American Giant, American Made

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Special guest Bayard Winthrop, Founder and CEO of American Giant has spent the last 13 years on a mission to change the world with American made high-quality sportswear and strengthening small-town manufacturing communities.

Bayard inspired Steven Kurutz’s book American Flannel as a passionate entrepreneur facing the challenges of American-made production. Join Shelley and Bayard as they talk about his epic start-up journey and the new partnership between American giant and Walmart with the just-released line of American Made T-shirts.

How do you change the conversation about the future of domestic apparel production?  Listen and find out.

Special Guest

Bayard Winthrop: Founder and CEO of American Giant

*Transcript By Descript

 So that if you want to change something or you want to say something differently, we can always backtrack and it does get edited. So you can just be as comfortable as you want. And, uh, we’ll have a great time. Sounds good.  Great.  Hi everybody. Thanks for joining our weekly podcast. I’m Shelley Kohan, and I’m very excited to welcome  Bayard Winthrop, the founder and CEO of American Giant.

And I am so thrilled to have you on Retail Unwrapped Podcast. I met you three years ago. I was doing a story for Forbes. com and I have literally fallen in love with American Giant. It is truly, I’m not just saying this. It’s the best hoodie I ever owned, but now of course I own several hoodies, a sweatshirt, a dress.

I just ordered some pants and on and on and on. So it’s also excited, exciting because I just read your book. American flannel that was written about you and your company. And that was written by Steven Kurtz. So we can talk about that as well as some really super exciting news that you will share kind of towards the end of our podcast.

So let’s jump right in and welcome Bayard. Shelley, thank you for having me and for the kind words. It means a lot to hear feedback like that around the product that we make. And I’m sure, you know, when you pour your love into something like that and you hear it reflected back, it’s really a great thing to hear.

So thank you for supporting the brand.  Absolutely. So when I, when I learned about the brand, I just, I got hooked on it. So I think it would be great if you could tell our listeners, why did you start American giant? And maybe you can tell us a little bit about your own personal background, like where you came from.

Yeah. So I grew up  on the East coast. I grew up in Connecticut and. Uh, my folks split when I was pretty young. They got divorced when I was six or seven years old. And, um, I moved a bunch as a, as a kid. And, and my mom was not the most financially stable person in the world. And so I think somewhere in there, I got it in my brain that I wanted to get into a financially stable career and growing up in Southern Connecticut for me, that looked like investment banking.

And I, uh, though I was a terrible student, I set my sights on a summer internship, which I got, and then worked a series of summers and  Convinced a pretty well regarded investment bank to let me into their investment banking program. And after three or four years of work, I got there and almost immediately realized it was the wrong thing for me and realized I was surrounded by a bunch of people that were a lot smarter than I was and a lot more passionate about banking than I was.

And so I finished up my time there and, um, left for the West coast. This was in the early nineties. And, uh, it was very much an entrepreneurial place back then, more so than today, I think. And I had this vague notion that I wanted to make products and I wanted to build brands and be a part of that whole side of the world that I really had only looked at from the outside as a kid and in my banking days.

And through a bunch of sort of lucky events, I got started in a company called Atlas snowshoe. Um, that was a really cool little company that came out of Stanford and, um, um, was little fast growing company that I got to see all aspects of and be a part of that growth and contribute in some way to its success.

And that just really lit a fire in me.  And so I did that and kept running businesses in consumer product space for the next, whatever it’s been 25 years now. And, and during that time, I think two things. Began to repeat it, repeat themselves. Well, as we, as businesses that I was running grew, I sort of inevitably followed the playbook of offshoring and I’d get a business started, a product started domestically.

And then after a year or two, I’d move it overseas almost always to China.  Now, and I was struck by two things that I found it increasingly difficult to shake. I think the first thing was this growing disconnection from the product that I made. And that was just a, not a great feeling. I think I’d started going down this career path in large part because I love the act of making things.

And when you let go of that and you send it time zones away, there’s a, for me, there was a real sense of loss and disconnection from the product. And I felt that I was a less, a less good steward of the product that I was selling and that some of the soul of what I was doing had left, I think in doing that, but I think more importantly was the human piece of that and, and watching these relationships, people that had helped me get my businesses going.

