Stay Apparel Co.

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Pocket change: a call for American consumers to ‘buy less but better’

ProductsNeal GouletComment
American Giant’s pop-up store in SoHo, New York City.

American Giant’s pop-up store in SoHo, New York City.

My drive from the Stay global headquarters in Hershey to Central Market in York one Saturday morning in January coincided with WITF-FM’s re-airing of an episode of “How I Built This,” the popular podcast “about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built.”

I had heard this episode before, but something guest Yvon Chouinard said resonated with me upon a second listen. The founder of outdoor brand Patagonia (incredibly, I had not known that he grew up in my hometown in Maine until recently) maintained that his company still “owned” the products it sold.

He was referring to Patagonia’s “ironclad guarantee,” which promises that products not performing to a customer’s satisfaction can be returned “for a repair, replacement or refund.” Used Patagonia products also can be traded in for merchandise credit.

Chouinard allowed that his products are not inexpensive but are built with durability and practicality in mind. He suggested buying a ski jacket that also can be worn over a suit coat in a rainstorm in New York City.

“Own fewer things,” he said, “but really good things.”

Giving purpose to purchases

That line struck me because it’s a position I’ve taken to heart, focusing my purchases on really good things made in America.

Stay sells only U.S.-made clothing and accessories and always will. I believe that American-made products are of better quality because they adhere to higher standards than cheap imports do. And buying American keeps dollars in U.S. communities and helps to employ fellow Americans.

To live the buy-American credo sometimes takes a little more effort (inspecting labels, sending emails to a retailer’s customer service to verify a product’s country of origin, searching online) but ultimately is liberating in that it gives purpose and structure to my purchases. It’s a philosophy that I hope more of my fellow Americans will adopt for the good of us all.

No doubt, America’s shrinking middle class and widening income inequality have macro-economic causes, but American consumers individually bear responsibility, too, after decades of demanding and devouring ever-lower prices, literally buying into the notion that it doesn’t matter where things are made as long as they don’t cost much. (Great line from the song “Morning Moon” by Canada’s The Tragically Hip: “Someone’s paying when something’s too cheap.”)

It’s a trend that has hollowed out the American apparel industry and with it much of our manufacturing base, jobs and communities. As recently as the 1990s, half of the apparel sold in the United States was made here. Now it’s only 3 percent.

Three percent.

American-made flannel’s return

At the end of 2018, Woolrich closed its legendary woolen mill in its northern Pennsylvania hometown. A year earlier, the last American factory making high-end selvedge denim, operated by Cone Mills in Greensboro, N.C., closed its doors.

Yet there are pockets of hope. Dearborn Denim, founded in 2016, makes fantastic blue jeans in Chicago, selling direct to customers online and at two Windy City stores. Given the comfort, fit and price (starting at $60), they’re a great value.

I always look forward to Dearborn Denim’s email updates. Founder Rob McMillan does a great job of keeping customers abreast of operational developments, including a late-January announcement that the company has switched from a domestic denim source to a Mexican mill – operated by Cone Mills.

McMillan wrote:

No lie: the remaining stretch denim made in the USA simply does not meet our high standards … a devastating realization for us. This news has inspired us to begin plans for building out our own denim mill — operating here in Chicago. That plan is at least 4 years away and requires a great deal of work, support, and luck to be possible.

It’s easy to get behind a guy like McMillan and a brand such as Dearborn. I feel the same way about founder Bayard Winthrop and his American Giant, which began in 2012. San Francisco-based American Giant earned cult status when its hoodie was dubbed “the greatest sweatshirt ever made.”

The company is in the process of rolling out the first shirts sewn from American-made flannel in decades. The New York Times chronicled the quest in a lengthy story last year.

Like Dearborn, American Giant has a direct-to-consumer approach. In a Q&A with the Aspen Ideas Festival, Winthrop offered this take:

I think what the internet and e-commerce has allowed for is really a fundamental rethinking of business structures. In our case, our direct-to-consumer brand uses an American-made supply chain, and leverages what the internet allows businesses to do. With that, we can think about building great American products again, and price them in a way that takes them out of the fashion boutiques of Brooklyn and brings them to main street. I think it’s a pretty compelling and revolutionary idea.

American Giant may be the best thing that has happened to U.S. apparel in decades. But while its prices aren’t Brooklyn boutique, they might induce sticker shock among the segment of American consumers who have been weaned on “always low prices.”

Local makers

This brings us back to what Patagonia’s Chouinard said: “Own fewer things but really good things.”

For me, the really good things are American made. Other favorites of mine include Flowfold, in my native Maine, for duffel bags and backpacks; Boathouse in Philadelphia for performance outerwear; Minnesota’s Faribault Woolen Mill Co., which started the year Abraham Lincoln died, for the coolest-looking winter mittens.

Of course, don’t forget your local makers, which Stay is proud to join at pop-up markets including the Harrisburg Flea, York Flea, Creatively Lancaster and Pop Up Ave in State College.

I heard an echo of Patagonia’s Chouinard (his company sells some American-made items but you have to look for them; the company provided me with a list) in a recent Instagram post by Stars and Stripes Collective, which sells U.S.-made clothing and housewares in Sister Bay, Wis.

In part, the post said, “when people buy less, but choose well – it slows down Mindless Consumption and helps people save up for something they really want to buy, but more importantly, something they love – and will take care of – things that can be handed down to the next generation.”

An approach of “buying less but better” – and, yes, sometimes at a higher cost – sure seems like a better bet for Americans than continuing a race to the bottom in an indiscriminate pursuit of ever-lower prices.