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The New Vanguard of Quality
A counter cultural era that favours slow, thoughtful, creative product is coming. Right here, you're part of it.
Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse. The building in Dhaka, Bangladesh was a sweat shop for garment workers, and when it collapsed more that 1100 people died and 2500 more were injured. It was a flashpoint for the industry, as garments with western labels were pulled out of the rubble: H&M, Mango, Primark, Matalan. The brands claimed they knew nothing of the conditions of the garment workers, triggering a call for greater supply chain transparency.
Knowing where your clothes came from and who made them has become increasingly difficult in recent years. As globalisation opened up cheap manufacturing bases, clothing companies have been able to buy cheap fabric in one continent, have their garments made cheaply in another, then ship them back and pass the cheap prices down to customers. This applies to designer labels too, except they obviously don’t pass the cheap prices down to customers.
Apart from lives and the environmental cost of this kind of ludicrous cross continental fashion bingo, (a cotton t shirt is likely to be better travelled than you), we have lost other things too. But change is in the air.
Two things happened last week that felt like green shoots of a post Rana Plaza world. One was an invitation to the opening of a factory in Walthamstow, (Wait! It’s more interesting than you think!) and the other was a caller from San Francisco who said, ‘I read your Substack, and there’s some one you’ve got meet’. And so, Substackers, it came to my attention that in the world of manufacturing, there is a growing community of people who care, who want to engage fully with a subject, who prefer slow to fast, who go deep and meaningful and long form and do not want to swipe, scroll, binge and release. Tiktok is not their thing. Nor is H&M.
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The guy from San Francisco I had to meet turned out to be, for want of a better word, a dude. He grew up on the Marlboro man, Coca Cola, Nick Kamen in his Levis, “Same Old” Redwing boots and Woolrich. Brands which reflected the America he saw being built around him that deeply reflected his values: high quality manufacture, cultural authenticity and American pride. He once was a Wall Street jock, who decided to move west and had his “wide open, unfettered capitalist” viewpoint turned around.
“I need to do something more meaningful than drive margin and cost control,” he said to himself. “I want to build a business that reminds me of the brands I grew up around. Brands which represented great quality, and had value systems I admired.”
He launched with one product, a sweat shirt. He spent a year researching that single item and recruited a Stanford engineering graduate who worked for Apple to help him. He wanted it to be like a US Navy hoodie his Dad had given him that had gotten softer and better with age. Together, they thought about what it would need if you rode with it on a bike (longer cuffs), how it shouldn’t ride up when you lift your arm, (side panels with a touch of stretch), how it should have a tight knit weave for wind block, but be super, super soft on the inside. It should be 100% cotton, with metal hardware, and crucially it should be grown, spun, knitted and sewn all in America. When he launched, slate.com called it ‘The Greatest Hoodie Ever Made.’ Sound like the American dream? The guy was on a high.
The brand is American Giant, and the dude is Bayard Winthrop. What he nailed is unheard of in fashion these days: an entire supply chain within 200 miles. His story, which revived a supply chain that was so obvious 100 years ago, is an elegy to the fortunes of America, its rise, its descent and its hope for the future. (My god, we should pitch this to Netflix).
It starts with the macro economic policy of the last half century. “There was a decision in the US government to put lowering cost at the centre of all our trade decisions,” Bayard explains. In his Wall Street days, this made sense - “any trade deal was a good deal.” These trade deals opened up manufacturing alternatives; brands found cheap production abroad and customers got cheaper product. Of course, the result was the decimation of America’s manufacturing sector. For cotton, this was a disaster, because while America still grows some of the finest cotton in the world, they were no longer able to spin it into yarn and knit it into fabric. For that you have to go to Japan.
“While the US began to orient around volume and cheap, Japan was saying quality still really matters,” explains Bayard. Japan bought up America’s famous cotton looms and took quality East. “Back in the old days when Champion and Russell were making reverse weave pieces, pieces that were still amazing 40 years later, all soft and patina’d, they were knitting them on looms that were slow, but customisable. In classic Japanese fashion, they recognised the quality of that, and now you can find beautiful cotton fleece made in Japan on old American looms.” He had to find a way of bringing that technique, and machinery, back.
Next he had to solve the dyeing and finishing, which involves something called ‘napping’. Napping refers to how the loops on the inside of the fabric are cut, sanded and brushed, so you get a soft finish against your skin. With 100% cotton this is not easy, as on the outside you want it tightly knitted, and “getting the balance right took a long time.” Time he was quite happy to take.
The process, he found, gave him immense joy, and he regales me with stories of industry patriarchs he came across who could remember how things were once done, and helped him rebuild his American supply chain dream. Of farmers and finishers whose “expert knowledge of the domain has been acquired over generations. You can learn a ton by just listening.” We literally talk for an hour about ginning, and we never make it to flannel and denim, which were the next fabrics he took on. (It was his birthday). His nerdiness is infectious, as he is so thrilled by the intricacies of a journey that allowed him to build ‘the most superior product in the market’.