It stood by me. Um, I had been deeply involved in the creation of the things that I was selling. Um, I was sort of picking up and leaving over 25 cents a part or 15 cents a part. And that wore on me over time. And that was all happening, uh, at the same time that  I was sort of increasingly observing what I felt were some of the root challenges that the country was facing more broadly, that, um, I felt like we were splitting apart too much, um, that we didn’t have as much common dialogue, even if we just disagreed about things, could come together and talk through things, that we were getting disconnected from, uh, working people in the country, particularly from where I am in San Francisco, where I felt there was this real disconnection from the men and women that make the things that we use and love in this country.

Um, and that that had really bad implications for what the future of the country looks like. And I just, I had enough of it. And so about 13 years ago, I began to formulate the idea for American Giant, which at its essence was to say, I wanted to make flows here and make them really, really good and stay committed to that.

And so I kind of naively just started the business and started with a single, a single product. It was a men’s sweatshirt.  And, uh, started to ship that in 2012  and then we got super lucky and the press began to pick up on that story. And we had one reporter call it the greatest hoodie ever made. And that kind of changed everything for us and, um, got us a lot bigger than we were two days prior to that article getting written.

And it put us on a trajectory that, um, is part of how we got here today. And now the business is a lot different. It’s men’s and women’s and tops and bottoms and knits and wovens. But the core essence of the company is still the same.  Wow, that’s great. And I know you’ve always said, you know, we make our products in the USA because we want to keep things close, which means better control, better supply chain, and in turn, better quality service.

And you also talk about the footprint. So can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by footprint?  Yeah, maybe I’ll answer a little more broadly. The irony in my judgment is that we sort of got, we’ve got ourselves in a bit of a tangle as a country, I think, and that we,  we have worked very hard as Americans to put in place a bunch of values and laws that we think are universal and are important.

Those are environmental laws. They’re human rights laws. They’re worker safety laws, all these things that matter a ton to all of us. Um, and we hold our domestic factories to those very high standards and appropriately. So you have to pay minimum wage, living wages. You have to provide safe working conditions.

You can’t employ children. Um, you have to respect individual rights, all these things that we think are pretty fundamental. And at the same time, we let our biggest brands. The brands that we know that are in our kitchens and in our closets skirt those regulations and pursue the cheapest means of production.

And so that, that balance, that imbalance between on the one hand really penalizing,  uh, people that make things in this country by holding them to these standards. At the same time, letting our big brands get richer by offshoring and chasing cheap production. is a real problem that needs to get reconciled.

The environmental impact is a piece of that. I mean, there’s a, there’s a great irony for businesses that call themselves environmental, but that are making things in countries that don’t respect environmental laws anywhere nearly as much as the United States does. And then move that product all over the globe, um, to kind of optimize for cost, you know, as I’m sure many of your listeners know.

The big tanker ships, freighter ships, the ones that run, uh, transatlantic, transpacific, they burn the dirtiest of fuels. That kind of came to light in the Baltimore situation. Um, and so there’s terrible for the environment. And yet, um,  that conversation in my judgment anyway, isn’t enough in the public discourse about the benefits of just staying close, just staying close by where you make things.

So it’s sort of like the analogy I make is  Uh, it’s not clear to me that if I go into Whole Foods and buy organic blueberries from New Zealand that I’m doing something good for the environment, that if those blueberries have to get on an airplane to fly from New Zealand to get to my, my Whole Foods in Illinois, that that’s better than just buying blueberries from a farmer down the road.

So I think that’s the question about, about footprints is that trying to keep things close. Uh, trying to keep them compliant with basic American environmental standards, which are some of the most rigorous in the world, um, trying to buy American cotton, which is held to similarly very, very high standards.

So it’s just a combination of those things to try to be as good a steward of the things that you make as possible.  No, that’s excellent. I like your analogy to it. I think a lot of consumers are really starting to see that and think about, you know, the blueberry travel story that yeah,  for sure. Right. Um, let’s talk a little bit about American flannel.

