Article first published in Vol. 23 (2004-2005)
By Jackie Corrales, Kathleen Luby, Daryle Hendry, Tony Medrano, Christopher Flores and Kristi Smith
Once the "jeans capital" of the U.S., El Paso has lost most of its apparel manufacturing jobs to overseas plants in the past decade. At one time, factories made denim jeans and other sportswear for brands such as Calvin Klein, Wrangler, Levi Strauss, Sassoon, Billy the Kid and others. This legacy was born during the early 1880s, when the railroad pushed through El Paso. Ranching and the mining and prospecting business produced a demand for work clothes.
Image caption: Hana Farah and sons Jimmy and Willie ran the family company after the loss of Mansour Farah in 1937. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Times and Special Collections, UT at El Paso Library.
The first recorded apparel business in El Paso was the Bargman Shirt and Overall Company in 1902. Several more followed, including the Hillburn Company in 1913, the Hicks-Hayward Company and the Head All Company in 1919. But in 1920, a clothing empire was developing. It would last almost 80 years and would make one name synonymous with clothing manufacturing: Farah.
Mansour Farah and his family emigrated to Canada and then the United States from Beskinta, Lebanon, in 1905. Mansour and brother Andrew moved to the territory of New Mexico and opened a hay and dry goods store in Las Cruces. After 10 years there, Mansour married Hana Abihider in Lawrence, Mass., and brought her west.
After learning tailoring from his parents, Mansour set off to New York to study shirt design. In 1920, he and his wife relocated to El Paso, Texas, to set up business, according to Evan Haywood Antone in his biography, William Farah, Industrialist.
The Farahs' first shop was a 1,250-square-foot hole-in-the-wall on San Francisco Street. Ten seamstresses worked on six sewing machines. In that tiny plant, the Farahs began producing blue chambray work shirts made out of breathable cotton, well suited for the region. The shirts, produced under the "Apache" label, sold for 35cents each and were very popular with the working man.
In 1924, Mansour moved his shop to a larger facility on Oregon Street and increased his workforce by adding three seamstresses. It did not take long for the company to outgrow this facility as well. Farah Manufacturing relocated once again to a 5,000-square-foot facility at 104 Leon Street and hired more people.
Although the number of employees had more than doubled, it was not uncommon to see the Farahs on the cutting floor. Their sons, Jimmy and Willie, worked at the factory after school. Hana was in charge of supervising the seamstresses.
Antone writes that when the Great Depression hit Farah found itself in direct competition with the federal government, which had begun using convict laborers to produce the same chambray shirts that Farah had been so successful making. To survive, Farah began manufacturing blue denim work pants, a wise decision. While other companies were failing, Farah continued to prosper.
Farah soon added bib overalls, khaki shirts and khaki pants to the line. Needing more space again, Farah leased a section of the old El Paso Times building at 208 San Francisco Street and added more employees.
Unfortunately, Mansour did not get to see just how successful his company would become. On May 11, 1937, Mansour Farah, better known as "Frank" to El Pasoans and "Don Pancho" to his employees, died at the young age of 52. Jimmy Farah, the oldest son and only 21, became president of the company. In 1939, the Farahs purchased the Times building. Farah Manufacturing filled the entire 65,000 square feet. Jimmy's leadership skills were soon tested as World War raged in Europe.
It became necessary for Farah Manufacturing to alter its production from civilian to military garments. Farah began producing fatigues, jungle wear, combat pants and military uniforms. While Jimmy was working hard to meet the demands of the military, his brother Willie was serving the country as a B-26 combat pilot in Europe. Hana supervised the sewing room and knew all 140 employees by name.
Farah had become the largest clothing manufacturer in the region. The military rewarded the company for their high standards on November 3, 1944, with the Army-Navy "E" Flag for production excellence. According to Antone, the plant had consecutively produced 359,000 pair of pants without a single rejection and had five consecutive work weeks without a single absence. The military recognized the firm's high production rate per employee, and its willingness to meet overnight emergencies and last minute orders by working longer hours. This award was the first to be given to an apparel company east of the Mississippi.
In 1946, with Jimmy as president, the partnership became a corporation when Willie stepped up as vice president and plant manager.
The brothers complemented each other's work styles. James, the financial wizard, was known to be light hearted and easy going. Willie, always obsessed with mechanics, was rigid and driven.
