Because a hooded sweatshirt, which according to the Orange Juice Blog’s sources is now to be referred to as a “hodie” — correction, “hoodie” (yes, all right, that does make more sense) — is, along with being a fashion (or an anti-fashion) statement and (the Orange Juice Blog imagines, kids being what they are) a cultural statement and often an advertisement for an educational institution, celebrity, or other brand, it may be easily overlooked that it is also and primarily an article of clothing.
(Yes, that was a run-on sentence, used to comic effect. Chill.) This hoodie, it keeps you warm, protects you from the environment, intervenes between your skin and the nettles and pebbles and drafts and irritating chemical substances of life.
This guy, this Farhad Manjoo of Slate (though I’ve crossed paths with him since his days back on Salon), whom I consider a fairly irritating technology reporter but who also seems to be right about things a good deal of the time (and I imagine that that’s just the sort of reaction he likes to get), wrote this piece today on hoodies and — and this is the only reason it warrants comment in this blog, of course — quality of goods and American manufacturing. It could well be considered an extended product ad — but if so, it’s a good one, and it’s one worth your reading.
The article is called “This Is the Greatest Hoodie Ever Made: How American Giant created the best sweatshirt known to man” — and, well, damn! It gives me hope. And at the end, being me, I’m going to get a little political about it. Enough with the stylistic affectation? OK then!
Manjoo starts off with this — and then you’re just going to have to read the rest by yourself.
Early in October, I got a call from Bayard Winthrop, an entrepreneur who claimed to have created the world’s best hooded sweatshirt. Because I found this claim amusing—who sets out to make the world’s best hoodie?—I agreed to chat with him about the sweatshirt and his company, a San Francisco-based apparel startup called American Giant.
I thought it would be a polite interview that would go nowhere, but I quickly found American Giant’s story irresistible. For one thing, Winthrop had figured out a way to do what most people in the apparel industry consider impossible: He’s making clothes entirely in the United States, and he’s doing so at costs that aren’t prohibitive. American Apparel does something similar, of course, but not especially profitably, and its clothes are very low quality. Winthrop, on the other hand, has found a way to make apparel that harks back to the industry’s heyday, when clothes used to be made to last. “I grew up with a sweatshirt that my father had given me from the U.S. Navy back in the ’50s, and it’s still in my closet,” he told me. “It was this fantastic, classic American-made garment—it looks better today than it did 35, 40 years ago, because like an old pair of denim, it has taken on a very personal quality over the years.”
But few companies make sweatshirts—or any clothes, really—like that today. In the 1970s, when the fashion industry morphed into a mass-market business dominated by mall stores, its marketing and distribution costs began to skyrocket. To keep retail prices down, companies began to shrink the price of producing clothes. Today, when you buy a hooded sweatshirt, most of your money is going to the retailer, the brand, and the various buyers that shuttle the garment between the two. The item itself costs very little to make—a $50 hoodie at the Gap likely costs about $6 or $7 to produce at an Asian manufacturing facility.
This cheap lousiness is, as Inge noted earlier this week, the sort of suck on the economy and the national soul that, well, sucks. But is there an alternative? Apparently, for hoodies, so. Winthrop — a design guy from Apple and the medical technology field — decided to make hoodies with the meticulousness and care for design demonstrated in those companies, and seems to have come up with something really cool. Indeed, something cool and warm.
The story details the durability and wearability of the product, by the latter of which I mean both how one wears it and how (and if unlike me you’re not a fan of faded jeans, avert your eyes) it wears over time. That is, it just gets softer and suppler and more comfortable. Rather than “planned obsolescence,” it’s “planned perseverance.”
But what interests me more (well, as much, because I really like the well-constructed sweatshirts of days gone by) is the way it talks about manufacturing — here in America. The fawned-over company provides secent jobs, requiring skill and supervision and interaction with designers, and then sells them direct to consumers via the Internet. The company makes more, the factory makes more, the employees make more, the middlemen make … well, except for UPS or whatever, they don’t actually exist.
So I looked at this start-up south of the San Francisco airport and asked myself “what do they have that we don’t have?” The answer, I think is: a head start — and that’s all.
We could manufacture good — great, if you believe Manjoo — apparel like this here. Orange County is as well-placed in Southern California as the ancient Persia was on the Silk Road and Spice Trail between Europe and South and East Asia. We’re the 3-million-population nexus between 10 million people in LA, 3 million in San Diego, and 4 million in the Inland Empire. We’ve got a talented immigrant population and an underemployed native population. We’ve even got decent labor laws that, when enforced, can stave off our fears about contributing to contemporary slavery. And we have two other things as well — and those two things combined are: a way to prime a market.
The first thing we have is: a huge population of homeless — which we’ll always have (because we’re more temperate than the rest of the country so this is a good place to go if you don’t want to die from the elements). The second is, although apparently we don’t want to admit it, wealth.
Now I’m not saying that we should waste public money “pampering” (which would not be my choice of words) the homeless. No, I’m saying that we should figure out how much we spend on the homeless and see if we can deliver a better product for less social cost. My suggestion now has not gone through the appropriate rigorous vetting process to determine whether it would actually serve a social need in the best way possible (that process also being known as “ask Dwight Smith”), but even if it didn’t pass that muster, it’s an example of questions we should ask.
If a sweatshirt or hoodie would last, if it could be personalized (even with Magic Marker) to protect against theft, to allow homeless to sleep more comfortably in a wider variety of spaces because they won’t be as cold, if providing a better product to them saves us money as a society, and if the prospect of being able to produce such a product for an always-needy group meant that we could help to prime the pump for domestic manufacturing, exactly why would we not do that?
Once the brilliant design work is done — and yes, some people (like Mr. Winthrop) are going to get paid for that (or else may get charitable deductions or social recognition that is actually more likely to be satisfying than one’s eighty-fourth million dollars) — then the actual manufacturing is not exactly brain surgery. And so that’s the final thing I wondered as I read Manjoo’s article:
If this sort of manufacturing were to be done here, could it be done by the government (with wages set low enough, say as part of a deal with local business and design schools for placements for recent grads, as not to become an overcompensated sinecure for friends of public officials — as conservatives rightly condemn and some of us liberals do as well), or would we have to make sure that some investor gets a healthy profit out of it? Which one is the real “giveaway,” once we decide that this sort of thing? The former could be described as “socialism” — but with the processes set out in advance by wise capitalists who are using them elsewhere, it would seem to lack much of the peril associated with that term. (And, even if it had deficiencies, they would not necessarily be ones cured by making sure that some investor got rich over them.)
So could high-quality hoodies for the homeless be one of those cases where everyone wins? It’s a heady proposition.