First of all, I love the book. I love how it was written, uh, and just the storytelling in it. So in the beginning in the book, you talk a little bit about the 2%, and I really appreciated your reference to another great American brand, Carhartt, of course, which I believe they started their brand back in 1889.

So tell us about the 2%.  Well, yeah, just to be clear, the book that you’re referencing, it’s called American Flannel, was written by somebody named Stephen Kuritz, who is a, he’s on the fashion desk at the New York Times. And so I can’t, I can take no credit for the book other than being the, being one of the subjects he focuses on.

But  I agree, he did a remarkable job telling that story. And I think he, he does speak about this point that, you know, And we can talk about this with clothing, but, but you could broaden it really to a lot of other industries that in the early to mid eighties, uh,  about depending on who you listen to about 95 percent 98 percent  of the clothing that Americans wear.

bought in war was made in America. Today that number is almost entirely flipped. Now it’s about five, two to 5 percent is made in America. That, that is the result basically of, of trade and economic policies that began to get implemented through the eighties and the nineties, um, that optimized, uh, essentially, I’ll try to make this as, as sort of non wonky as possible, but A bunch of well intentioned people.

This was both left and the right. It was a bipartisan approach was the belief was that, uh, you should put consumption at the center of our trade and economic policy. And if you optimize for consumption, what ends up happening is hopefully you get lots and lots of choice. And you go to the store and you’re buying a flat screen TV, you get lots of choices and they get progressively cheaper.

Uh, that has happened. That, that is a, that was the correct result of that policy. And the other hope was that by doing that, you would. Bring China on other countries like China into the first world order, and they would become  better world partners and partners. The United States is less problematic on the world stage on that placement of consumption in the middle of our policy was in contrast to placing reduction at the center of your policy, much like many other countries do. China is a good example of a country that puts production at the center of their policy. Uh, the European Union similarly emphasizes production more than we do. Japan and Korea similarly put production, they prioritize production much more, the, the making of things.

Unfortunately, what happened was  Things got cheaper, much cheaper. I think it’s contributed a large part towards our consumption society and our disposal society and the rise of Amazon. And this, I think the sense that we all have now that you buy a bunch of stuff and half of it falls apart after a week or a month and it ends up in the, in the, in the landfill.

But but it also unfortunately had the exact opposite of the intended consequence of China. And I think as we look at China today, China is no question is a vastly more powerful and much more intractable foe on the world stage than they were 30 or 40 years ago. And so I think that that foreign policy initiative is a complete failure.

Um, I think DC is waking up to that reality and begin to try to turn things around. But and hopefully go back to a policy that puts production more at the center of things. And when you do that, good things happen. You have you create good jobs, good middle class jobs. And we all know that middle class wages essentially been stagnant for 40 years.

You put good jobs back at the center of your policy. Good jobs hold up good communities. They lead to it. Uh, in my judgment anyway, better family units, better school boards, better parks conditions.  So I think that that was an essential mistake in my judgment that there was this incredible emphasis on consumption that has been for 40 years and the textile industry got swept away as part of that.

And so, you know, it’s easy to forget. But when I was a kid, America was the worldwide envy of the maker of blue jeans and flannel shirts and t shirts. You came here to get the best quality and the best value in the world. Um, I believe that’s a possibility still, but we’ve lost that over the intervening 40 years on the back of bad policy in my judgment.

Unbelievable. Wow. That is, uh, you’ve made so many good points with that. Um, I’d love to dive into the whole book cause I think the whole book is really good. Um, but let’s talk about some of the highlights cause I really want to get to the exciting news, uh, that you just announced, which is very exciting, but, um, a turning point for you is in a chapter called, uh, Bired and Goliath.

So can you kind of summarize for our listeners, you know, what was that time for you? Well, you know, so just to be clear, the, the book  really, I’ll just rewind really quickly, about four or five years ago, I got it in my head that I wanted to make a yarn dyed American made flannel shirt. That was a shirt that I grew up with.

Uh, that’s what all the Woolridge and LL Bean, all the great flannel shirts that really, you know, if you dig deep enough into your closet and home, you probably find one that your grandfather and grandmother had. Uh, they’re beautiful. They’re, they’re beautiful things. They last forever. They’re very soft.

