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How Boathouse Sports Is Using Domestic Manufacturing to Build a Business and Attract Collaborations

PHILADELPHIA In 2020, fashion veteran Cindy DiPietrantonio took the reins of Boathouse Sports from its founder, two-time Olympic rower John Strotbeck, with the initial goal of getting it into retail stores. The brand outfitted pro, college and team sports for years and it was time to take it beyond the athletic field.

DiPietrantonio had an impressive résumé. A former chief operating officer of the Jones Group, she was part of the team that managed seven acquisitions for the company, including Stuart Weitzman, Nine West and Jones New York. When she first visited the north Philadelphia facilities of Boathouse, she saw patternmakers and sewers and cutters again. It reminded her of her early days at Jones when, in a pre-NAFTA world, the group still had production in the U.S. But right before she started, COVID-19 shut down team sports and store; the factory kept its doors open by making masks and gowns instead of athletic apparel.

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Today, more than three-and-a-half years later, DiPietrantonio has helped build social currency for the brand and boosted sales. To do that, she expanded its e-commerce business; added new styles for the everyday athlete; entered the brick-and-mortar market in Philadelphia, Boston and other cities (they are in 24 stores now), and created a series of brand collaborations with companies that share a similar DNA. The company also expanded its private label business and built an ecosystem of sewers and skilled labor in a city that was once one of the largest textile and garment manufacturing centers in the country, employing 35,000 garment workers.

Boathouse’s focus on domestic manufacturing is making it increasingly attractive to other brands for collaborations. It certainly is what appealed to menswear retailer J. Press, which will launch a joint collection with Boathouse later this month.

“Everything we can get from the U.S., we do, so we loved that it is made in Philadelphia,” said Robert Squillaro, J. Press’ chief marketing officer and senior vice president. “We have also wanted to offer performance activewear to appeal to a younger audience for some time.”

Fourteen styles will ship mid-March to J. Press’ four retail stores in New Haven, Conn.; Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan — regatta and coach’s jackets, athletic pants, a rugby shirt, vest, hoodie, shorts, long-sleeve UV T-shirts and a bucket hat. The pieces will retail for $45 to $174.

To promote the collaboration, they’ll shoot a digital ad on Boathouse Row (the company was named after the famous boathouses that line the Schuylkill River where rowing regattas have been held since 1835) featuring members of the Vesper Rowing Club. A launch party in April will be held at J. Press’ Madison Avenue location.

Last year Boathouse was introduced to Philadelphia native and pro skater Jimmy Gorecki, now a Los Angeles-based streetwear designer of JSP (Jimmy Sweatpants) who got into fashion through skateboarding and working with designer Pharrell Williams. He designed a limited-edition clothing line with the Philadelphia Eagles last fall and wanted to create a small collection that celebrated the skate culture at Temple University, his alma mater. He studied Temple’s old logos and vintage apparel for graphic inspiration, then toured the Boathouse facility spotting a mannequin with a hoodie, jacket, track pant and bucket hat, saying, “That’s the fit,” he says. “We wanted to make the clothes look like it would be an unofficial skateboard outfit if Temple had a team.”

The Boathouse, Gorecki, Temple University collaboration includes the Boathouse retro coach’s jacket, journey pant and bucket hat. JSP will produce a hoodie and T-shirt. The pieces, which will retail for $45 to $180, will be sold in Philadelphia stores (Nocturnal Skate shop, Lapstone and Hammer), online and at the Temple bookstore. An on-campus launch party is planned for April 4.

The shared connection to the water and the U.S. provenance also were the draw for DiPietrantonio to work with Portland, Maine-based Sea Bags, which uses recycled sailcloth for their bags.

“They have a rich history of sailing, sail making and coastal life; their bags are made from recycled sailcloth. Our company was born on the water,” DiPietrantonio said.

When the company chief executive officers met, they said “wouldn’t it be cool to do a jacket out of sails?”

Boathouse will ship a windbreaker of full sail cloth and another style with sailcloth and their waterproof material (retail $130 to $170) to sell in their stores and online in June. They have also made UV T-shirts, a bucket bag and cooler. Later in the summer, Boathouse will drop a new varsity-style jacket, made of heavier weight recycled Dacron sails.

“These collaborations have helped us tap into new markets. They also allow for the exchange of creativity, innovation and expertise with our collaborators,” said DiPietrantonio.

Beyond the collaborations, Boathouse has created a line without a logo or license to reach new customers. The Destination collection launched last fall during a season when both the Phillies (baseball) and Eagles (football) teams were a point of pride.

“Philly was having a moment. We thought, how can you still be a fan in a subtle way? Why not just put PHL, the airport code, as the logo,” said DiPietrantonio.

The PHL plain gray sweatshirt ($108) and hat were born ($28) and are sold in-store and online. They have since added a BOS, ATL and ACK and will expand to other cities. “We are shipping them all over the country. It has been a real hometown pride piece,” she added.

Boathouse is working with professional sports teams like the Wings (lacrosse) and Flyers (ice hockey) to make custom fan apparel to sell at their arena stores. “We have applied for an NFL license to make apparel,” said the CEO. “We receive numerous requests from both fans and teams for NFL apparel due to our exceptional quality and the preference for domestically made products.”

As other athletic brands left the U.S. to produce overseas, Boathouse resisted, feeling a responsibility to their workforce. Many at its production facility have been there for decades. A vertical operation with 130 employees, Boathouse is capable of cutting, sewing, embroidering, sublimating and shipping. Because of that, they are contacted by private label companies to produce under their brand name. Last year they completed a large project for Boston-based New Balance for their Made in the USA line, a collab with Teddy Santis. They made a track short and matching short. Santis specifically requested all components of the apparel be made in the U.S., including those that involved sewing.

The biggest challenge to meet their production demands is training and keeping a skilled labor force. “Finding skilled workers may be more challenging domestically and why we need to have a continuous cycle of teaching,” she said.

DiPietrantonio is part of a planning group in Philadelphia with a few other cut-and-sew operations in the city working together to train garment workers. She is also working with the state of Pennsylvania and city and a consulting group to teach people in the community the craft of sewing, patternmaking and other skills related to the industry. The consulting group helped Boathouse apply for a $25,000 grant through the Workforce and Economic Development Network of PA for training. “We want to have the ability to bring in more to learn this trade. The company pays a competitive living hourly wage instead of a piece rate and provides health benefits and a 401K to their employees. “We are contributing to the employment of more people.“

The CEO said bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. on a larger scale requires a multifaceted approach involving government, businesses and consumers. She cited the recent closing and layoffs at North Carolina textile plants as an example of trade policies, namely the de minimis rule in this case, that are hurting the industry. (A coalition of Congressional and industry leaders is examining closing some of the loopholes in this rule to help domestic manufacturers.)

“The government can implement policies that incentivize domestic manufacturing such as tax breaks, subsidies, and tariffs on imported goods to level the playing field,” she contended.

“Ultimately the survival of U.S. apparel hinges on consumers comprehending the profound advantages of purchasing domestically made clothing, thereby championing local communities and fostering economic resilience. I am a big believer that to effect change in this country, we require resilient, strong communities.”

Launch Gallery: Boathouse Sports Collaborates with Menswear Retailer J. Press

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