Can American Giant Perfect the T-Shirt?

Courtesy American Giant

American Giant, the San Francisco-based brand best known for engineering the best hoodies on the market, has just released its first line of T-shirts in the middle of winter. If he were running a typical clothing business, owner Bayard Winthrop probably would have stalled the launch date and strung up banners in a store trumpeting the fact that the beautifully constructed tees are made in North Carolina out of fabric made in North Carolina out of cotton grown in North Carolina. But Winthrop isn’t running a typical apparel company. He labors under the assumption that, if he builds high-quality goods, the customer will come. In the clothing business, this makes him something of an apostate.

“The apparel model has traditionally been investing less in product to finance rapid market expansion,” says Winthrop, who looks every bit the serious fellow but can’t help but smile when he’s talking about putting it to bigger companies. “We do exactly the opposite by looking for product categories where we can do something interesting then really getting into it.”

American Giant proved the efficacy of this model with its hoodie, which sold so quickly that it took Winthrop the better part of a year and a great deal of legwork forming new relationships with factories outside of the Bay Area to bring supply in line with demand. The new shirts are as groundbreaking as that blockbuster garment but, as Winthrop is quick to point out, not particularly innovative. Winthrop compares his straddle-stitched, interior-taped heavyweight shirts to what was once available at stores like Eddie Bauer and J.Crew, which now offers exclusively thinner tees. American Giant’s younger staffers, reared on lightweight shirts, were wary of the whole endeavor, but Winthrop insisted that there must be a market for clothes that could take a beating as well as clothes that look like they already have.

“We talk a lot about the unapologetic masculinity of the brand,” says Winthrop, who is fond of citing the clothes he bought at The Gap in the early eighties as an inspiration. “This was a good example of that.”

In the spirit of manliness, American Giant has also just released a line of baseball tees and a weighty baseball jacket punctuated with silver buttons. The long-sleeve shirts will find their way onto Little League coaches come spring, but the jackets are perfect for layering right now. The additions to the brand’s relatively small collection are part of a 12-item push that will hopefully see American Giant become more than “that hoodie company.”

But branding is a sensitive subject with Winthrop. Ask him about it and he’ll show you a garment. Ask him about “Made in America” or how many jobs he’s creating, and he’ll make a practical argument for domestic manufacturing instead of waxing patriotic.

“You shouldn’t pound your chest about the Made in America thing because that’s just what we do,” he says. “The parking lot at the factory we work with in Carolina used to be empty and now it’s full. On a personal level, I think that’s awesome, but it doesn’t necessarily say anything about the clothes.”

Winthrop lets the clothes speak for themselves and they do so with surprising force. After trying on an American Giant shirt, it is difficult to even look at the tables full of wimpier products with “Made in China” labels piled high in stores across the country. T-shirts should be as tough as the men inside them. Baseball shirts should be game ready. Jackets should be thick and warm. For Winthrop, these are self-evident points. Truth doesn’t change to suit the season. [Heavyweight tees from $27.50;]