Thanks But No Thanks, Betabrand

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“Fan”, I believe, is short for “fanatic”. Which is to say that it’s not a compliment. Or, at least, it rarely is, what with extremism in the defense of virtue being no vice and all that. The problem, of course, is that one man’s virtue is another man’s vice.

Well, I’m a fan, in the good and bad sense, of the San Francisco clothing firm known as “Betabrand”. Just not today.

I’d have to look through my emails to get an accurate count, but I think it’s safe to say that I have more than forty items of clothing from Betabrand, from the infamous Golden Hoodie to the Sea Monster Cordarounds they cut off me in the trauma ward this past January. I’ve visited their offices off Cesar Chavez to watch a gorgeous young hipster girl try to fit Vodka McBigbra for summer dresses and bikini tops. (If I had video of that particular afternoon, I think I could probably monetize it well enough to get that lime-green Audi RS7 I’ve had my eye on for a while.) I have some of the reversible smoking jackets, some of the Sons of Britches, even the cobra-headed socks.

Betabrand’s business model rests on a couple of pillars of varying importance to me. The first one is the general Frisco-tech-dork style of the clothing. Everything’s deliberately fun and edgy and weird and it’s all meant to send some sort of exclusionary signal to middle-aged flyover-country people like myself. You can’t even buy most of the stuff in any size past an XL shirt or a 38 waist. The Betabrand “XXL” sportcoat is tighter than a Brioni 48, which is tighter than an Armani 48, which is tighter than a Brooks 48 which is tighter than most of the stuff you see sized XXL in a department store.

The second and more important (to me) pillar of the Betabrand identity is defined sourcing and local assembly. With ninety percent of the clothing they offer (socks are one exception and there are probably others) the source of the fabric is identified and the cutting/sewing is done in San Francisco. If you want to get a pair of US-made pants for fifty bucks, the periodic Betabrand closeouts are your best possible bet anywhere. While I’m reasonably certain that the company’s commitment to American assembly is for hipster-ish reasons of “local grown” as opposed to a thoroughgoing commitment to the greatness of this once-great country, the end result is the same — namely, fair-wage employment for Americans — and so I’m always glad to buy Betabrand products even if they are more expensive than their competition.

For that reason, I was very excited when they announced shoes. If you want an American-made sneaker that isn’t a climbing shoe or other special-purpose item, you have exactly one choice and that choice is the USA line at New Balance. I’ve bought and owned a couple dozen New Balance 990, 991, 992, and 993 shoes in the past seventeen years, but it would be nice to have some other choice. I figured I’d buy two pairs of each pattern just in case they didn’t take off in the market and Betabrand discontinued them.

Once I started reading the fine print and seeing that the shoes were a collaboration with a firm called “U.T. Lab”, I figured I’d better contact them and ask about the sourcing. I was told, “The production for both the Dr. Hu Light Wing Franklin and the Nath Effect Light Wing Franklin will be in China. We hope you can support us soon!” Well, I can’t support that.

Betabrand won’t miss my business on these, but from now on I’ll be double sure to make sure that everything I get from them is US made. Which means fewer impulse buys via mobile browsers and whatnot. If only enough of us cared about American sourcing to make sure that it was a viable business strategy. It surprises me what a blind eye the kids today turn to it — they’ll crawl over broken glass to make sure they’re getting artisanal cheese from a certain ranch within thirty miles of the city limits and then they’ll send the rest of their paycheck to China for complete junk.

I should put my money where my mouth is. I should start an American sneaker company. However, I suspect the best way to make a small fortune making shoes in America is — wait for it, you know it’s coming — to start with a large one.

15 Replies to “Thanks But No Thanks, Betabrand”

  1. AvatarGregN

    No sneakers here, but I own so many American Giant products (3 hoodies, about 12 tees, a Varsity jacket) I feel I should have an equity piece of the company. All American made, bringing closed mills back to life, reasonable prices, and high quality clothing that will last longer than me.
    What’s not to like?
    Here are various articles about them, I think you’ll be impressed!
    (Disclosure: I have NOTHING to do with the company, just a very satisfied customer and fan.)
    http://www.american-giant.com/press

    Reply
  2. AvatarGert Frobe Body Double

    On my way back across the country from my recent trip, I stopped in to Northern Watters Knitwear. They knit all their sweaters hats socks etc in house on manual knitting equipment over in a corner of their store in downtown Charlottetown PEI. Because they’re making everything right there, you can customize any dimension or attribute of their many many designs (for free), if you’re willing to wait for it to be made.