“In a day and a half and within 200 miles you would see cotton coming out of the ground and a sweatshirt getting finished. Every time I do it it’s a damn near emotional experience - an incredible symphony of activity that reminds us there are men and women out there who are vital and knowledgeable and committed to creating great product.”
He continues: “Ultimately, it’s all about proximity to product. If you’re serious about it and heavily involved, you can’t help but be inspired by it. If you’re a big apparel company, your proximity to the places and people who are making your product is so far, you just become antiseptic about it.”
Which brings me to Blackhorse Atelier in Walthamstow. There, founder Bilgehan Ates has battled through funding crises and pandemics to transform his tailoring facility into a state of the art denim factory - extraordinarily, the only one of its kind in the UK.
Government and university grants were secured to fund next generation machinery that use less power and chemicals, operate closed loop, and can trace the carbon footprint of every single item. More than that, his recently acquired laser cutter and ozone washer will allow the sort of creativity he thinks will reinvent British denim. Already quality brands like Studio Nicholson, Raey, Christopher Raeburn, Toogood and Issue Twelve are on board, and literally anyone is invited to turn up and play. It’s all open source.
Like Bayard, Bilgehan wants to onshore supply chains, (previously denim washing facilities were only to be found in Italy or Japan), and to be deeply involved in product manufacture once again. He has recruited ex denim designer Leanne Jae as his factory, or “Lab” manager, who pivoted her career after being disillusioned by her industry. Now in charge of these new machines, she can feel her future opening up before her. “It's going to change the way we buy because this new generation will understand more about how things are made,” she says. “It shortens supply chains, reduces carbon emissions and it brings back the knowledge.” Leanne wanted something different, something revolutionary, or at least progressive, and her thrill at landing in such a triumphant moment on the edge of the next big shift is real.
In that one, groovy factory on Blackhorse Lane, this small team, who are open sourcing all their production and partnering with universities and design colleges to invite in students to create the designs of the future, are carving a way forward. The indigo we use to dye denim now might be synthetic (less water and chemicals) but such is their devotion to repairing the customer relationship with product, they have built an indigo farm on a veg plot down the road - just so we can understand it more. “We are a not for profit company; for us it's about community,” says Bilgehan. “Our shirt took 4 years to develop. Every single garment we give birth to I want the end user to connect with emotionally. When you create that, you build longevity,” he says stroking the denim of one of his treasured shirts.
Proximity to product. Bilgehan tells a story of a recent visit from the creative director of a well known brand. He introduced the guy to Leanne. “Do you recognise something about her?” he asked him. The man looked puzzled. “Look closely,” he said. The man looked again. He didn’t see anything. Leanne was wearing one of his jackets, and he hadn’t even recognised it.
Why this makes Bayard, and Bilgehan, and Leanne ‘the new Substackers of manufacturing’ is because the devotion to slow, investigated, deep dive writing and journalism is exactly the same approach they are all taking to apparel production. As Facebook and Google decimate the market for independent brands (and if you haven’t seen it yet this op-ed piece in Apparel Insider has gone viral), allowing only those with the budget to pay for share of voice, Bayard notes that the sort of long form content podcasts and Substack promotes are likely to be his salvation. That, and a new approach to trade that he says the Biden and Trump administration both share. The US trade secretary has had her team crawling over his N.Carolina farms and factories over the last few months, and when I visit Blackhorse Atelier the councillors from Lea Valley and Professors from UACL are all there to celebrate.
They often say that the only way we are going to solve the climate crisis is if multiple partners come together. Government, finance, business and consumer all need to align to make a shift. Blackhorse Atelier and American Giant are fantastic examples of this.
It’s also easy to mistake sustainability principles for exciting mushroom leathers and performative certifications. But actually, it is mostly about quality product, not too much, made under stringent environmental and labour standards. Products consumers can form emotional connections with over time, can care for and cherish. You can take your jeans back to Blackhorse Atelier for mending anytime. According to Bayard, you’ll only ever buy one of his hoodies. Timeless products, made with love and attention. This, my friends, is the future.
The Rule of 5 campaign encourages us to buy less - but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun with fashion. Find out more here:
Oh and… a product review. American Giant sent over one of their hoodies so I could see for myself. It certainly has what Bayard calls the ‘thud factor’ - its got weight (in every sense). It’s a hoodie, it’s not fashion, but if it’s a hoodie you are looking for I can confirm it is the most luxurious of its kind. There is so much integrity to its fabrication, so much quality to the materials, and it does indeed feel like it would only age with grace and comfort.
The sleeve side panels are genius, and the fit is snug. Personally I’d use it for yoga, but they I don’t drive trucks through cotton fields. Yet.
Until next week,
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