One of the only places I visited in 2020 was the Hertling factory in Brooklyn. Years ago I had the chance to have lunch with the Julie Hertling near his factory in Williamsburg. Julie was a legend and one of the most universally respected people in the clothing business in New York. Everyone had a Julie story and he was a beloved figure. I was told that everyday Julie would have lunch at either Bamonte's on Withers Street or at Peter Luger.
I love meeting the old timers who are the keepers of so much knowledge about making things in America. One day Mark McNairy took me to meet Julie at the Hertling Factory and then we had lunch at Bamonte's. I remember leaving that lunch with my head spinning. I love the old stories about when New York was the center of clothing manufacturing. Piece by piece I was getting to understand what manufacturing in New York had been like and what it had evolved to. Around that time in 2005 there were still some factories left, but it wasn't looking good overall for American manufacturing.
At lunch at Bamonte's it was clear that Julie was aging and it wasn't looking like there was a family member who wanted to continue on with the business. I was concerned that Hertling would disappear like so many other unique long-running manufacturers. Then something great happened. In 2016 Justin Christensen stepped in to acquire Hertling with a desire to maintain the tradition of quality that the Hertling family had built up over 91 years making clothing in America.
As you might guess, it hasn’t been easy for anyone making clothing in the U.S. The pandemic has added even more pressure on companies right now. That’s why Hertling is taking the unprecedented step to offer some its classic trousers for (almost) wholesale pricing. The crowdfunding campaign was inspired by the success of Rancourt's two efforts since the pandemic has severely depressed sales at small businesses. This is a great opportunity to buy a great pair of trousers and support a longstanding American manufacturer.
Hertling was founded in 1925 by Julius Hertling's father Morris. The company was one of the many shops that manufactured tailored clothing in Brooklyn. Nearly all those tailored clothing makers have since folded. Martin Greenfield is one of the few that are still making suits in Brooklyn. Following WWII Julie took over running the family business. In the 60's Hertling was making natural shoulder sack suits for J. Press and other classic men's shops. In the late 90s Julie decided to focus solely on pants. There was a time with some manufacturers when the jackets were made in one shop and the pants in another. The jackets were seen as technically superior and the trousers less so. I'm not sure that was a factor for Julie when he decided to narrow the firm's focus, but many described Hertling as an American Incotex. As far as praise goes, that's pretty high.
Recently, Justin has gone to great pains to continue what the Hertling family had built. Many long time employees are still with the company and Justin has done a great job to maintain the quality while refining the brand image. He’s working incredibly hard every day to do everything he can to grow the company and keep the factory moving. Its been an incredible challenge for him.
Things were moving along fairly well and then the pandemic rolled into town. As a manufacturer Hertling quickly started making masks and donated and sold tens of thousands. That helped avoid disaster for a time. But everything had to be considered if Hertling was going to survive. Justin eventually made the decision to move the factory from Brooklyn —where the company was founded and made clothing for nearly a century— to Fall River, Massachusetts. The staff was giving the opportunity to relocate and many are making the move with the brand. There's critical mass coming together in Fall River with several American brands (Frank Clegg, New England Shirt and Joseph Abboud making suits nearby) coming together to make a bit of an apparel manufacturing hub.
Hertling makes trousers for some of the best shops and brands including The Armoury, Bode, Harrison Limited, Ships and many others. It's a highly specialized operation that is solely focused on making pants (and of course masks) — which is something of special art. I'm a fan and a customer and when people ask me where I buy trousers I always point them to Hertling. That's what makes this opportunity so good for all involved.
Right now Hertling needs help to be able to continue to operate and for the move up to Fall River. This is an important moment for the brand to survive and prosper in the future. There have been moments in my life when a company I love closed and I wished I could do something to help. This is that opportunity to help Hertling avoid that fate and it's not a charity operation. We can help Hertling and at the same time get a beautiful pair of pants in exchange. This is a good moment.
I wanted to talk to Hertling owner and operator Justin Christensen about what's going on and what he's been through recently. Our conversation is below.
Hertling is coming up on its centennial. Are you concerned about the future of the business?
The centennial for Hertling is an incredible thing to me, it certainly motivates me to keep the legacy alive. I’m optimistic about the future of Hertling’s business, but I’d be lying to say I’m not anxious every day as I navigate cash flow decisions. Coming into our fifth year of ownership, since we acquired Hertling Trousers in 2016, I’m still learning how to profitably balance the relationships with our incredible wholesale partners and our growing direct-to-consumer business. In the smaller scale manufacturing model like ours, offering American-made premium quality products, we wouldn’t be financially sustainable if we only manufactured for other companies at wholesale prices, so the DTC piece is essential and we are building with this in mind, but I also love serving other premium brands who we make for. I know it helps us to keep growing with our technical design and ability, and I believe it supports our credibility in the industry. I’ve accepted the challenge to keep our wholesale business while also growing our e-commerce, so until we’re well on our way with our e-commerce strategy and revenue growth I’ll have a healthy amount of concern. Fortunately we have some exciting plans and products in store this year and beyond.
It's interesting to me that Hertling is so focused on pants. What makes trousers difficult to fit / make?
Hertling is focused on pants because that is the business and reputation for quality that we inherited in the brand, the team’s experience, and the customer base, but our goal remains to grow into other categories once we have this business model dialed in. There’s so much room for us to build this category alone, since aside from achieving fits that people need we source wonderful fabrics from around the world, and we’ve only scratched the surface with our fabric assortments. Our next step beyond men’s pants is to begin developing and promoting our women’s and kid’s pants, which we already make but haven’t focused on yet. Stay tuned for more on this, it should be fun, because on our end this is something my wife Laura, previously a designer at Ralph Lauren, and I will get to work closely on together. And then naturally since we have four kids we see the children’s category pretty clearly. We look forward to offering categories for an entire “Hertling” lifestyle.