    I settled on a shawl collar cardigan, but asked if they could make it heavier/warmer. They said their machine is capable of knitting with a third yarn, resulting in 50% more sweater for an extra thirty bucks or so. Sold. I also wanted the pockets done square, not slanted like theirs, and a little bigger than their normal square pockets. Done. I specified buttons (caribou horn), and colour (black welsh yarn – sort of a brown/charcoal with flecks of white – the colour of the sheep so it will never bleed or fade). All these changes were made directly with the nice local PEI lady who would later be knitting my sweater.

    Yes that last sentence would be called a dog whistle by msnbc.

    They said they could have it knit and ready in 24 hrs if I was going to be in town, but I said I’d rather have them knit it and ship it out to me as I had no room in my saddlebags. It’s been shipped, I should get it at the beginning of next week.

    Reply
  3. Avatar-Nate

    Kudos for buying American made products ! .

    I buy tools for The City Of Los Angeles and it’s harder to do than you imagine ~ Gilmour was the last supplier of America made hose bibs , I’m still trying two years later to find them made anywhere but China .
    Just one simple example .

    -Nate

    Reply
  4. AvatarHarry

    I think a full line american made shoe company would be possible, so long as you could decouple the appeal of the shoes from the “fashion” of sneakers, both the athlete (I got the new Jordans) driven image stuff, and the faux technology that changes from season to season. You would need production stability to make up for increased lead times compared to Asia for materials, as well as less nimbleness in changing lines. All of the competing factories in Asia makes it easy to increase or decrease production at a whim, or run many parallel lines for short bursts or whatever, and then just change production partners as needed as many of them keep the materials on hand and combine them like Taco Bell putting together 5 ingredients to make 45 menu items. Lead time advantages are usually associated with domestic manufacturing.

    The successful US made shoes tend to be of models that change little, such as the NB made in usa stuff, work boots, ect.

    Vibram has a plant in the US to take advantage of tax and contract incentives for made in the usa regarding the “tactical” market. I am sure they would sell to anyone who could by in large enough quantities.

    As a shoe consumer I tend to stick with a product I like until they stop making it. I love the NB minimus line, but they keep changing it, not always for the better, so I buy 2 pair when I like a fit to make them last longer.

    I would pay about $30 more than a corresponding Asian made minimal running shoe if it had the features I was looking for. The wholesale increase, assuming even half a keystone markup would make up for labor costs as it doesn’t take long to make an individual shoe.

    One thing I don’t like about some made in the us stuff is feeling like I am being raped on price. Its possible to make stuff in the US for not that much more. Labor costs are a small part of shoemaking as it just don’t take that much time per pair. Sneaks are incredibly high margin products, whose price is almost unrelated to the costs of the materials and cost of putting them together. The cost of making Jordan’s or Starbury’s is about the same, but look at the retail difference.

    In summation, get me to be an american made shoe buyer, it would be product with the features I want, priced at a premium but not a rapey one, and find a way to let me know you exists.

    Also, Darntough socks are awesome, been wearing them from when Cabot mills started the brand.

    Farm to feet is pretty cool too.

    Reply
  5. AvatarMichael

    I try to support the home team when it fits my budget. My shoes included Frye Arkansas, Red Wing Heritage, Vintage and Walkover. My belt is LL Bean USA. Bracelet by Form Function Form.

    Can anyone suggest an affordable black jeans made domestically?

    Reply
    • JackJack Post author

      Betabrand does a black Sons of Britches, I have a pair, and with the new customer discounts you should be able to get them for sixty bucks.

      Reply
  6. AvatarMichael

    Thank you for the tip on the jeans Jack.

    Now about New Balance. I started running two years ago to avoid diabetes and drop 60 pounds. Hence the interest in skinny American jeans. My local brick and mortar, Haddonfield Running Company, told me that New Balance is “assembled” in USA. Which models are completely made in the USA.

    PS keep up the variety. I love it.

    Reply
  7. Avatarlozz

    After a long life drinking copious quantities of beer, I’ve got the gout so bad I’ve had to switch to cheap casks of white wine and wearing cheapo tan slip-on carpet slippers from K-Mart. I have the least worn pair I keep for “best” and call them my “town shoes”. I’ve got two pairs of clapped-out ones I call my my “work boots”. I wear them mowing the lawns, feeding the chooks, working around the paddocks and that sort of stuff. I noticed that one pair has now left me basically walking on the ground, lately, so I’ll have to spring for a new pair, shortly.

    Reply

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