Inside the Southern California factory that makes the Donald Trump hats

Donald Trump’s hats have quickly become a signature totem of the 2016 campaign, a kitsch magnet that serves ironic hipsters and sincere supporters alike. The red-and-white caps are emblazoned with the real estate mogul's oft-repeated slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

But look around the factory floor where these hats are being made by the thousands, and you’ll find faces that don’t seem to fit into Trump’s America.

Yolanda Melendrez is one of them. Melendrez, an immigrant from Mexico who was brought to the United States by her parents when she was a baby, has worked at the Carson-based Cali-Fame headwear company since 1991.

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“When we first got the order [for the Trump hats], I said to myself, ‘Just wait until he sees who’s making his hats. We’re Latinos, we’re Mexicans, Salvadoreños.’”

Melendrez, 44, started out as a machine operator, stitching the seams of baseball caps. She now works as a lead on the floor, roaming as she checks on the flow of work, supervising other sewing machine operators and embroiders. She became a citizen when she was 20; her parents are permanent residents. Melendrez was 14 when she had her first child, and the job has helped her pay rent and put food on the table for her kids, she says.

One recent Saturday at the Cali-Fame factory, about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, dozens of employees, almost all of them Latino, were working away while machines whirred all around them. Some peered over glasses as their deft hands assembled one hat after another; others swept scraps of fabric from the floor. They were surrounded by stacks of freshly minted camouflage-print caps, with the presidential hopeful’s all-capital-letter promise emblazoned on the front in orange.

Brian Kennedy, president of Cali-Fame, says that when the Trump campaign asked his family business to make the now-famous hats, he knew he would need to address his workers.

“I said to them, ‘We’re not political. We’re here to work,’” Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times from the second floor of his factory, the steady sound of sewing machines in action below him. “And I haven’t gotten any negative comments.”

The hats, known best in the signature red with white font, have inspired hipster fashion trends, Halloween costumes, a make-your-own-Trump-hat generator and even a short-lived rumor they actually were made in China.

(They weren’t, Kennedy assures).

In fact, unlike some Trump-branded lines of clothing sold nationally, this headwear is legitimately made in the USA, creating jobs for people who hail from the very places Trump has at times disparaged.

The company employs about 100 people in a 30,000-square-foot warehouse. About 80% of the company’s workforce is Latino, Kennedy estimates. He says that every worker has his or her immigration status verified.

The "Make America Great Again" hats have been a boon to Kennedy’s business, which pulled in more than $270,000 from the Trump campaign last quarter, according to campaign finance records.

The merchandise was a portion of the more than $825,000 the Trump campaign dropped on bumper stickers, T-shirts, hats and other promotional gear, the largest category of Trump's spending outside of travel.

The hats have seemingly been a boon for Trump's campaign too. Most of the caps sell for $25 each and appear to have boosted the billionaire's small donations column, making donors of those who purchase them, ironically or not. 

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Kennedy and his brother, Tim, Cali-Fame's vice president of sales, have been reluctant to wade into the political fray. Brian Kennedy, who initially declined to be interviewed, says he’s turned down dozens of media requests.

A visit to the factory on a weekday suggests the business might have easily remained anonymous, save for campaign finance records: The windows were black and no signs of life were obvious early one evening, except for a few modestly appointed cars in the parking lot.

Kennedy and his brother bristled at the news coverage they received for weeks after campaign finance disclosures were released.

Melendrez says she tries her best to avoid it too.

She says she’s heard some of the things Trump has said about Mexican immigrants and Latinos like her, but she attempts to ignore them, even as headlines about Trump’s proposals to build an impenetrable wall on the border of Mexico and his comments writing off some Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals continue to dominate coverage of the Republican front-runner's campaign.

When Macy’s cut ties with Trump over his remarks, which the company said were “inconsistent with Macy’s values,” Trump publicly accused the retailer of supporting illegal immigration.

“A lot of what he says about Latinos is not correct,” Melendrez says with a shrug just as a buzzer signals the end of her Saturday overtime shift and workers line up to clock out. Spanish punctuates the air as the machines sputter to a stop.

But Melendrez doesn’t pay the media reports much mind. She knows she has a job to do.

“You know,” she says, “he’s giving us a lot of work. Keeping us busy.… It’s a job, I get paid to do it and it pays my bills.”

And for that, Melendrez says, she’s thankful.

A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign did not return a request for comment. 

Although Kennedy downplayed the role Trump’s orders have played for his business as the holiday season begins, several employees said this is the busiest November they’ve seen in years, with plenty of overtime work to go around.

Kennedy says that since his father bought the business in 1977, Cali-Fame has weathered rising labor costs, employee downsizing, changing technologies and cutthroat competition from cheap overseas labor.

The factory is on the edge of an industrial district that presses up against tight rows of neatly fenced single-story homes. On the other side of the 710 Freeway and across the L.A. River is a country club and golf course serving Long Beach’s nearby tony neighborhoods. 

“To be a local manufacturer in the United States, there’s so many challenges, not only in America but in California alone,” he says while surveying the massive warehouse.

For decades, the company had its bread and butter in golf tournament caps and other promotional headwear. The company has taken in other work, Kennedy says, such as embroidering ready-made shirts and sweatshirts, to help boost revenue.

More recently, the manufacturer has branched out into street wear and urban fashion, launching a brand that has focused on supporting burgeoning clothing companies. Wood panels separate a portion of the warehouse for a showroom of sorts, allowing Cali-Fame to host an occasional sale. On a recent weekend, curious deal-seekers browsed straw fedoras and baseball caps of varying designs, but no Trump hats were in sight.

“The old cliche is that you roll with the punches,” Tim Kennedy says. “We’ve done that many times, and we’re constantly changing what we do and how we do things.”

But it’s been increasingly difficult to stay competitive, the Kennedy brothers say. Rising healthcare costs, the possibility of a $15 minimum wage countywide and workers’ compensation laws have been a “juggling act” to keep up with, they say.

Brian Kennedy says his company has been making hats for Trump’s golf courses for about a decade, which is how he got connected with the campaign.

These caps -- “the five-panel trucker hat with cord,” Kennedy will tell you -- have become a solid front-runner when it comes to 2016 campaign kitsch.

“It’s a classic,” says Tim Kennedy. “Everything comes full circle in the fashion business. It's straight from Middle America to New York and Los Angeles.”

For more on politics in the Golden State, follow me @cmaiduc.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


6:30 p.m.: This story has been revised to include additional details and context.

3:43 p.m.: This story has been updated with more details.

This story was first published at 12:05 a.m.