Bayard Winthrop, the founder of American Giant, is building out his apparel company at a snail’s pace compared to the quickening speed of fast fashion retail. That’s intentional.
“Our product offering is still incredibly narrow,” said Winthrop. “We have to be constrained as we look to get into new products, because we can’t mechanically broaden our line while maintaining our quality standards.”
American Giant, which makes all of its clothing in the U.S., started out with a single men’s hoodie in 2012 and now offers T-shirts, tank tops, sweatpants and women’s apparel, including a newly launched line of leggings. According to Winthrop, getting the leggings onto the brand’s direct-to-consumer e-commerce site was an 18-month process.
He sees American Giant as the modern made-in-America brand that speaks to customers who are now paying more attention to product quality and brand values. Winthrop joined us on the Glossy Podcast to discuss retail competition, the value of the in-store experience and the difficulties of scaling an American-made brand.
Edited highlights, below.
How that first hoodie came to be
American Giant first tackled the men’s zip-up sweatshirt because Winthrop saw it as the piece of clothing that was “iconically American,” second only to blue jeans. In 2010, what he was finding in the market was a selection of poorly fitted sweatshirts made with low-quality fabric. It inspired him to try his hand at his own sweatshirt, which would be made in America. A few months after launch, reporter Farhad Manjoo got his hands on the sweatshirt and wrote a Slate article, calling it “the greatest hoodie ever made.” That stoked some confidence.
“It felt like we timed it well,” said Winthrop. “Customers were paying more attention to things like quality, and people were responding to it. That gave me the confidence to keep going.”
Made in America, at scale
Scaling a made-in-America brand is an exercise in constraint, but Winthrop, in some ways, sees that as an advantage. Many retailers, both young and old, have shot themselves in the foot by expanding product assortment and inventory too quickly, he said. American Giant customers have to be OK with waiting longer for items to come back in stock and for new items to hit the site.
“A made-in-America supply chain is a mechanism of quality control,” said Winthrop. “It’s very hard to grow a supply chain rapidly while maintaining quality control. Our theory as a brand is that it’s all about product, and if we start putting out product that doesn’t maintain the highest standards of quality, we’re done.”
A case for brick-and-mortar
Winthrop sees vast networks of physical retail stores as a major handicap for traditional retailers trying to adjust to new consumer behavior. Filling a fleet of 400 stores with inventory inevitably launches a cycle of clearance sales. But that doesn’t mean there’s no need for new retailers to have a physical retail presence.
“We all have to appreciate the benefit of walking into a store and trying something on. Retail won’t go away, but the scale of it, and how you approach it, will change,” he said. “[Physical retail] will play some role. But that looks like five to 15 stores, not 200.”
Why American Giant isn’t afraid of Amazon
Winthrop doesn’t think American Giant’s customers overlap much with Amazon’s. He breaks down the modern retail industry into three groups: those that deliver on affordable fashion, like Zara and H&M; those that compete on price and operation, like Amazon and Target; and those that offer an intersection of great product and clear values, like Patagonia. He hopes American Giant falls into that category, too.
“That’s why I’m not worried about Amazon,” he said. “We have an American-made story and a set of brand values that aren’t available on Amazon today.”