From the American Trench about page:
It seems paradoxical that a British garment (especially the trench coat, perhaps the most British garment of them all) would inspire two Philadelphia entrepreneurs to create their own version of the iconic trench, especially as a means to showcase U.S. manufacturing. Surely one could better flatter American ingenuity by making something quintessentially American: blue jeans, cowboy boots, or even, just for the sake of argument, Hawaiian shirts.
To more fully understand American Trench, I did two things: (1) I interviewed Jacob Hurwitz, the brand's designer and cofounder, about USA pride, materials, production, and all that good stuff, and (2) I took my American Trench coat back to where it originally began—not as a finished product in Jacob's Philadelphia headquarters, or as Ventile fabric at a New Jersey factory, but as an idea on the streets of London.
In 2009, a Philadelphia finance guy named Jacob Hurwitz visited London. A self-described "tea crazy man," Jacob took high tea at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly Circus, where he bought enough product "to get in trouble with customs." Afterwards he did some shopping under Piccadilly Lights, the curved wall of digital billboards that gives the area a Times Square feel. Amid the pulsating glare of modern advertising, Jacob found a gem from the past. "There was this little arcade," he remembers, "like the 19th century precursor to a mall. They had these little shops and one was basically a T.J. Maxx for trench coats. I was like, 'What the hell—when in Rome.'"
Jacob returned to the States with a classic English trench, specifically a white number from Aquascutum. "It wasn't double-breasted, but it was belted," Jacob says. "It was different than the one that we ended up making, but I still have it and I love it. It was our muse." The coat inspired Jacob and David Neill, co-founder of American Trench, as the two men considered business opportunities during the Great Recession. "There was this massive joblessness," Jacob says. "We just said, 'Let's make something,' and we started brainstorming. I think I showed up at his house wearing that (Aquascutum) trench. I don't even know who said it, but one of us was like, 'Well, who makes those?'"
"... while I'm in the middle of doing structured transactions on spreadsheets, I kind of had this epiphany, going down to, 'What is money?' When you pull a dollar bill out of your pocket, what does that mean? That dollar bill represents something that was created. It might have been created 100 years ago and put into a bank, but there was some physicality to it.
"In that regard, we made all of our wealth as a nation from making things, from manufacturing, not from trying to be bankers. Three-hundred million people can't all be bankers, lawyers, and doctors. It doesn't work.
"We got into the housing bubble because we got away from making things. The physical doing was making houses, but there wasn't enough other actual physical manufacturing, or services provided, to support all the making of those houses. So, when all that evaportaed, there was a massive job loss."
"Standing up in a classroom in Houston, Texas in 2005, I was teaching an Algebra 1 class. I was like, 'Oh my god, at least half of the people in this class shouldn't go to college.' But I was participating in this kind of fraud, of saying, 'Oh no, just go to college, everything will be fine.' Five to 10 years later there's a massive student-debt crisis that everyone is talking about now. Also, there's white-collar joblessness.
"The significance of a bachelor's degree has been significantly diminished. You can go to school and get super deep in debt and still not really have a demand for whatever it is you've done. Back when we were a manufacturing society, you would have had work because GE would have said, 'Well, you're smart in some way or another, and we'll figure out how to put you to work,' because there was a base of manufacturing that sat on everything."
During World War II, German submarines excelled at sinking British supply convoys in the Arctic Ocean. Allied air support was impossible, due to distances to the nearest landing strips. According to the official Ventile website, a solution came from the foremost resident of 10 Downing Street:
After firing at Nazi subs, British pilots had to abandon their planes and parachute into the Arctic Ocean. Pilots usually froze to death within minutes of touching down. Scientists at the Shirley Institute in Manchester began to research flight-suit materials, and eventually developed a 100-percent-cotton fabric made from long-staple fibers. Woven exceptionally tight, these fibers swelled when wet, creating a waterproof barrier. Because it did not require synthetic coating, the fabric, soon to be known as Ventile, could breath and stay lightweight. A British pilot in a Ventile suit could withstand Arctic waters for up to 20 minutes. After the advent of Ventile, 80 percent of downed pilots survived. Today you'll still find Ventile flight suits in the RAF and NATO.
"There's sometimes an over-technizaltion of garments now," Jacob says, "where everything has to be a seam-sealed Gore-Tex or whatever, and it's overkill. Ventile kept pilots dry in the North Atlantic in the 1940s, so it's going to do you fine when you walk down Fifth Avenue in a massive rainstorm."
Every night since arriving in London I've woken up with night sweats. Traveling from Chicago to Austria to England within the last week has done something to my system: My prodigious, sheet-soaking perspiration smells distinctly of ammonia. As I walk to meet Walter Rothwell in Waterloo, London, I think about the "Inspector Gadget" teasing that Jacob endured from his old-coworkers. Gadget would respond to my current predicament by casually producing a bottle of cologne from a random body part, lightly misting himself, and then releasing a windshield-wiper blade that squeaked against his cyborg skin. No matter how hard I scrub while showering at my Airbnb, I can't quite erase my body's new biting chemical odor.
Then there's the crowd outside Waterloo Station. Onlookers have overtaken the entire sidewalk in front of a Roma accordian player and her massive, shaggy dog (both of whom wear fanciful hats). Pedestrians on Waterloo Bridge hold selfie sticks like jousters charging hard with lances extended. Inspector Gadget could avoid all this by activating jet propelers from his fedora and buzzing across the Thames, high above all the commotion. Unfortunately, my American Trench cashmere knit hat, despite its many virtues, lacks aerospace capabilities. Very much earthbound, I wade and weave through the bramble of human bodies, tucking my shoulders and clumsily sidestepping like a hesitant boxer. Every encounter presents new opposition.
