Making it in U.S.A.

Sarah Van Aken just announced she was closing her firm, SA VA.
Sarah Van Aken just announced she was closing her firm, SA VA.

Local venture offers consumers outerwear with an American history.

Posted: December 03, 2013

At the start of the year, I brought you the story of two Main Line friends who, while holding down other jobs to pay the bills, had embarked on a bit of a dream: to produce a men's trench coat made in the United States.

Since then, Jacob Hurwitz and David Neill have raised $19,108 through a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign and have sold more than 40 of their $725 American Trench coats, made in Newark, N.J., and marketed primarily at www.americantrench.com.

Their handiwork, including socks made at a Reading knitting mill, has garnered kudos from apparel bloggers and online magazines.

More recently, they logged other achievements: Manufacturing men's scarves (selling for $72) from extra-fine virgin Italian wool and cotton in Philadelphia, where they had hoped to be able to make their coats. And landing a prominent Philadelphia CEO as an investor.

That executive wants to remain anonymous - he told me recently he was happy being on the sidelines, cheering for them. But he wound up doing more than he originally intended, which was buying a coat. His involvement will enable Hurwitz and Neill, both Wynnewood residents, to afford a second coat-production run - essential to creating capital and getting known in the highly competitive fashion world.

"It felt really good," Hurwitz, whose day job is at an energy firm, said of attracting an investor. "It also adds a little bit of pressure. You're taking somebody else's money and trying not to screw it up."

The timing of those words could not be more ironic. The very day Hurwitz uttered them during an interview in a Rittenhouse Square coffeehouse, Sarah Van Aken - a leader in the locally made movement - was, as I reported in Sunday's Inquirer, announcing to a meeting of female entrepreneurs that she was pulling the plug on SA VA.

Her seven-year-old, socially responsible women's clothing business, whose manufacturing operations she relocated from Bangladesh to Philadelphia in 2009, had robust store sales but not enough capital for a shift into wholesale, which advisers considered key to survival.

"It's tough to watch someone doing something similar and not make it," Hurwitz said last week.

In this case, the "someone" was the woman whose company helped make the production sample for American Trench's coat. SA VA was not able to produce the coat, however, necessitating outsourcing to a factory in North Jersey.

"We wanted the best for Sarah and her business," Hurwitz said. "She had started doing what we want to do - having her own production facility. Would we ever produce the coats ourselves in our own facility? Don't know. Right now, we would have to have really strong, probably worldwide demand for that due to the capital required to start your own facility."

The wholesale leap will be easier for American Trench, Hurwitz said. Unlike SA VA, whose products had to change continually to meet seasonal fashions, American Trench - while still in its infancy - has just a few products "that are easily wholesaleable . . . in other words, can be scaled instantly," he said.

American Trench - which doesn't expect to have any employees until sometime in 2014 - has more immediate concerns.

"One of the biggest challenges for us as newcomers is balancing the needs of manufacturers to produce volume versus our needs to create products and get them out in the market and find out which ones stick," Hurwitz said.

Judy Wicks, a leader in the local-economy movement in Philadelphia, throughout the United States, and abroad, said in an interview last week that despite SA VA's troubles, she believed the garment industry would be the next viable frontier in the sustainability effort. The emphasis will not be on higher fashion - SA VA's focus - but "on clothes that last."

"I don't think it's going to be so much fashion as it is manufacturing basic needs - A-line skirts, basic black dress, T-shirts," Wicks said.

Seeing such promise, she has invested in a men's underwear company in New York, she said, noting, "This movement is just beginning."

Believing that, too, is Gary Weiss, owner of Matthew Cole Inc., the 27-year-old Juniata facility that is producing American Trench's scarves. Weiss agreed to make them despite an initial run - about 175 scarves - well below its typical minimum of 240 to 300.

Weiss said he agreed after Hurwitz stopped by and exuded irresistible enthusiasm.

"He was so gung-ho, made-in-the-U.S.A., made-in-Philadelphia, that sort of turned me on," said Weiss, whose operation was not equipped to make American Trench's coats.

That the scarves can be made in Philadelphia is a thrill for two childhood friends who consider the city "our heart and soul," Hurwitz said.

"Hopefully, it's the start of many more things," he said.


>Inquirer.com

For more coverage, including a video of Jacob Hurwitz (right) and David Neill talking about the need they hope to fill with American Trench, go to www.inquirer.com/trench


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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