They’ve got this beautiful. patina to them. The color richness is amazing. We’d lost the ability to make yarn dyed flannel in the U. S. anymore and I wanted to do that. I felt it was one of the kind of icons of American style. Um, I knew it was gonna be hard. I didn’t quite appreciate how hard it was gonna be.

But before I started that journey, I reached out to Stephen, who is right at the New York Times, and said, Do you want to come along for the journey and see this process? And he To his great credit said, yeah, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll try. I’ll at least come on for a little bit. And I think he got kind of hooked. He came on a series of trips with me through the supply chain.

Um, that process, we brought a flannel to market at the end of it, which was an unbelievably difficult, but rewarding task.  Um, and he wrote an article called the annals of flannel in the New York times. And it charted in, I don’t know, 5, 000 words, that journey. And he got a whole bunch of book offers for that, uh, off the back of that article.

And he, he turned that into American flannel, the book, which, which in more depth charts it. And so if I remember correctly, the, the buyer versus Goliath point is, is just taking on, I think the, the challenge of the task and, and the reality that so many of, of not so many, virtually all of the brands are no longer trying to make things in the United States.

And so getting that capability turning and going.  That’s been true for the last 13 years for us. But it was particularly true with flannel. It’s very difficult to get that going. The good news is that if you commit to that and you dive into doing it, what you find is that the men and women across this country, Shelley, are just incredible.

They’re incredibly resilient. They’re capable. There’s this competitive spirit that is very much alive and well. And if you give a bit of a jolt, To those facilities, those people, the what comes out of that is pretty unbelievable and that has been true with the flannel project as well. So, um, that might be a little dramatic fired versus Goliath, but he gets to the essence of the point, which is, which is, there’s a lot of truth to it.

I think there was a lot of truth to it. I mean, I think, you know, your whole ethos and what you’re all about is your kind are that you’re the, the small company that’s really trying to make a big difference in a, in United States and us manufacturing. So I think it’s appropriately titled. Um, another part of the book that was really interesting is the chapter called resilience.

And I know that was a pivotal moment for you and the brand at that time, your leadership is what brought you through that difficult time. So can you tell us a little bit about that?  Are you speaking about making medical masks? Is that, is that what you mean? Coming right around the pandemic. Yeah.  So, you know, one of the, one of the ironies about, about as we have de industrialized as a country over the last 40 years, uh, there’s things that maybe in the big scheme of things don’t matter that much, like textiles.

Like, can you make t shirts domestically? You know, I obviously, I’m very passionate about that, but maybe that doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things, but, but we’ve lost the ability to make them. warships. We’ve lost the ability to make industrial cranes. We’ve lost the ability to make, uh,  personal protective equipment when things like the pandemic happened, uh, penicillin, all these fundamental things that we take for granted now are wrapped up in a global supply chain where the means of production oftentimes are not with us.

And that’s, that’s a legitimate national security issue. It’s something that the, The joint chiefs of the Pentagon think an awful lot about, about the control. If you own the means of production, what that says over what you can do to your enemies in the world stage, that came into very sharp focus during the pandemic, unfortunately,  it’s hard to remember now, but in the early days of the pandemic, New York city was getting absolutely battered by, uh, by COVID.

Um, doctors and nurses, EMTs, um, first responders, um, were wearing bandanas over their faces. They couldn’t get masks.  And, uh, we, uh, got, uh, pulled into, um, an effort that was initiated by the White House, um, and led by, uh, Anderson Warlick, who runs Parkdale Mills, and one of the largest yarn producers in the United States, the largest yarn producer in the United States, and Anderson’s a, a patriot, a great human, and been an important mentor of ours.

Um, got together a group of people. We were one of seven, I think, including Haynes and through the loom, um, to come together and in very short order start to make medical masks.  And it was, uh, you know, I’ll tell you, it was, uh, an honor to be a part of that. It was an incredible thing to see a bunch of people go to the face of it might be competitive coming together and common cause to help the country.

I would do it again in a heartbeat, but but there was also a part of it that did not sit so well with me that that it really felt unacceptable to me that I’m a T shirt manufacturer.  I don’t make medical equipment.  We should not be in a situation where I had to shut down and retool my facility to start making masks.