How has COVID affected the company?
COVID forced us to quickly be creative and to rally together as a team in order to keep the company alive. Like many, we considered within hours of hearing about a possible lock-down in New York City, how we could use our resources to become an “essential” business, and within 1 day we developed a face mask prototype and launched sales via our Instagram channel. With all due respect to the tragedy COVID is causing all around us, we used the opportunity to make something of high quality and serve our city and country, and fortunately through relationships we had and favor with customers we were not only able to keep operating but to offer what we believe is one of the highest quality and reusable face masks available. We were able to start an organization with the partnership of other designers, medical professionals, and volunteers of all types called Face Mask Aid to manufacture and distribute over 100,000 masks since COVID started. As long as there are needs we will continue to channel funds through FMA to get masks to anyone who needs them. And this involvement plus our own Hertling face mask contracts with medical organizations, private schools, and nonprofit organizations kept Hertling in business until we were able to get back to making trousers.
Why are you doing this crowdfund? Why now?
One of the big decisions we made during COVID, as we reflected on how to achieve more financial stability as a company, was to relocate Hertling to Fall River, MA. This became a business and personal decision because we have relationships with other manufacturers and personal relationships in the MA south coast area which draw us to the area. When we realized that we could actually keep half of our team, incredibly the most important supervisors and operators, and literally pick up and move to a location where we could save such a significant amount of operational expense and where there is a special manufacturing community already established, it became clear this was a great path forward for Hertling and for our family. We are currently nearing the end of the actual move in March, so we will be able to move in and plug-n-play in our new Fall River office and factory by the end of March. This crowdfunding campaign is meant to provide our customers with a great price (close to wholesale prices) on our core product- cotton stretch chinos while helping to bridge the gap financially for us as we transition from Brooklyn to Fall River. We will be able to produce and ship the orders received by the end of March by mid-May, so it’s a win-win for us and for customers who don’t mind waiting a bit. If the crowdfunding model works well for us then I don’t see why we won’t do more of this for new products and styles as we build our direct-to-consumer audience.
How has it been to transition from being wholesale orientated to selling direct to consumer?
I enjoy defining the brand and customer experience, and I love serving customers. My goal is that they feel enriched by our product and the experience with us so that they return and tell others about us. Fortunately my previous experience was on the retail and brand side for almost 20 years, in both wholesale and retail management between Ralph Lauren and Brioni. So as we go further down this path with DTC I intend to contribute more to the marketing and customer service which will become part of which defines our brand beyond the product.
It seems like what's happening with the manufacturing companies in Fall River is reaching critical mass. What's the future of the brand in Massachusetts?
Yes, it is really exciting to enter the scene in Fall River. There is a long heritage of apparel manufacturing in the south coast area of MA, of which enough factories and workshops still exist to make it special and keep the technical skills and resources around to grow. We know and admire several other brands here, ranging from New England Shirt Company and Frank Clegg Leatherworks who will be in the same renovated old mill building as us, to Matouk which makes premium bed and bath linens. For the Hertling brand we hope to strengthen our existing pant business and become more financially stable before growing into new categories, but hopefully it’s not far off. We look forward to supporting one another and contributing to the reputation in Massachusetts for years to come.
If you know a friend would would appreciate this story and what Hertling does, please pass this along to them. If you can, please support Hertling’s crowdfunding campaign to help the company survive and prosper.
I asked Richard Press (Grandson of J. Press Founder Jacobi Press) if he wanted to share a comment about Julie Hertling. He sent me this: "As beneficiary of decades taken to lunch by suit, pants maker and friend Julie Hertling, his many stories ranging from heroic wartime service on the European front post D-Day to the innards of garment making. He used to kid me, “Press is small time compared to the department stores where I rake in the big bucks.” Hope the current business bearing his honored name survives."
Great piece here Michael.
Particularly I enjoyed your reminiscing about Julie Hertling. His personality and character made you want to do business with him.
I remember the first time I met Julie, over 30 years ago. Hertling was still making sport coats and suits at the time. We rode the elevator up to the fifth floor of their factory in Brooklyn, and toured various stages of coat construction on that floor until we rounded a corner, and there was Julie. He was leaning over the shoulder of an operator performing a sewing task, inspecting her work. It was late in the morning in July, and the factory did not have air conditioning, so it was already warming up. Julie had worn a navy suit to work that day, but by this point he had removed his suit jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He was sweating. And as he peered over the shoulder of this operator, there was a bead of sweat on the very tip of his nose that I just knew was going to land in this lady's lap!
Later, we would lunch together at Peter Luger. Julie had his own table there, along with a personal account, which made it almost impossible for anyone but him to grab the check at the end of the meal. I was so impressed!
That was Julie Hertling. Equal parts hard working and supreme graciousness.
Switching gears, I see the same exact characteristics in Justin Christiansen. I am hopeful that the new move to Fall River proves to be the difference maker Justin and Hertling. The Hertling pant is of such high quality- it needs to be preserved. Here at Harrison Limited, we have been using Hertling for our khaki pant program for about 4 years.
Thanks once more, Michael, for shining your light on this great company. I personally know of the power of your influence and I am hopeful your magic touch will pay off for Justin and Hertling as well.