People don’t understand how hard it is to build a clothing brand. Even with serious connections and financial resources, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. It feels like consumers are shielded from the challenges of the business despite all of the info that is out there about what goes into making things. Despite “radical transparency” it turns out that a lot of what people see is just marketing. Layer in the complexities of manufacturing and running a successful apparel business becomes even more perilous.
Having worked with clothing companies my whole career, I’ve learned to appreciate the grit that it takes to find success. All of this exposure to the clothing world has helped me see just how special companies like Battenwear truly are. First of all, it’s hard to build a brand that resonates with people. Then on the other side of the coin, it’s often growth that topples brands. Case in point. Being small but profitable is probably even more difficult, but that’s what Battenwear has done. It’s not necessarily a flashy business but it has a lot of integrity and I’ll take that over hype any day.
Battenwear was founded by Carrie and Shinya Hasegawa, a husband and wife team, who bootstrapped and built something small but potent. It goes against the current drop culture or cycles of fast fashion, but the collection hasn’t evolved much over time. Many of the best sellers and long-time favorites —like the classic 60/40 jacket— have stayed in the line for nearly a decade. By the way, the 60/40 that Battenwear makes is the standard by which all other 60/40s are judged. The Sierra Designs original is long gone at this point, and despite being the inspiration, it’s an inferior product compared to Battenwear’s version. Battenwear’s fit is better (armholes are higher, fit is trim but comfortable) and it’s made in the U.S. But I digress.
I met Shinya during his days at WP Lavori working on Woolrich Woolen Mills. I ended up being one of the first people to write about the brand when it launched. Just like with this story, Shinya wasn’t hounding me looking for the press. He was hard at work making great stuff that would endure. Check out those photos from 2011 and many of those pieces are as good now as they were back then. That’s what every brand should be trying to do with their designs, but the sad reality is few actually are.
Battenwear is the perfect type of brand to talk about on ACL and I reached out to Shinya and Carrie to see how things are going nearly 10 years on. How could you not support people like this when you see how they operate? It’s so much more of a human endeavor than we probably deserve. The man who designed the jacket and oversaw the production is talking to you on FaceTime and then packing the box with your order? Carrie and Shinya give me hope for the future. I hope you enjoy our chat is below.
How has it been since you moved the brand to California from NYC? Is the Topanga office ever going to become a shop?
Shinya Hasegawa: When we first decided to move our family to California and open a design studio out here, I was worried that our customers might have a negative reaction because most people think of Battenwear as an NYC brand. But three years have now passed, and it has gone well. People seem to agree with us that Battenwear is also a good fit for the California vibe. Our office is located in the middle of Topanga Canyon, surrounded by lots of nature, with both the mountains and the ocean at our doorstep. It has been good inspiration for designing.
Since we started the brand until recently, we always had an office in Manhattan’s garment district, which is a neighborhood I really love. When we moved out to CA, I used to go to NYC regularly. It was a lot of travel, but it was really satisfying. I lived in NY for 14 years and it became my home, where I learned how to make clothes, where my family got started. So, it was disappointing when we had to close our NYC office and then stop traveling due to Covid-19.
The upside is that now I finally feel confident about having Battenwear in California. We still work with partners in NYC and I hope to be able to go back to traveling out there once the pandemic is under control. But I’m glad to have Battenwear in Topanga. It feels like home now, for me and for the brand.
We are actually planning to have the Topanga office as a public showroom. People can come to visit the space and try on our gear and then have goods delivered from our warehouse to their home. Just stop by on the way to hiking or the beach. We have a big outside space at our office, perfect for pop-ups and other events. We’ve organized a couple of multi-brand pop-ups at our Topanga space so far and they have been successful. I want to make this type of event more regular.
How hard is it to make stuff in the USA?
Lots of US-based factories have closed since we started the brand in 2011. Sometimes we can expect the closure before it happens, sometimes it’s a surprise. Either way, it is getting more difficult to keep making products in the States. Sourcing fabric and material is also getting harder and more expensive. At the same time, the minimum wage is going up, which is a good thing! But, as you know, the majority of clothing cost is the labor fee. We get a fair amount of people complaining randomly on Instagram about Battenwear being expensive. I wonder if these people think we are just making prices up? I wish more people would seriously think about whether buying cheap clothing at a fast-fashion store is good or not. And what cheap and expensive mean in the bigger picture.
Speaking of Made in the USA — is it better than you expect or harder than you would want it to be? Help people understand the good and the bad.
