How One Entrepreneur, Nostalgic for the Sweatshirts of His Youth, Created the ‘Greatest Hoodie Ever Made’

American Giant's 'Made in U.S.A.' success story

American Giant brings an artisanal approach to what some would say is an ordinary garment.
Courtesy of American Giant

The way that Bayard Winthrop tells it, the idea for the world’s best hoodie started because he was pissed off.

It was 2011 and Winthrop, a finance guy from New York, had found himself running a fashion accessories company in San Francisco. Sensitive to changing trends in retail (especially the resurgent interest in high-quality, domestically made products), Winthrop dreamed of selling the kind of sweatshirts he wore as a kid: thick cotton pullovers, made in America, and built to last. “I grew up in the ’70s, at a time when my mom could buy me a beautiful Champion sweatshirt made in North Carolina,” he recalls.

Starting American Giant to prove that high-quality, domestically made garments could be commercially viable again, Bayard Winthrop (1) began by contracting with U.S. cotton farmers (2) and weaving high-grade, heavyweight fleece. American workers sew the garments by hand (3 and 4) in plants including Eagle Sportswear, which employs 200 people in North Carolina. “At the end of the day,” the brand attests, “the quality of your clothes is only as good as the craftsmanship of the people who make them.”
Courtesy of American Giant

But each time Winthrop made inquiries about sewing hoodies in the U.S.A., he was told it couldn’t be done anymore—not profitably, anyway. The response struck him as cowardly. America was changing the world with technology being made up the street, yet it couldn’t make a hoodie? “That,” Winthrop said, “became a chip on my shoulder.” It also became a new brand.

The Pads: To reinforce this heavy-wear area, American Giant adds pads to the elbow—though the pads are so long they wind up reinforcing the entire lower sleeve. The Cord: The drawstring is dyed to match the hoodie’s color, fitted with bronze-colored metal aglets, then pulled through matching grommets. The Hood: American Giant pays particular attention to the namesake part of the hooded sweatshirt, top-stitching it with a double lining for added warmth.
Courtesy of American Giant

American Giant’s $89 classic full-zip hoodie features 12.4-ounce heavyweight cotton fleece, metal hardware, and perks like shoulder ribbing and reinforced elbow pads. Because “Made in U.S.A.” would be a major differentiator and a major cost, Winthrop decided to cut out the middleman and sell direct to consumers online. He also got lucky: In 2012, Slate test-drove one of American Giant’s sweatshirts and proclaimed: “This is the Greatest Hoodie Ever Made.”

Five years on, Winthrop is still trying to keep up with “a raging fire of orders,” as he puts it. Some colors are perennially sold out.

Aside from jeans, there’s no single garment as American as the hoodie. Popularized by Champion during the Depression as work clothing, the hooded sweatshirt was later adopted as practice gear by football players and boxers (remember Rocky Balboa?) before graffiti artists and skateboarders embraced it as a countercultural uniform. Because the hoodie shields the face, it has always carried a hint of lawlessness. (Unabomber Ted Kaczynski wore a hoodie in his FBI wanted poster.) The hoodie’s defiant image made it a natural fit for hip-hop (Tupac Shakur), yet it could also symbolize racial oppression (Trayvon Martin). Somewhere along the way, the hoodie jumped onto other backs, its baggy comfort and all-purpose utility a fit for tech gurus (Mark Zuckerberg), pop heartthrobs (Justin Bieber) and the rest of us.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

But why? Mere fad items don’t sustain momentum as long as American Giant has, so there has to be more going on here. First, by bringing an artisanal approach to an ordinary garment, Winthrop has proven that innovation—not invention—sets trends. He’s also demonstrated that, fast fashion be damned, consumers are willing to pay for quality and for American-made goods.

However, that’s true only to a point. As a recent AP-GfK poll discovered, while 75 percent of consumers say they want to buy American-made goods, the majority still winds up choosing whatever’s cheaper. The recent collapse of the American Apparel brand would appear to confirm that finding.

The success of American Giant, then, seems more attributable to a formula than to a single selling point. “Customers are going to buy on price and fit and quality,” Winthrop says. “If they can [find] all of those things and a brand that’s American made, they can fall in love with the brand. [But] if you’re not competing with price and quality, it’s all over.”

This story first appeared in the April 17, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.