It was nearly three years ago that the journalist Farhad Manjoo published the seminal Slate article “This Is the Greatest Hoodie Ever Made: How American Giant created the best sweatshirt known to man”—still surely the most influential and frequently cited work in the annals of hoodie journalism and the main catalyst for the popularity of a product (American Giant’s zip-up hooded sweatshirt) that continues to this day to receive fawning journalistic attention, unpaid celebrity endorsements, and consistently ecstatic consumer reviews. I’m a shabby dresser these days and seem to spend more and more time in a zip hoodie, so when in July I lost my Converse-for-Target brand sweatshirt on a trip to Maine, I began to dream of an upgrade, and apparently Manjoo’s 1,600-word fashion think-piece from late 2012 was so memorable to me that his promises of a “finely textured, rugged, warm interior” and “thoughtful details” instantly came to mind.
I paid $89.00—roughly three times the cost of my last hoodie—for a large Classic Full Zip in Phantom Grey from American Giant. I’ve now owned it for about three months and feel qualified to share my impressions.
But before I do, I want to note that I think Bayard Winthrop—the founder of American Giant—is a brilliant person, albeit for reasons that don’t have much to do with his fashion sense. He recognized that, as the elites of Silicon Valley had adopted the zip hoodie as their work-and-play uniform, an elite version of that garment needed to exist for these trendy entrepreneurs, and he created exactly the right narrative for his company to allow its pricy iteration to fill this crucial niche, which other clothing retailers hadn’t really even identified yet. American Giant’s hoodie contains all the features necessary to endear itself to liberal consumers who feel good about themselves for buying “superior” products: both traditional and innovative, made in America in relatively small quantities using all-natural materials and visibly fussy craftsmanship, and, as a bonus, something you had to read about on the Internet to know about.
But Winthrop’s real genius was in fashioning a company origin story within the language of the industry to which he was catering: American Giant makes clothes, but conceptually it’s an edgy tech startup with a “disruptive” bent. In Manjoo’s view, American Giant managed to transcend the low standards of contemporary clothiers by stepping outside the modern manufacturing paradigm.
Conventional wisdom has it that it’s impossible to create “affordable” garments without using cheap materials or exploiting foreign workers, but according to Manjoo, Winthrop found a loophole: “American Giant doesn’t maintain a storefront, and it doesn’t deal with middlemen. By selling garments directly from its factory via the Web, American Giant can avoid the distribution costs baked into most other clothes.”
Baked in? Whatever. The loophole, you see, is the Internet—which, I gather, a lot of other clothing companies know about, too, and the part about not having a brick-and-mortar location isn’t really even true anymore, since AG recently built one in downtown San Francisco. But the idea of not having one is somehow still a core part of their identity, per the company’s official website, which, above a “NO STORES” banner, notes, “The apparel business is broken. Traditional apparel companies invest far more in distribution, real estate and marketing than in the product itself. To cut cost they manufacture off shore, and make products as cheaply as possible.”
Employing unsourced data, the site goes on to explain that “up to 80% of what you pay traditional retailers has nothing to do with the production of the garment.” For all its hype, American Giant mostly sounds like a normal small business to me—charging more money for a better-made, supposedly more ethical product—but its decision to exploit the self-perpetuating nature of Internet buzz instead of spending money on advertising was definitely a cutting-edge move. It created this buzz very deliberately, pitching itself as a story idea to Manjoo (a tech columnist, not a fashion columnist) rather than, say, buying ad space on Slate. Winthrop must have known the writer would go crazy for the Jobs-like meticulousness of AG creative director Philipe Manoux, poached from Apple’s design team. According to Manjoo, Manoux “obsessively experimented with perfecting every part [of the hoodie], then created dozens of prototypes until he’d arrived at an ideal version,” employing as many novel features as you might find on the latest iPhone.
So is the hoodie really that great? Of course not. It’s OK. The cut is pretty nice—though a little more generous in the stomach region than I need—but the sturdy material has a non-fluid quality that can lend the garment a degree of boxiness depending on how the wearer positions himself. Its much-lauded heavyweight cotton is warmer than a blend, but it occurs to me now to wonder whether a hoodie really ought to aspire to be genuinely warm. Typically, I’ve carried mine in a backpack on pleasant days in anticipation of a mild evening chill—this has been its main purpose outside of the house—and although the AG hoodie takes up much more room in my backpack than my old one did and feels a lot weightier, it functions only equally well as a buffer against insignificant cold, and it boasts no additional function, which is to say that on any genuinely chilly day I’ll still want to wear a real coat instead.
It may be a misapprehension that cotton (which uses a lot of water and pesticides) is inherently greener than polyester, but I certainly believe that the robust AG hoodie will last for decades instead of migrating quickly to the trash heap as lesser garments do. On the other hand, that just means I’m stuck with this thing forever: a testament to savvy non-marketing and to the wishful thinking of vain people who want desperately to believe that they inhabit some elite, forward-thinking realm of style even as they bum around the house or cubicle.