800s. The community surrounding it was named for the assistant postmaster general, Henry Garland. But perhaps the town’s most acclaimed native son was Amos Neill Johnson, a local doctor who taught at Duke University’s medical school and was president of the North Carolina Medical Society from 1960-61. Johnson and his employee, Henry Lee “Buddy” Treadwell, were the inspiration for Duke’s physician-assistant program, the first in the U.S. when it was started in the 1960s. Johnson, who died in 1975, and Treadwell, who died in 1990, appear in a downtown mural completed in 2015.
Shirt-making came to Garland in the 1950s, when Fleetline Industries moved into a brick building paid for by the Garland Development Corp. The group was formed to recruit business to this town in rural Sampson County. In 1982, New York-based Brooks Brothers bought the shirt factory, supplying sharp-dressed men and providing the economic fabric of Garland. Along with the special-order division and other luxury garments, Brooks Brothers’ classic button-down polo oxfords are made at the plant.
“Without Brooks Brothers, I think Garland would die,” says Queen Newman (that’s right, there are two factory employees named Queen), who’s worked in the plant since 1982 and is now a supervisor. “This is what keeps Garland Garland. You’ve got so many places that are closing, so if this was to die … what would we have?”
The plant employs about 200 people, mostly women seated at sewing machines on the factory floor, a spacious, windowless room with a classic assembly-line atmosphere that hums and clatters as employees focus intently on their jackhammering needles. Efforts to engage in small talk while they work result in clipped answers with no eye contact — their attention is sewn to the task at hand. The workers earn roughly $10 to $14 an hour and produce as many as 5,500 shirts a week.
Once the economic heartbeat of communities across the state, many traditional textile factories have long been shuttered. Look at the tags on your shirts, and you’ll likely see “Made in China,” or Malaysia or Cambodia. So it’s curious that in 2018, an Eisenhower-era building in a town with barely more than 600 people still churns out shirts as it did back when Ike was still in the White House. Landis Ammons, another longtime employee and supervisor, credits Claudio Del Vecchio, the chief executive officer of New York-based Brooks Brothers Group Inc.
“I believe the reason we are here is because Del Vecchio is dedicated to making products in the U.S.A.,” Ammons says. “We have a shirt manufacturer (in Garland), a suit manufacturer (in Haverhill, Mass.) and a tie manufacturer (in Queens, N.Y.).” Del Vecchio is part of a billionaire Italian family that controls eyewear giant Luxottica Group.
The company couldn’t have found a quieter, more out-of-the-way setting than Garland, a town about halfway between Fayetteville and Wilmington and smack dab in the middle of poultry, pig and pine country. Sampson County’s largest employers are pork producer Smithfield Foods and poultry company Prestage Farms, both in nearby Clinton.
The Brooks Brothers retail store, just a short walk from the plant, is a magnet for people who’d have little reason to foray into this one caution-light town. While lacking the elegance of the company’s 500-plus retail stores, the clearance center offers bargain pricing.
Another magnet, a block away at 29 Warren St., beckons barbecue buffs from the Piedmont to the coast. Matthew and Jessica Register opened Southern Smoke BBQ in 2014, firing up a smoker named Jezebel that Matt custom-designed with Jessica’s uncle. With a bed of coals from white oak and blackjack wood, they infuse smoke into chopped pork, baby back ribs, beef brisket, garlic pork loin and Jamaican jerk chicken. The Registers have been profiled in Food & Wine magazine, and Matt has appeared with Al Roker on NBC’s Today show.
Matt, 38, does most of the cooking and primarily runs a catering business, but every Thursday and Friday he opens the restaurant at 11:30 a.m. and closes “when we run out.” He says it’s common for people to drive two or three hours just to have lunch, dousing their meat with barbecue sauces called Sweet Grace, named for the couple’s daughter, Taylor Grace, and Two Brothers, a vinegar-based sauce named for their sons, Nash and Harrison. “When the weather warms up, the line is 40 or 50 deep, which is unheard of in a town the size of ours,” he says.
Customers sit at picnic tables or at a bar built on a 1956 Ford coupe with its roof removed. Matt grew up in southern Sampson County; his grandfather ran a dry-goods store in Garland in the 1970s and ’80s. The way he sees it, Southern Smoke, like Brooks Brothers, raises the town’s profile and keeps the home fires burning. “I hope when people come, they go to Brooks Brothers, they spend a little money there, and then they stop at the gas station to fill up with gas and drive back home.”
Southern Smoke isn’t the only local place to grab a bite. At Colleen’s Country Kitchen, Colleen Myers and her husband, Ken, surprise you with their unmistakable New York accent — something you don’t often hear in these parts. They moved from Long Island to Conway, S.C., near Myrtle Beach, looking for a warmer and less expensive place to live. In 2009, they wound up in the Garland area, opening a corner diner on Helltown Road, a byway named for the boggy terrain it traverses by the South River west of town. Four years ago, they started this restaurant in town.
Most mornings at Colleen’s, workers from the shirt factory, loggers, farmers, construction workers, the owner of metal fabricator D&E Metalworks and the town’s retired police chief stop in for breakfast. Garland is the archetypal small Southern town, from the men in Farm Bureau caps at the diner to the Piggly Wiggly. But thanks to that unassuming brick building along Front Street, it has a global reach with a very stylish touch.