By Nick Caruso
One pleasant evening a couple months ago I found myself sitting in a modern conference room in a swanky office building on Park Avenue across from Bayard Winthrop, who disagreed with my shirt. Rather, to be more specific, his company’s business model and his business philosophy are strikingly dissimilar to those behind my simple chambray work shirt. I’ll admit that when I purchased that particular shirt I disagreed to some extent too: It’s not an inexpensive piece of clothing. But I knew the brand and I had wanted a shirt just like this, and I knew I’d wear it a lot and hopefully for a long time, so I paid a good chunk of money for what Bayard Winthrop suggested is essentially an eight-dollar shirt.
Bayard Winthrop’s new clothing company, American Giant, does not make disagreeable shirts. I’d argue that American Giant doesn’t really even make shirts, per se; rather, they make heritage. High-quality heritage. The American Giant sweatshirt I’m currently sporting is probably the best-made garment that I’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing (and the reddest, to boot). It’s purpose built to last decades, like clothing did decades ago; and it’s designed to fit the way that my eight dollar shirt never could: correctly. But more on the clothing later. To explain American Giant, I must get back to my other shirt.
Thing is, my eight-dollar shirt, like most every other garment you and I might buy (and many other products we use, for that matter), are designed and built for the lowest possible price, and usually overseas. A brand buys the “cheap” shirt from the factory for a significant markup over their initial costs; it is then sold wholesale to a large retailer for another significant markup; then sold to consumers for one last markup that, in the case of my shirt, ends up coming out to about $75 when all is said and done. If this shirt did actually cost $8 to begin with, the final price represents nearly a 1000% increase over the original product. Unfortunately, quality doesn’t necessarily correlate with price, and with all those middlemen involved, it rarely does. The multiple steps between the manufacturing of a garment and the final sale to consumers soak up a drastic percentage of what we consumers pay at the store, and when you consider quality and durability, among other factors, it’s fairly obvious that a shirt like mine isn’t worth $75 at all. I was wearing an $8 shirt that I, well, basically lost my shirt buying. And now I’m embarrassed about that shirt and every other one in my closet. And I’d really like to change. You probably should too, come to think of it.
American Giant is the sort of change you and I need. Winthrop thinks the clothing industry operates on what he calls an “inefficient distribution model” – that middleman process – and aims to challenge and beat the system that considers inflating prices on $8 shirts de rigueur. “I don’t need to go that low,” says Winthrop, in his serene, nonchalant, straightforward manner. He’s spent a great deal of his life on the west coast but is from the east coast, so he is a captivating mix of friendly, laid back aura and no BS delivery.
Speaking of no BS delivery, American Giant builds and ships and sells each garment in house, which eliminates all the middlemen, so a humongous chunk of a garment’s cost – Winthrop estimates 60-80% – completely vanishes outright. But at the same time American Giant is doing away with the costs of distribution, they are actively adding cost by boosting the quality of material, construction, and customer service. Those costs still don’t hold a candle to other brands’ middeman markups – final cost is far less than what a similar garment would go for with that traditional approach – the strategy from which Winthrop has been eager to deviate for quite some time (He has worked in the apparel and gear sector for a long while, most recently as President of Chrome, an urban-centric men’s brand). “I had spent my whole kind of professional career obsessing over that,” muses Winthrop. “Thinking, you know, what can I do to that shirt to claw out 25 cents or 50 cents or 75 cents. If I take that button and move it to a cheaper plastic or change the way I’m constructing that shoulder seam can I save a few pennies here if I move it to a worse fabric? And looking at what happens when you do that – when you grind away and grind away and grind away…you have this sort of death by a thousand cuts. These little increments that happen along the way, that end up degrading the quality of the product.”
And so with American Giant there are no thousand cuts. In fact, there may not be any at all. The fabrics are ultra high-quality, the cuffs are bigger and stronger, the fabric might as well be welded together, there are extra panels where other shirts might just have simple, cheap, unstructured seams. When Winthrop describes the process it almost seems like a stirring campaign speech: “I want to do something interesting with this shirt. I want to build in a more compelling trim story or hardware story. I want to make it with better fabric I want to put not eight dollars into that shirt; I want to put 16 dollars into that shirt, 18 dollars into that shirt, which is frankly hard to do.”
Hard to do, sure, but not impossible. He’s found the perfect equation, and has begun to realize his vision: “You start to get into the level where you can… make it really fantastic and still sell it to the consumer at a price that is equal to or better than the dollars you’re currently paying for at retail. With an American made story as almost an ancillary benefit.” And there’s the other part of Winthrop’s equation: Made in America. There isn’t even one brick and mortar American Giant store, which sets it apart from other Made in America brands. All sales are done online via the company’s handsome website. It costs more to manufacture clothing in the United States that it does in, say, China where my shirt was made, but being homegrown is integral to American Giant – not simply because it’s patriotic to “buy American,” but because consumer attitude has shifted interest toward totally American businesses. “I think that there is a growing consciousness about understanding where stuff is made, kind of directing your dollars towards home,” Winthrop explains.
