Tucked into the foothills of the Appalachians, in Ashland, a town borne of the once-thriving Pennsylvania coal mines, sits a two story house. That house is home to one of the last great American shirt makers, Gitman Bros.
“This was Shelly Gitman’s home away from home,” Gitman President John Minahan explained when I visited last May. “He’d use this place to get away from the wife whenever he needed to.”
The basement of Shelly Gitman’s former home. The factory is the size of four football fields.
He’s not kidding. And neither am I. The state-of-the-art Gitman Bros. factory is built into the basement of Sheldon Gitman’s former home. The ladies who work in the first and second floor offices — really just converted bedrooms — use the pea green tiled bathroom as one of their break rooms. “How often do you find a microwave on the master bedroom sink?” One of the women quipped. They seem to love the quirky aspects of their surroundings. “See those file cabinets? They’re in an old walk-in cedar closet!” One exclaimed.
In the late 1930s, Max Gitman, a shirt contractor in Brooklyn, struggling to keep his factory going amidst pressures from rackets and unions, joined forces with other shirt makers — the predecessors of Eagle, Gant, Kenneth Gordon, and Sero, to name a few — and moved one-hundred-fifty miles away, to booming Pennsylvania where they’d ply their trade. While the men worked the coal mines, Max and his cohorts would train the women to become skilled shirt makers. With the culture of shirt making fully ingrained, for many years, Ashland, this lump, this tiny chunk of the coal region became known as a hotbed of better shirt making.
While in the last thirty years, most of the factories have closed shop and shipped their production overseas, Gitman stands tall. I was shocked to learn that many of the employees of Gitman are third and fourth generation shirt makers, and sometimes all three are still employed with mother handing off to daughter handing off to daughter. In this place, they talk of “good needles;” which is to say, a trained sewer is raised in the culture. Anyone can learn to sew, but, as I learned on my visit to the Quoddy Moccasin factory, where they struggle to find and train new handsewers, to have been born and raised into this has become a treasure in this country. In the morning meeting, I loved watching while three different solutions were offered for how to best turn a collar, hands flying this way and that over a pile of broadcloth.
Mr. Gitman ran the company, along with his twin sons Alfred and Sheldon until his death in the early 60s. By 1978, Al and Shelly had become pros of production, making private label shirts for all comers, but they’d yet to make a name for themselves. At the prodding of a few of their hip and happening salesmen, they re-branded a particularly popular sport shirt, their button downs. They called the shirts “Gitman Bros.” Loaded with trademark finishes such as a double track stitched collar, chalk buttons, a third collar button on the back, a locker loop, a box pleat, the option of a pop-over (at the time an innovation), and by making them up in some of the wildest plaids this side of the Atlantic, they set the sport shirt world ablaze. “For a while, Gitman was The Cool Shirt,” Mr. Minahan assured me. “Al and Shelly chose the chalk buttons because they were cheap. Pretty soon, everybody was making shirts with chalk buttons: Gant, Polo, you name it.”
Gitman Vintage’s Chris Olberding discusses tag placement for the line’s latest innovation. For Spring 2011, they will offer a selection of Japanese organic fabrics.
Fast-forward thirty years. One day while at the factory, Gitman’s youngest associate, Chris Olberding stumbled upon a dusty pile of old line books, and his mind started racing. “It was perfect. It was exactly what I saw happening in the marketplace,” he explained.
Starting with the vintage t-shirt hunters and sneaker freakers, the youth culture began turning its eyes to things of the past, quality products made with care in a manner considered old-fashioned, nearly dead. The same kid who’d spent $1000 on a pair of original Nike Waffles was investing in a pair of Danner Boots, also made in Oregon, and not far from where those Waffles originated. Selvage denim became coveted. The heavier, the better. Work boots, canvas bags, and naturally, the progression lead to shirts. Where in other aspects of the culture — the food industry in particular — supporting small, local businesses began to take hold, folks wanted to buy things made closer to home, because it required less fossil fuels to ship that thing to its final destination.
Plus, the fabrics are unlike anything out there. “There are patterns, stripes, plaids in these books that no one has seen in thirty years,” notes Mr. Olberding. But Gitman Bros. was unknown to the young customer (The only reason I knew Gitman was because a former employer assigned me to track down Thom Browne’s shirt maker). Over the course of the last thirty years, the brand grew old with its hip and happening customer of the 70s. It got fatter, too. Mr. Olberding trimmed the fat, four inches in total. He worked with the factory’s artisans to perfect the fit, and then he went about reproducing some of his favorite fabrics from the archives. And like that, they took off. More athletic than a Band of Outsiders, less relaxed than a Steven Alan, in its fourth season, the Gitman Vintage shirt is now regarded as one of the best-fitting shirts around. The basic button down oxford sells just as well as a stripe or a plaid from the 1980s.
A blouse for Gitman Sisters and a shirt for Gitman Boys
“Sometimes, I stand at the end of the line with tears in my eyes,” Mr. Minahan whispered. Holding the finished product, his pride and joy, “Look at it. This is a beautiful shirt. Nobody makes a sized dress shirt better than us. Nobody.”
Warehouse Manager, Diane Moser removes the Gitman label and applies a heat-sealed private label to a wing collar tuxedo shirt.
Shirts are packed two-to-a-box and labeled with a bar code and the store name. This box of Vintage shirts is going to A.GI.EMME, a store in Como, Italy.
Producing private label shirts, like this Regent Street Shirt for Cable Car Clothiers, was the majority of the business for Max Gitman.
“Fine Attire & Great Conversations.” This tag for Baton Rouge store, Louisiana Lodge is a personal favorite. Note the shotgun, fishing pole, antlers motif.
Patsy “Pockets” Schaeffer attaches chest pockets to the left front of shirts.
Where sleeve meets cuff, there is formed a small house-shaped opening, called the doghouse. You can see that with a quick origami move, it’s formed entirely by hand.
For more of my visit to Gitman Bros. see Flickr. Special thanks to all the folks at Gitman for a terrific visit.