Bayard Winthrop, founder of apparel brand American Giant, sometimes grows nostalgic when he thinks about his father’s blue jeans.
Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, he remembers how his dad owned just a few pairs of denim pants. To Winthrop, they represented an iconic American artifact, a trouser hardy enough to survive life on the frontier. Back then, the jeans–made by brands like Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler–were also largely manufactured in the United States as well.
By the time Winthrop was himself a father, most brands were no longer making their jeans in the country. In the 1990s, when free trade agreements set in, much of the U.S.’s apparel manufacturing industry was shipped overseas, where labor was cheaper. Winthrop was familiar with this reality: He spent the early part of his career working for sporting goods companies, where he frequently went to Shenzhen, China, to see how snowshoes and ski jackets were made.
In 2011, Winthrop struck out on his own to launch American Giant. His goal was to create a company that made durable, long-lasting products that stood in stark contrast to the cheap products that were being pumped out by the fast fashion industry, epitomized by brands like H&M, Zara, and Forever21. Winthrop wanted customers to have better alternatives for their casual everyday clothes, like T-shirts, hoodies, and pants. At the heart of his dream was a desire to make a great pair of American-made jeans, like the kind he recalled from his childhood.
It took the better part of a decade to realize his dream of making jeans in the United States, which involved finding an American mill that would create the right fabric blend and designing jeans that were flattering, long-lasting, and comfortable. The fruits of their labor began to arrive late last year, when the men’s $138 version launched, and they’re now being followed by the women’s $148 version, which recently hit the company’s website. They’re made of cotton that is grown and milled in the North Carolina and Georgia, respectively, then cut and sewn in the Los Angeles garment district.
The long, winding road toward finishing the jeans illuminates how difficult it can be to design and manufacture durable clothes in an industry that has been largely driven by the enormous fast-fashion conglomerates for the last two decades.
“This wasn’t really an act of patriotism”
When he launched his startup, Winthrop’s goal was to create sturdy, carefully designed pieces of clothing that would withstand years of wear and tear. He brought on a creative director, Philipe Manoux, who had previously worked at Apple to help build a design team, and a design process, that involved the level of prototyping and iterating more common in technology than in clothing design. (Manoux has since left the company.) Winthrop made a decision early on to make the products in the United States, which would come with challenges, since there were very few apparel manufacturing factories left stateside.
“This wasn’t really an act of patriotism,” Winthrop says. “I care about American workers, but workers in China also have families. This was more about being able to have the supply chain close by, so I could make sure we were never cutting corners with quality.”
The last few years have involved locating production facilities that had the expertise to make the brand’s product line. American Giant now works with seven facilities throughout the United States, in cities like Oakland, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. American Giant now owns three of these factories, including one in Middlesex, North Carolina, which now employs between 150 to 250 sewers at any given time.
But right from the start, it became clear that blue jeans are difficult to get right. The design team purchased dozens of different jeans currently available on the market, and tore them apart to inspect their components. You had to consider the thickness of the fabric, the amount of stretch, the cut, and the placement of pockets.
“To be frank, you need the butt to look good,” he says. “That takes a lot of careful design.”
Winthrop decided to shelve the denim project to focus on products that would be easier to nail, like T-shirts, jackets, and button-downs. American Giant became famous for its hoodie, which has been described as “the greatest hoodie ever made” by tech writer Farhad Manjoo.
But by 2016, Winthrop was ready put blue jeans back on the agenda.
Building the perfect blue jean
Winthrop wanted to design jeans that were classic and not too trendy–so they could be worn for a long time–but he also wanted them to fit well and flatter the body.
American Giant created its own custom denim by working with Mount Vernon Mills, a company with 13 production facilities throughout the south. Partnering with its specialized denim plants based in the tiny Georgia towns of Trion and Alto, Winthrop created two separate materials, one for the men’s jeans and the other for women’s. Both blend cotton with polyester and spandex, but the women’s jeans also include some tencel, a sustainable fabric made from wood that makes the jeans a little softer and more malleable, for a closer fit. (This also means the women’s jeans are $10 more than the men’s.)
The company has them cut and sewn in the booming garment district in Los Angeles, where nearly 80,000 workers are hired in the apparel industry.
Over the last few years, more apparel brands have chosen to make their products in L.A. There are many reasons for this shift, including that it allows brands to place smaller orders than at most overseas factories, allowing them to better respond to customer demand. It also enables them to keep a closer eye on quality, and turn around new designs faster.
But the fast growth of this sector has also come with problems. An expose in the Los Angeles Times revealed that fast fashion brands like Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, and TJ Maxx were relying on factories that paid workers $6 an hour, well under the minimum wage. Workers also complained of poor working conditions and impossible targets that often involved making 700 shirts a day. In other words, making products in the United States doesn’t always guarantee that workers are treated well, and that the quality of the manufacturing remains high.
Winthrop is not under any illusion that U.S. factories are a kind of utopia for workers. In his experience, there is a lot of variation in the quality of factories not just in the United States, but also in China. “I visited many factories in Shenzhen where workers were treated well, and the quality of the production was very good,” he says.
The benefit, then, of working with U.S. factories, is simply that it is easier to visit them, and keep a close eye on both the treatment of workers and how carefully the products are made. Winthrop says he spends a lot of his time traversing the country to see what is happening on the ground in American Giant’s partner factories. And ultimately, he points out that the quality of the final product is often directly tied to worker happiness and safety. At factories that American Giant owns, the company offers above-market wages and benefit packages, and offer opportunities to grow their skill sets through training programs, if they’re interested.
Before sending the jeans into production, American Giant’s design team found dozens of testers around the country, in keeping with the company’s product development process. Over the years, the team has put together a list of these testers: Some are loyal customers, others are friends of the people who work at the company. They receive early prototypes made in different cuts, or from different materials. Wearers provide minute feedback. For instance, early versions of the men’s jeans were slightly wider than the final pair, giving them a baggier fit. But in the end, American Giant’s base seemed to want jeans that were rugged, but also well-fitting; roomy, but also flattering.
The jeans are the culmination of Winthrop’s work over the last decade, but he’s now setting his sights on making other classic, durable American garments, like yarn-dyed flannel, which hasn’t been made in the United States in 40 years, and belts sourced from local leather.
“I really believe the days of fast fashion are numbered,” Winthrop says. “Our business proves that there are lots of people who don’t want to fill their closets with disposable garbage, but want clothes that will last years, decades even. They’re just searching for garments that will actually last that long. “