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Published in Fast Company, July 12, 2012
Jake Bronstein’s ascent to underwear baron is both unlikely and oddly apt. A showman since his teenage debut on MTV’s Road Rules, Bronstein’s career has always ridden perilously close to the panty-line. After a stint at FHM Magazine, Bronstein’s professional pranks included dating 50 women in 50 states and a love-letter subscription service. Even his more earnest ventures–like desk toy BuckyBalls–carry a glancingly off-color name.
Bronstein’s latest project is Flint and Tinder, a premium men’s underwear line made entirely in America. It owes its name to a VC’s scoff that the only way to reignite American manufacturing was with flint and tinder. Bronstein set out to raise $30,000via Kickstarter, and nabbed nearly ten times that with 23,000 advance orders, making Flint and Tinder the most highly funded fashion project in Kickstarter’s history. Now Bronstein is–ahem–tooling up for a 64,000-unit product run with FesslerUSA, a T-shirt factory in Orwigsburg, Pa.; he expects the first shipment this summer. It’s either a well-funded lark or the kernel of a real business; only time will tell.
Fast Company recently spoke with Bronstein about his new venture, the surprising benefits American manufacturing offers, and how obsessing over costs has obscured those benefits.
FAST COMPANY: What makes Flint and Tinder underwear so great it’s worth paying 18-plus bucks for it?
JAKE BRONSTEIN: You have to try premium underwear to understand. We use Supima, a premium long-staple cotton grown in California. Its long fibers spin extra-tight, instead of pilling with every washing, it just gets softer. It’s extremely durable and doesn’t stain as easily as ordinary cotton.
You add to that to a nice waistband that’ll live through a lot of wash cycles. Then you want to spend a disgusting amount of time in fit and grading. It’s the fit that makes the underwear great. Each batch of cotton we turn into fabric is tested for shrink and torque in every direction. When you launder this underwear over and over, it shrinks to the perfect fit.
How prominently do you plan on marketing the “made in America” angle?
We’re not putting “made in the USA” front and center. We don’t want to make you feel guilty. We just want to be your favorite pair of underwear that happens to be made in America.
Think of New Balance. You might not know they’re made in the USA; you just know they make a great running shoe for wide feet. If we can accomplish the same thing, we’ve done something truly sustainable.
“Made in America” will never work as a slogan if you’re asking the consumer to pay more for a product made just as well, but more cheaply elsewhere. If you can’t make the product cheaper, you just have to make it better.
Other than patriotic satisfaction, does American manufacturing offer advantages that manufacturing overseas can’t?
It’s all about fast turnaround. Once we’re up and running, we could adjust a pattern or style and get it on the shelf within two weeks. If you order that adjustment from Asia, your shipment can live on the water for two weeks. You can’t be very nimble.
[Manufacturing overseas] also ties up a lot of cash flow. When I make things in America, I can get product to the retail store at more or less at the same time I pay for it.
“Net-30” is the standard cost structure of retail–you get 30 days to pay for product, and those terms get passed up and down the line. If I give net-30 to the factory and then get net-30 from the store, I need to loan the store 20,000-plus pairs of underwear. It’s in that cash-flow gap where businesses succeed or fail. But everything moves faster if you manufacture in America. The time from factory to fulfillment can be 20 minutes in a truck versus days on a boat.
What will Flint and Tinder do differently from the big behemoth in this space, American Apparel?
American Apparel must make 20,000 different product SKUs. They crank ’em out with great efficiency and in lots of colors. To be competitive, we’ll have to make a great product with laser-like focus. We’re going to get really good at making four items, that we get really great pricing on. Ours will be a different beast.
Is there a kind of product or business model that’s well-suited to American manufacturing?
Because of very low labor prices, making this product in Asia would cost 20% of what it costs here. So you can’t make products in America that rely on pure labor. It has to be labor mixed with great design or excellent craftsmanship–labor mixed with something.
When I start shipping this product, I hope businesspeople ask themselves: did they everreally try to make their product in America? Or did they just assume it’s too expensive? I fell in that latter category until I took five months to look into it.
What else did you learn when you walked into FesslerUSA?
There is still industry here, even if it’s having a hard time. People want to be productive and innovative. It’s hard to go to your job every day and wait for the axe to fall. But if you can change the conversation, get buyers and makers to start talking, there’s a lot of potential in that.
Take FesslerUSA. Here’s a factory in a struggling industry that decided to plan for the future and upgrade their equipment. They recently invested $2.2 million just in solar paneling. They made other infrastructure improvements to maximize power efficiency and production to the point where they do, at certain times, send power back into the grid (instead of drawing on it). The upgrade that excited me most, though, was the Gerber cutting system they installed. It’s one of the most technically advanced cutting systems on earth.
That’s both hopeful and smart–and it’s a big part of the answer to our economic woes. Selling our equipment overseas is what got us into this mess. It’s in the downturn that you have to invest in yourself.
What advice would you offer other startups aiming to make a physical product in America?
You need to talk with experts, then you need to ignore them all. They’re not lying to you, but they focus on the problems. The only way innovation can happen is when people who don’t know all the answers look into it.
When people talk about “made in America,” the argument always comes down to cost. But the big secret is how little people actually care about cost.
Look at your shoes, your cellphone, your bag. You decided first that you wanted those products; you evaluated their design, construction, or fit. Then you asked about cost. This isn’t to say that costs can be out of hand with every product; otherwise we’d use Louis Vuitton bags for everything. But nobody has ever looked as anybody’s shoes and said: wow, those look really cheap, where can I get a pair? We need to obsess over cost a lot less. Consumers don’t act the way we say they do.