So no to Inspector Gadget. I'm dirtier and more human, closer to Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. At one point in that movie, Leamas (as played by Richard Burton in a single-breasted mac) describes his fellow spies as "... a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me." Given my compromised hygiene and growing misanthropy, I'd fit right in. Leamas came from the mind of spy novelist John Le Carré, whose fictional world was populated by insecure men with high-security clearances. These were petty men, venal men—not a single dashing Bond type among them. Indeed, Le Carré's spies were often as conflicted as the history of the trench coats they wore.
Immediately upon its inception, the trench coat began switching from means of concealment to statement piece and back again, on an endless loop. Consider:
The trench-coat's post-war mystique helped it become the preferred outerwear of hardboiled dicks. As G. Bruce Boyer notes in his book True Style, "... the go-to coat for private detectives in noir films of the ‘40s; (sic) Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent, Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet, Robert Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely, Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire, and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca." To this list we could also add more recent charactes like William Somerset in Se7en and the wise-cracking Lenny Briscoe in Law & Order. Also, in Le Samouraï, Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a hitman (another profession that requires concealment). Costello dresses in the classic gray fedora / beige-trench detective uniform. A criminal in classic crimefighting gear, he is doubly concealed.
The detectives mentioned by Boyer made the trench coat instantly recognizable, and laden with louche sexuality—thereby making it ripe for lampooning. Enter the likes of Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther opus, the oh-so campy Dick Tracy (he of the matching fedora and trench coat in banana yellow), and yes, Inspector Gadget. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie noted in a Smithsonian.com article, the world-weariness of the trench clashed with Clouseau's dire ineptitude, making him all the funnier. A similar irony buoyed the adventures of Tracy and Gadget.
Of course, all of this says nothing of spies.
I'm happy that I listened to Walter. He didn't want to shoot in Piccadilly Circus, despite my literal-minded insistence that we take my American Trench back to the mall where Jacob bought his Aquascutum. The Piccadilly photographs, Walter advised, would suffer from excessive visual data: neon spasms of Piccadilly Lights, whizzing double-decker buses as red blurs, and the relentless waves of toursits. Walter proposed that we rendezvous here, in an out-of-the-way spot in Waterloo.
John Le Carré would approve.
In his emails, Walter said he had a "brutalist" building in mind, and he proved good to his word. Just a stone's throw from Parliament, Big Ben, and overflowing streets, Walter leads me into a desolate stairwell. Prince Charles, a noted critic of brutalism, would loathe this place. There is no arhitectural whimsy, no aspirations toward landmark status, not even a happy little cafe on the ground floor. It's just another dreadful pile of raw concrete. Around us in all diretions, tens of thousands of people pass. Yet Walter and I stand here alone. We have our own ugly little nest several floors above the street. George Smiley (portrayed by Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—again in a single-breasted mac) might have taken a clandestine meeting here. I imagine forearms leaning on the stairwell ledge, tired eyes pretending to watch the crowds below, a newspaper changing hands, the "World Politics" section folded and fattened with stuffed manila.
And, I dare say, Smiley would better meet such an occasion in an American Trench than a khaki double-breasted coat from England's finest.
The classic khaki double-breasted trench is difficult to wear. In order not to look like Inspector Clouseau, you have to insert tension points. The idea is to clear some daylight between outfit and costume. Streetstyle elements like sneakers or a flat-brimmed ball cap work well, as do jeans. Fedoras are strictly off-limits, and then there's the matter of the belt. In one of its innumerable "how to wear a trench coat" slideshows, GQ advises readers to never tie it, instead buckling in front, as one would a pants belt. (FWIW, I find that fastening the belt behind your back works just as well and presents a cleaner look.) A couple years ago, I forget which men's journal advised its readers to forego the khaki trench altogether and opt for one in black to simplify the whole ordeal.
Wearing the American Trench does not require calculation. You can even wear it with a fedora. Or, as the case may be, you can wear it with a denim jacket, jeans, and boots in London while smelling of acrid chemical compounds and no will will notice. If that sounds negative, remember that Beau Brummel himself said that if Joe Public turns to look at your clothing on the street, you are not well-dressed. It takes a certain confidence to wear superior-made garments from superior sources that do not beg for attention like Piccadilly Lights or red-checked plaid. Jacob Hurwitz and David Neill reimagined the British statement-piece, and in the process created an American understatement piece.
The trench coat, like all style classics, will continue to be reinterpreted. And it will continue to swing from statement piece to camouflage, just as a flasher conceals himself under three-quarter-length khaki until the moment arrives for revelation. Or as the cartoon street hustler keeps his goods hidden inside his trench until you approach, when he opens the garment to reveal a row of timepieces pinned to the inside lining: "Psst, hey mack—wanna buy a watch?"
Even American Trench might veer into statement-piece territory: Jacob has talked of doing a double-breasted coat. Regardless of what the future holds, his demands for quality fabric, design, and manufacturing ensure that all future American Trench coats will be as quietly remarkable as the original.
Before London I spent three days in Austria, visiting a client. My time in Salzburg wasn't nearly as angsty, lonely, or viscerally malodorous as the London episode. During one 20-minute interlude, I felt a crystaline connection that rang like a struck tuning fork.
I am a happily married man
And you are 16 years younger
Pushing your bicycle beside me as we walk
Along the Salzach River
We talk about London (I leave tomorrow)
And a Viennese university (your program starts in a month).
Along the way I misread a sign,
Which I think calls for Syrian refugees to meet and march,
But as you explain, is only an advertisement for rock 'n' roll.
I plunge my hands into the pockets of my trench coat
And you continue to push the bicycle that you could ride away at any moment,
But choose not to,
For reasons I need never fully understand.