I learned how to design and produce in the USA and have only really made things here, so it is difficult for me to compare with how things are done in other countries. But I can say that making clothes in NYC’s garment district is like a dream for a clothing designer. Everything you need is located in the same area, within a few block radius. Fabric suppliers, trim suppliers, pattern makers, cutting rooms, grading rooms, and sewing factories. I don't think there is another place like NYC’s garment district in the world. You can experience and be a part of the entire process of making garments from the beginning to the end. You can control the quality at every level. If you work at a big international company, you won’t experience that kind of excitement and satisfaction. I feel really lucky to have had that experience and to have been able to come up with most of Battenwear’s core items in that neighborhood.
As for the “bad,” it’s expensive. But that expense makes sense to me. And another thing that other people might think is “bad” is that there is less capacity for mass production in the US, at least with the factories we use. So each item is individually made, which can lead to uniqueness among items, which some people think is a sign of lower quality. I like this “hand-made” aspect of made in the USA, though, and I think a lot of our customers do too.
Your collection is really classic and timeless, but how has your business changed in the last 5 years?
When we started Battenwear in 2011, the majority of our clients were Japanese stores. At that time, Japan currency was stronger than America’s, so their buying power was significant. In addition, Japan’s fashion trends at the time matched to our products very well, so we were lucky to have good orders and good customers from the beginning. Since then, the Japanese economy has gotten weaker and the currency rate is not as favorable to Japan. Our business with Japanese stores and partners continues to a strong focus for us, but we’re also glad that at the same time we have been expanding our business in the USA and Europe and beyond.
Most of the stores that carry us now have been doing so for more than 5 years and many from the very start, almost 10 years ago. It’s been a great experience to develop these long relationships. In addition, we’re happy to be doing more online direct to customer retail. That’s something that has taken off in the last year or two.
Throughout all of these shifts in who buys us, we basically haven’t changed our style. We are really glad that there are a lot of people all over the world who love the classic/timeless vibe that we make.
What do you see that inspires you? Do you get inspiration from the U.S.? Archival things? Japan?
Mostly I get inspiration from America. I started getting very interested in American clothing when I was a teenager in high school in Japan, and my concept toward clothing hasn’t changed much since then. Most of what I make are things I wanted to buy but couldn’t afford as a teenager. Back then, I spent a lot of time looking through fashion magazines and outdoor catalogs and dreaming about wearing the clothing I saw. I am really lucky that I am now a person who actually can design clothing and now materialize what I wanted when I was young.
Since my teenage years, of course, I’ve expanded my idea for the best clothing and gear based on what I have seen and experienced from my daily life such as traveling and outdoor activities. For example, I spend a lot of time thinking about what type of pockets, gussets, and other technical details would be most useful. The things I loved when I was young make the foundation of Battenwear, but I’m always adding and expanding and fiddling with the specifics.
What's next for Battenwear?
At the moment, we are trying to keep Battenwear small and simple. In some ways, our daily work feels a lot like the start of our company, when it was just two us in our living room in Brooklyn, dreaming up gear that we wanted to make, and figuring out how to do it. Then and now, we have big dreams, but we know we need to stay rooted in reality. Now, in particular, we really don’t know what’s next. The pandemic has thrown a lot of what we can expect from our customers, our factories, and ourselves into question.
Actually, this pandemic period made me think a lot about the fashion industry and our place in it. When we still had our NYC office, we were planning to keep two main offices—one on the east coast, one on the west—and we wanted to have a flagship store in NYC, add on a LA store, and go from there. This seemed like a path a lot of brands we like were taking. But now? We are taking the time to think about what we really want to do. So many other brands that have expanded too quickly or taken on investors who have different goals are suffering very much right now. So many stores and brands are having to declare bankruptcy.
We’ve been lucky to avoid the worst financial hardships so far, but maybe in kind of a ridiculous way: It’s only my wife and me working for the company right now. We do all sales, customer service, PR, production management, photography. We do have a warehouse to help on shipping, thank goodness, but we still ship a lot of online retail items ourselves, hand wrapping them, taking them to UPS at the end of the day. We have done FaceTime with customers who have questions about items, and we correspond by email with customers every day. We know a lot of customers by name and keep in touch on various things. It’s been kind of awesome, although I’m sure it’s not something we can continue doing forever. But we have learned a lot from this experience. And more importantly, it’s helped me get back some of the enthusiasm I felt when I first started the company. It has refreshed my brain, so that whatever comes next for us, I think we’ll be ready for it.