It is an exciting time for entrepreneurs Jacob Hurwitz and David Neill, who are in the midst of starting up American Trench, a fledgling Philadelphia-area company dedicated to making quality American-made outerwear and apparel. Modern Fellows is pleased to offer the following introduction to the men behind an intriguing new brand, which has a Kickstarter campaign underway and a glowing feature in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, courtesy of the below conversation with Jacob.
Keep an eye on their Kickstarter campaign, which is than two-thirds of the way towards its goal, and look for a first wave of products to be available soon. If they meet their goal, their trench – which looks terrific in the photos – should be ready to ship by early February, with socks not far behind. I’m looking forward to a belted version, which the Inquirer notes is planned for later production.
How did the idea for American Trench come about?
David and I have known each other for a while. Back in 2008, I was working in finance and David was working and finishing a graduate degree in interior architecture and design. We started having conversations about the economy – about how it ought to be based on things that we make. Banking and finance and law are great, but actually making things in America is important.
Then In 2009, I went on vacation with my wife to Europe. I bought a trench coat in London, and when I came home we started looking for a U.S.-made trench coat. It turns out that there wasn’t a lot of American-made outerwear out there at all except for Filson, which makes a specialty product.
That was the beginning. It started out as a weird, silly, wonderful idea. We were trying to solve a problem – which is that there were no U.S.-made trench coats.
How did you go about developing your prototypes and sourcing materials and manufacturing?
In 2010, we got further along with the concept. We ultimately got serious when we found an amazing tailor in the town that we live in now just outside of Philadelphia. We went to him and explained what we wanted to develop, and he and his team said, “yeah, we can do that.”
From there, we went to our first textile show in January 2011 called Première Vision in New York City, where we found the fabric for our trench, and incorporated the company a month later.
We thought initially we were going to make our coat in Philly, but it didn’t end up working out. We got connected with a company in North Jersey who is currently making outerwear for the military. Seven years ago they were making a million coats a year for a famous American label who took their production overseas. To save themselves, they bid on military contracts. Now they’re looking to get back to civilian clothing. They were really the right fit. David and I are blessed because we can drive there in a morning. For two guys who have small kids, wives who work and day jobs, that’s important.
We are also developing a variety of cotton and wool socks from Pennsylvania and North Carolina factories, and working with a knitting mill in South Jersey who does circular knits and flat knits to make a cable knit hat using yarn spun in Maine. Our farthest supplier is the North Carolina mill.
Having done so, what are your impressions of the state of U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing right now?
You can get lucky, and we’ve gotten lucky, but it can be challenging. You can’t just call up factories out of the blue and say hey I want something. They have certain machines and technologies, and it took us awhile to figure out what was possible. A lot of these people have also been burned and beat up a lot. They’ll have someone call, and make a prototype, and then that company will take it overseas and get it made over there.
One interesting thing that has sprouted up is a new focus on technology and innovation. In Hickory, the industry just wasn’t able to be on top of the innovations, and the local vocational college formed a sock-knitting technology center. Now they have this community-based researcher who can investigate new technologies.
What are your plans for using the Kickstarter money?
I have to say, we didn’t understand Kickstarter at all. We put together our presentation and got accepted and there was hollering and cheering. There’s a launch button that turns green with a rocket ship, but once you hit that button you suddenly realize you’re in a popularity contest with a bunch of other people. You really need family and friends there to support your product right off the bat so it doesn’t get buried.
The first tranche of money will go to do cut and sew contracting and knitting to get our first products out the door. After that, we’d like to produce a cable knit hat that we have in development [with Artex Knitting Mills in Westville, NJ], and test out some new products. We’re also testing some amazing baby alpaca yarn that we found for a scarf and hat.
We would also like to use some of the Kickstarter money to pay for developing U.S.-made outerwear fabric for our trench. One of the cool introductions we’ve had was to a guy in Massachusetts who had been doing R&D for Polartec. He reached out to us with a thick Massachusetts accent, and knows the technologies and the mills.
When will American Trench’s initial and subsequent product runs be ready to ship?
The trench should be ready in late January or early February. If we can meet our Kickstarter goal, we’ll also have the minimums for making the first runs of socks. For those, we already have samples ready, and we have labels sourced, so the products should be ready for delivery fairly quickly. For some other products – like hats – that will take a little longer. As for new outerwear – we’re looking at field jackets and quilted jackets, but that’s hypothetical right now. Our factory has machinery to do it, but we haven’t commissioned samples. The easiest outerwear product we could turn around would be releasing a new color of the trench, or the same material made in a domestic mill. [Diane Mastrull of the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that the pair are considering making a belted version of the trench as well.]
What’s your philosophy when it comes to the Made-in-America movement of which you are now a part?
The best analogy is the organic and local food movements. If you have the means, then we want to offer you another choice, and we want to tell you about why you’re going to get an amazing project that is in your best interest and that is supporting people who live next to you. [Ed. note: I like this analogy, which Mark Bollman of Ball and Buck has used as well.]
What have you learned from the experience so far?
You gotta be bold. You have to be willing to make phone calls and put yourself out there. You google, you research, and you reach out to people. Then once you jam your foot in the door, you discover connections that you didn’t know existed. You have to be tenacious. That’s been well-chronicled in the entrepreneurial literature.
The other thing I’d say is that it’s never been a more interesting time to be an entrepreneur in apparel or any retail business for that matter. There are some amazing resources and technologies out there to enable people to become entrepreneurs if they have the will. Google apps, the ability to set up an e-commerce shop, Kickstarter – these tools are incredible. And bloggers are at the cutting edge of this and share our enthusiasm for what we’re trying to accomplish. You can allocate your capital to product development first rather than develop a brick-and-mortar store or massive paid-PR presence.
The apparel industry in America has abandoned its own factories and people, but tools exist for the Davids of this world to come in and throw some stones at the Goliaths. They can really help bring work back to this country.
About JakeJake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.
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