One morning in November, I met Philipe Manoux, American Giant’s creative director, at SFO Apparel, the manufacturing facility just south of San Francisco where the company makes its clothes. As we toured the facility—a giant warehouse with dozens of middle-aged women hunched over sewing machines, each of them assembling a different piece of a garment—Manoux explained how he’d created American Giant’s hoodie. He had come to the apparel world from a career in industrial design; in addition to Apple, where he worked on the coverglass and touch module for the first iPhone, Manoux spent many years in the medical device industry. When he started at American Giant, he approached sweatshirts as he would a tech product: He obsessively experimented with perfecting every part, then created dozens of prototypes until he’d arrived at an ideal version.
The result is a sweatshirt with several design elements you won’t find on the competition. The most obvious difference is that American Giant’s hoodie is fitted—it sits close around your chest, then gently tapers in around your stomach, resulting in a garment that doesn’t look slouchy. At great expense—and after lots of experimentation—Manoux added a “side-panel” to the hoodie, a strip of stretchy fabric that joins the back of the hoodie to the front. The side panel gives the hoodie “mobility,” Manoux explained—it allows you to raise your arm all the way up without feeling the whole coat ride up on you. It also insures the hoodie against future expansion: As your stomach grows larger, the stretchy fabric will grow along with it.
There are many other such tiny, thoughtful details. For the cuffs, Manoux chose a fabric with some spandex, which will prevent the sleeves from getting stretched out over time. (While the ribbing is 5 percent spandex, the body fabric is entirely cotton.) He also used heavy-gauge thread for all the seams, creating connections that won’t fray. (The company tested the seams’ “burst strength.”) The hood’s drawstrings and the backing along the zipper are also all dyed to match the color of your hoodie. (Cheaper hoodies use contrasting white strings and zipper-backs with every hoodie color.) Most people won’t notice these details, but they add up to a remarkable garment. Before I wore American Giant’s hoodie, I couldn’t ever picture a hoodie looking unslouchy. This one makes it look like you spent a minute considering your wardrobe before you rushed out the door.
For a lot of people, this all might sound like overkill—a beautiful hoodie might strike you as oxymoronic and superfluous, and you’d just as well spend your money on high fashion rather than a slacker uniform. But even if you aren’t a fan of sweatshirts, American Giant’s business model is worth watching. Like American Apparel, the company has staked its brand reputation on making its clothes in this country. But American Giant’s rationale isn’t merely a patriotic one. Winthrop argues that by making clothes in America, he can keep a much closer eye on the quality of his garments, and he can make changes to his line with much more flexibility. An Asian manufacturer wouldn’t have been able to do all of the custom, intricate work that American Giant’s clothes required. On some of the hoodie’s seams, for instance, sewers have to run three different pieces of fabric under the machine, a move that required close collaboration between Manoux and SFO Apparel to perfect.
The upshot of this model is not only a revival of American manufacturing—you also get better garments at competitive prices. Winthrop wouldn’t tell me the exact cost structure for each of his sweatshirts, but he did give me ballpark numbers. A basic American Giant sweatshirt costs the factory $12 or more to make—about double what it would cost a foreign factory to make a much lower-quality garment. American Giant pays the factory about $25 to $30 each, and then it sells it to you for $60 and up. Compare this to a model under which you’d buy standard sweatshirt at the mall—say, this $58 Levi’s crewneck. The department store likely buys that shirt from Levi’s for about $30. Levi’s, in turn, pays the factory about $12 to $15 for it, and the factory likely makes it for $6. So you’re paying 10 times what the shirt costs to make, and Levi’s is earning $18 per garment. With American Giant, you’re paying five times what the shirt costs, and American Giant is earning $35. Since there’s no retail middleman, everyone does better under the American Giant model—the clothing company, the factory workers, and you.