By 1950, the "Apache" label was abandoned for the "Farah" label. In 1953, the brothers built a 116,000-square-foot facility at 1500 East Third St. and Cotton Avenue. Production capacity quadrupled to 2,000 pairs of pants daily. In 1959, a 285,000-square-foot plant was begun at 5474 East Paisano Drive. Everything was progressing smoothly until death struck the Farah family again.
On January 30, 1964, James Farah died at work at the age of 48. Groundbreaking ceremonies for the Gateway West facility were held on James Farah's birthday, September 1, 1964. Willie Farah took over as president.
Three years later, Farah Manufacturing was placed on the New York Stock Exchange and became a publicly owned corporation. Plants were opened in Belgium and Hong Kong. There were seven domestic manufacturing plants: five in El Paso, one in San Antonio and one in Las Cruces.
Combined, the factories employed 9,500 employees and produced $150 million in garments annually. In the 1970's, Willie's sons, Jimmy, Robert and Kenneth, went to work in the family business. By 1971, Farah had become the second largest employer in El Paso.
Tony Jabale, an employee at Farah for 40 years, claims that the company set the standards for the nation for safety, working conditions and employee benefits. Farah offered its employees free bus rides to work, onsite health care, a cafeteria and generous wages. Music was played throughout the work day in order to help the time pass more quickly, an innovation Willie had begun as a young man working at the factory. Employees were given parties in the cafeteria to celebrate birthdays. The turnover rate was extremely low.
However, large expenditures necessary for growth caused Farah to pressure employees to meet higher quotas. By the early 1970's, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) had begun to try to unionize Farah. According to James Flack, a manager at Farah for 13 years, most employees were against unionization in the beginning. The union spent a lot of money working to gain a foot hold in Farah. Willie was infuriated and would not allow an employee vote. This proved to be his first big mistake.
Jabale states that Farah employees never would have voted for the union if Willie had allowed the vote early on. The union promised lighter quotas and higher wages. Some employees joined of their own accord, while it has been said that others joined out of fear.
A strike by more than 3,000 Farah employees and a boycott of its clothing by 60 cities occurred in 1972, lasting 20 months. Farah became the only garment plant to be unionized in Texas. The strike crippled Farah with a 40 percent drop in sales, the termination of 5,000 jobs and the closing of all domestic plants outside of El Paso. The strike and its effects on Farah employees is a long, complicated episode in manufacturing history, worthy of its own story.
Faced with losses, Farah struggled to stay afloat. The opening of a textiles division in El Paso and major miscalculations in production and marketing contributed to a $24.4 million loss in 1976. Kenneth left the company, and in 1977, the board of directors, including Jimmy Farah, voted to strip Willie Farah of his title of Chief Executive. Jimmy resigned his position later that year.
Willie's absence from the company was short-lived. In 1978, he took the decision to court and won his title back. He had armed guards escort former board members out of the building and dismissed dozens of employees whom he branded as disloyal. Later that year, Jimmy returned to his former position as sales manager, Kenneth returned as an accountant, and Robert was promoted to head of international operations. Business matters stabilized for a short time, but Willie and the rest of the Farah family faced an even harder loss that same year.
Hana Farah died in July 1978 at the age of 80. It was not only a huge loss to the family and the company, but also for the community of El Paso. Flack describes Hana as "a jewel." He said that he would help her deliver turkeys and hams during the holidays to needy families in the area. Flack said he saw her go to the cafeteria at Farah day after day to pick up leftover food to give to the poor. The Farah family would not be the same. Eventually, all of Willie's sons left the company because of their father's inflexibility and other conflicts. In 1989, Willie agreed to step down as CEO in exchange for $1.2 million a year contract and a consulting position with input to company decisions. A new CEO, Richard Allendar, was hired.
Allendar cut back sharply, closing two factories in Mexico and laying off 2,220 employees. Allendar managed to cut Farah's losses and had a knack for placing the right person in the right job. Charles Pollock, one of Farah's top salesmen, was able to secure once again the Dillard's account for the company.
In 1998, Allendar and the board of directors sold the company to Tropical Sportswear Int'l., a small private-label company which renamed the newly purchased company Savane Int'l. The empty Farah building on Gateway West is now being touted as the site of a new upscale shopping center.
The Farah family helped put El Paso on the map in the manufacturing world. Willie Farah died in 1998. His sons Robert and Kenneth still reside in El Paso. Jimmy Farah lives in the New York area. The Farahs employed tens of thousands of people locally and internationally. They set high standards for manufacturing employees and provided a higher standard of living for many El Paso families. And even though El Paso is no longer known for its apparel industry, the Farahs will always remain a large part of this city's history.