American Giant is not yet a household apparel name like Levi’s or Gap, but CEO Bayard Winthrop has outsize ideas about its future. He doesn’t just want to sell hoodies, T-shirts, and polos; he wants to prove that American manufacturing can be profitable again, reversing a devastating economic trend. No U.S. manufacturing industry has suffered more from outsourcing than textiles and apparel: The domestic workforce has shrunk by roughly three-quarters since the 1990s. And yet Winthrop is crafting an American-made resurgence, one that draws its power from both a heritage appeal and the Internet. And Slate spoke for many fans when it called American Giant’s primary product “the greatest hoodie ever made.”
American Giant is an e-commerce phenomenon: Its clothes, almost entirely sourced and produced in North and South Carolina and sold only via the web, are comfortable, flattering, durable, and popular with a fanatical fan base. American Giant declines to release sales figures, but Winthrop says its business has tripled each year since its launch in 2012. The company’s products routinely sell out and can be back-ordered for weeks.
“The dirty secret of the apparel industry is that shirt that you bought at Nordstrom for $80 gets made for six or seven bucks,” says Winthrop. “The rest of the margin is chewed up by a whole bunch of shit that I would argue the customer cares less and less about.” That’s stuff like major marketing campaigns and hip storefronts, neither of which American Giant is interested in. Though finely made, its most expensive hoodie costs $89, a middle-market price. (A Gap hoodie costs $50, and one from fashion designer John Varvatos goes up to $398.) The company estimates that it costs about $38 to manufacture, and could be made around $7 cheaper in Asia. But although American labor is still more expensive, tariffs and rising costs in India and China have made domestic manufacturing more competitive, a trend that has allowed the American textile industry to rebound modestly. American Giant isn’t the only manufacturer that has noticed; one Chinese yarn maker is now opening a plant in South Carolina.
[Photo: McNair Evans]