This national sentiment is apparent, he says, in a couple emerging national trends he has observed over the past several years. The first trend is that, according to Winthrop, redirecting business to America rather than abroad has, after a few decades of out of control über-consumption of lesser-quality, cheaply-made products, become part of the national focus. “I think the administration’s behind it and we’re at the beginning of a long term trend towards a heightened awareness of American made stuff,” he explains. The second trend has more to do with individual shoppers than it does the country as a whole. “As consumers increasingly were comfortable shopping online and kind of interacting with brands online the perceptions of value were changing. Consumers wanted more for their money. They wanted better products, they wanted better value, they wanted better service, they wanted free shipping both ways, they wanted unconditional returns, and those two things were happening: a sort of a movement towards American made and this recalibration of what you’re expecting when you spend your money.”
And so American Giant is Bayard Winthrop’s bold answer to those trends, focusing first on all manner of men’s basics, which he refers to as “things that make up the bulk of our wardrobe.” The company introduced their signature, basic sweatshirt in February, and every six weeks a different model has followed: hooded sweatshirts, crew neck t-shirts, and now v-neck t-shirts are available. After another six weeks there will be an additional option, and so on. Every purchase ships for free (both ways – the return label is included inside the box with the garments, if for some crazy reason you need to return yours), and inside my package was a handwritten note by an employee wishing me well, and a signed note from Bayard himself topped off the whole deal. The shirts are individually packed and it’s all wrapped in a ribbon sealed with an American flag sticker. Which brings me to the best part of this whole story (you have my sincere apologies for the cliché): The look and the feel of these shirts is unlike anything I’ve worn to date.
True story: I was wearing my cherry red (simply ‘red’ on the website) American Giant classic sweatshirt one night last week, and my hyper-critical, style-conscious friends talked about it for five minutes, eventually declaring that I looked like a model. I am not a model. I do, however, love to wear that sweatshirt – the high neck and bolstered side panels defy everything I’ve ever known about a sweatshirt. I’ve continued my sartorial success with the brown hooded sweatshirt I’ve been wearing almost nonstop. It’s somehow heavy without weighing me down, and warm without being uncomfortable. The fit isn’t what I’d call snug, but it hugs my torso in exactly the way I need it to; it’s the perfect length, with deep, protective pockets right where my fists and my phone want them to be. The hood deserves separate recognition: I don’t like wearing hoods, because they usually either flop all the way over my forehead, rendering me very creepy looking, or don’t cup my scalp properly enough to stay in place. This one looks like dynamite and feels even better. It’s like whoever is sewing these together is using a Nick mannequin as a model (now there’s an idea…). Perhaps my favorite details are the metal ends of the hood-cinch pulls. They’re heavy and metallic. Moreover, my American Giant orange crew neck T-shirt fits just as well as the sweatshirts – the right shape with the right length sleeves and the right fit. Even the pocket placement seems to have been precision engineered to please.
There’s something else to these shirts than just outstanding fit and feel. When I chatted with Winthrop I brought up something that’s very important to me, and that I sensed in great measure in his purpose. I asked about heritage. I believe a man should respect his heritage and be sensitive to its erosion. That’s not to say I think we should all take a journey back to the Great Depression, or eschew the Internet and self check-ins at the airport; rather, I mean it’s important to uphold and maintain a certain degree of the foundation that made our lives today possible. I brought up heritage, and he talked of the shirts our dads wore – he still has his dad’s sweatshirt in his closet today – and talked about our collective “desire to return to quality.” You get “basics that are really well made, last a really long time, fit correctly, made with great fabrics at pricing the average consumer can digest,” says Bayard Winthrop, summing up his vision. “So that’s what we’re doing.”
The heritage in these shirts is strikingly apparent. I have a kind of Marty McFly moment every time I put any of them on, like I’m feeling something from the past that has been (will be?) realized some time in the future, but instead it’s happening right now. For the moment, I’m content with my three different American Giant options (more on the way, I’ve decided). For now, that’s enough to give the eight-dollar shirt a break to make sure it lasts as long as it should. Maybe these shirts of mine will be around long enough to see a retail renaissance, ushered in by American Giant and other companies who do away with costly middlemen. Maybe that will happen – I personally think it would make for a very compelling future. But what I do know is that, despite what Bayard Winthrop projects might happen decades from now, my kids are going to have one hell of a time getting their hands on my sweatshirts.
Change the way you and the men in your life feel about clothing at http://www.American-Giant.com.