Um, and though I’m happy to do it, I hope it sheds a larger light among our policymakers about the need. To take a hard look about our industrial base and to make sure that we’re making decisions that keep it vital and active, not just for the, for the human side of that and what it does for the people that live in small towns or urban centers, but also what it says for our country’s capability and our wellbeing nationally, that we have the ability to still make things here.

Thank you so much for, uh, explaining that. That’s really interesting.  So today marks a great day for American giant. I think, uh, you know, when I look at kind of where you’ve been and where you’re going, I think it’s a pivotal moment for you. You just had a big announcement and that is that you’re partnering with the world’s largest retailer, Walmart.

You’re doing a collaboration to sell American made t shirts and provide access to millions of Americans. In 1700 walmart locations. So, um, what a great, great collaboration. So tell us a little bit about that and why this partnership is so important to you. Yeah, well, I appreciate you talking about it.

Shelley. It’s uh, so,  uh, over the last 13 years have been. really gratifying. Um, but one of the things that has been a reality for us is that our product mix has, has, uh, been in the premium end of the market. And so our t shirts range from 35 to 55 retail.  Um, and we have been, and I, it’s always sat on these leave of me that we don’t have the ability to bring high quality American made products to all Americans.

And the reason why you can’t do that is that to sort of keep coming back to the same story is that as the underlying capability manufacturing capability has deteriorated over the last 30 or 40 years, the supply chain itself has become pretty atomized. It’s, it’s fragmented. It’s almost entirely, uh, first or second generation family owned businesses.

Those businesses typically don’t have very robust balance sheets.  And so their ability to stay competitive, to invest in automation, to invest in their people and retraining and manufacturing engineering is limited by the fact that, uh, the market today no longer has big retailers, big brands saying I’m here.

I’m going to buy a million pairs of jeans from you next year. I’m going to buy 2 million t shirts. I’m going to buy a million flannel shirts. I’m If that business was there, well, the domestic textile industry would be investing and staying competitive and investing in automation and scale and training all those things that are vitally important to keep your manufacturing base competitive.

So there’s, there’s been this chicken and egg scenario for those of us that care about us manufacturing, that we need, we need volume and we need a time commitment, significant volume and a significant time commitment.  So about a year and a half ago, I was on a podcast with Mike Rowe, who’s the, it was the guy that hosts that shit, dirty jobs.

Mike has been a very passionate defender of the trades and manufacturing jobs for most of his career.  And we were talking about that. And I was, I was making a point, uh, maybe a little bit more forcefully than I should have, that we all as Americans need to talk to each other more and we need to find common purpose with one another.

And, and we don’t need to be disagreeing on, uh, if you and I disagree on a single thing, it doesn’t mean that we have to disagree on everything. And Um, we have tons more in common with one another than we think and believe. And he sort of interrupted me and said, well, what do you, what do you talk about? I said, well, you know, look at Walmart, for example.

That’s a company that I’m sure there are many things that I disagree with, with Walmart. Um, and yet they have made a 350 billion commitment to buy American made products over the next decade. And that, in my judgment, particularly when looked at all the other retailers out there and all the other brands.

That as far as I can tell, we’re not doing anything in that regard. Uh, brands like Amazon that are actively lobbying against things that would help the domestic manufacturing base, that Walmart is standing in real contrast to that, and that is something that we ought to be celebrating. And I can hold maybe some disagreements with Walmart in one hand and this good in the other hand and be able to handle that at the same time.

Um, and, and I believe that passionately, Shelley, I really do. I think that, you know, it’s like,  you and I don’t agree on everything, but yet there are many, many, many things that we could find common cause with and purpose with and joy with one another about. And we have to start behaving that way as citizens of this country.

Stop acting like patriotism is the domain of the right or the left, that it’s something that we all together share and should be spending our time with. That rant on Mike’s podcast made it, made the rounds at Walmart apparently, and the person that’s running their Made in America Textiles Division reached out and said, would you come out to Bentonville and talk?

