“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.