Get to Know: Jacob Hurwitz, Founder of American Trench
We sat down with #PitchNight alum and co-founder of American Trench, Jacob Hurwitz, to get the exclusive scoop on his passion for making things in the U.S. of A., what’s in store for men’s fashion this year, and some of his favorite haunts in New York City.
American manufacturing is at the core of your business – what initially attracted you to a commitment to making things domestically?
Here is the short short version: We had epiphanies leading up and during the great recession (2008-09). We felt that as an economy, things had become unbalanced, that there was an over-emphasis on white collar work as being the only way to make it in this country, but we can’t have 300 million people all be doctors, lawyers, and bankers, it isn’t needed and doesn’t work. We felt manufacturing was what made the United States wealthy and provided immense opportunity to so many people, yet we turned our backs on it. During the height of the recession, thousands of people were being laid off every day and we felt like we needed to make something – to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Your “Ah ha” moment for launching American Trench started during a trip to London in 2009. Since it’s inception nearly eight years ago, what has most changed about your design and manufacturing process?
When we started we had no knowledge of how to make garments or socks or any of it. We didn’t even know that fabric came in different widths! I remember a tailor we were working with having a good chuckle over that. What changed the most for us since then was adding to our knowledge base, knowing the questions to ask, specific details of how to get things made, knowing the proper terminology, and understanding how different processes work. You can learn a lot by googling, but at some point you need to be asking questions of the true experts at the factories, interacting directly with owners and/or operators.
One of the things we learned was that each factory has a certain amount of things they do well and that you should focus on that. One of our pattern makers broke it down this way: “Each factory makes pies. You don’t go to the berry pie maker asking for chocolate cream pie. They won’t get it right. And you don’t go to the cream pie maker asking for apple pie, you’ll spend all of your money on R&D and end up with an apple cream pie that tastes terrible. Make berry pies at the berry pie factory and cream pies at the cream pie factory. Don’t cross things up.” That piece of advice remains very true and should be heeded by anyone who finds the urge to try to make something in a factory!
How do you balance the e-commerce aspect of your business with the growing demand for retailers to deliver a more personal experience to customers?
That’s a hard one. I don’t know if we are doing a great job. During really busy times it seems we do a lot of triage – trying to put out the biggest fires and swinging back and forth between the two worlds of e-commerce and working with our stockists. It’s exciting because on one hand access for new brands has never been this wide open. You can have a website up and running in a day and sell direct and/or you can show your brand at multiple trade shows of various size and cost. But the other side of that is that most younger brands need e-com and wholesale to survive and they are two different businesses with their own sets of complexities and challenges. Sometimes I wish we were just a direct business or just a wholesale business, but we don’t have enough revenue from either channel to let the other go and they do inform each other in important ways. Retailers will give you great feedback about which styles in your line are great and which are a miss. Direct customers will give great feedback about your products. If something is wrong or not working right they will let you know about it. If you make a great product they will let you know about it! If you didn’t make enough of something cool, you’ll get emails (“when is that coming back in stock?”). It makes the product improvement process go much faster to have such direct information. But the inability for young brands (like ours) to focus on just one business is at times madness.
I’ve heard old timers say that there are 30-40% fewer boutiques now than there was 10 years ago and that’s directly the result of each brand now having an e-com business. The direct access to market is really incredible. It’s a game changer, but it also has a price and the price is that wholesale margins are compressed and there are more brands than ever fighting to get into fewer stores.
Your current focus is on knitwear, socks, and outerwear. Are there any other products that you’d like to see in the pipeline?
We want to make more outerwear. There’s so much more to be done in that space but it’s expensive to add even a single new product because – for the most part – we don’t have wholesale pre-sales to offset the factory production minimums. We’re also interested in curated bundles that fill a specific niche, like travel clothes. We noticed a gap in the market: There still aren’t good options for guys who need curated outfits for travel, two-day trips vs. the three or four day trip, etc.
Who are a few brands that you admire?
Stone Island, based in Italy. They’re one of the first to fuse technical outerwear with fashion outerwear. They have a unique point of view and great branding
Private White, made in the UK. Very well-thought out and well-made clothes, mostly in their own factory in Manchester, England.
Brunello Cucinelli – When people ask American Trench why we make in USA, we give them the Cuccinelli answer, “Because it’s the best thing we can do for the people around us.” That one statement, by Cucinelli himself, summarizes the brilliance and kind hearted this man has. He also happens to be the master of understated luxury, fusing the most beautiful materials with great fits and one of the best color palates of anyone in the game.
What’s one style-related item that every guy should own in 2017?
A scarf. It’s time for Americans to embrace the scarf. They keep the neck warm and pop to your outfit. Every man should have a heavy one for those crazy cold days and a lighter one for spring/fall.
What is one thing we can’t find out about you from googling?
Both founders of AT (David and Jacob) studied art and did study abroad in Italy, but neither studied fashion. For each of us, our time in Italy had immense influence on starting a made-in-USA brand in terms of making things the right way, a focus on quality, and a focus on local manufacturing and materials.
What’s your favorite spot in NYC?
Kajistu restaurant. A michelin-star Japanese vegetarian restaurant in little Tokyo. It defies explanation. When you step inside it feels transportive, as if you fell into a worm hole that carried you into Japan. The food from tasting menu is unreal.
Nepenthes in the garment district. The home of Engineered garments and one of the coolest stores in the USA.
Grahame Fowler Original in the West Village. Unique! Not Corporate! Curated directly from the mind of Grahame Fowler. A must visit.
Lodge Goods in the East Village – a small store packed with USA-made accessories. There’s something for everyone in there.
Upstate Stock in Brooklyn – The Brooklyn experience – coffee + small goods + apothecary items. Everything that’s cool about Brooklyn in one store.