And of course I would do that. I would talk to anybody about U. S. manufacturing.  And so I did. And that conversation was a wide ranging conversation. There was a big group of people that was in that initial meeting, and a number of meetings followed. And what began to take shape was, what if we tried to do a line of American made products in Walmart doors?

And what would it take to do that?  And from our perspective, we have the knowledge and the know how and the quality. What we didn’t have was the volume and the time. And Walmart said, well, we can do that. We’re the biggest retailer in the world committed to this idea. What do you need?  And to their incredible credit, they were  really committed to this idea and leaning in and have been in all aspects of that company to make this collaboration a reality.

And so it is now in 1700 doors. As you mentioned, they made a long term commitment, a high volume commitment that has given the men and women are supply chain, the confidence and the space and the time to invest in the things that they need to be investing in to be competitive again at scale. And so I find it a deeply hopeful thing, and I hope it’s the first of many with Walmart.

I think that these t shirts are hopefully just the beginning.  Um, they retail for 12. 98 in Walmart doors, which is just a remarkable thing. That’s even not something that I believed was possible. Yeah, so it really is unbelievable, I think. And, um, and hopefully it’ll lead to a lot more. And I, I just think, uh, they deserve an awful lot of credit.

And. Um, for stepping up and really being different than anyone else in the marketplace that I’m aware of that is making a similar kind of commitment. So we’re thrilled to be part of it and looking for more. And, uh, it’ll be in Walmart doors and a walmart. com by July 4th. They’re great. T shirts are a hundred percent, uh, American made from the cotton grown in the ground all the way through.

And, uh, and we’re just, we’re thrilled about it. I love that. And I love how you, cause if originally when I was hearing about Walmart and American giant in my head, I’m like, wait a minute, you know, Walmart sources a significant amount of its product overseas. And it kind of goes against everything that you are advocating.

But I love how you said, you know, that, you know, coming to terms on something small, which can lead to something really big. So, well, and they do and newsflash, so does everybody else. And, and so I think they do source a lot of stuff overseas. I think. The difference is, is when you can put a t shirt of this quality in front of the consumer for 12.

98, what I hope it does is I hope it  acts as a clarion call in the halls of the other retailers, of the major brands, particularly those major brands that are making a meal off Americana. I think of brands like Old Navy that have a Fourth of July t shirt that Is made I believe now is made in Africa. Um, and yet they are marketing it as a, as a patriotic thing.

I hope they begin to find their moral compass and begin to ask the question. Why is it that they’re not at least in some way contributing to the overall good? Because I,  you know, I, I think. We all need to find purpose and commonality with others when we are trying to achieve an objective. And this is, you know, I think it is, it is a strange partnership in that way.

I sort of refer to us as odd bedfellows,  but I love that. I love that they’ve been committed and they’re joining forces with us to make something important happen. So we’re pretty thrilled. It advances our mission. More than I could have dreamed. So I’m pretty excited. It really does. I mean, not just the textiles, but also it paints a brighter future for those American factory towns as well.

And you talk a lot about that as well, right? It sure does. That’s right.  So anything else you’d like to add before we leave you? I’m just so thrilled that you were able to come on our podcast and talk to us. And well, you’re generous to have me on. And the only thing I would say in closing is  The American workforce, I think jobs matter in this country.

I believe I think people need a purpose. They need a place to get up and go to every day to make a living. We’ve spent, you know, 35 years underserving those communities, whether it’s a rural center, urban centers, or rural communities. We got to turn that around a bit. I would encourage your elected representatives to be mindful of that, to stop making short term trade deals that undermine our local communities.

We got to start investing back there and whether you support American Giant or not, I think, try to support those companies that are trying to do the right thing, um, and hold your elected representatives accountable and try to get them to begin to think longer term about what is right for the communities that we live in, the communities that are next door to us that need good work and need jobs they can be proud of and get up and go to work to every day.

So.  That’s all I would say.  Well, thank you for that. And that’s good advice for all of us. And I want to thank our listeners. Thank you so much for tuning in today. And if you have suggestions, ideas on future topics you’d like to hear about, please use our contact us on the robinreport. com website. Thanks so much.

Thanks, Shelley. You are awesome. Thank you so much. It was great talking to you.

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