Not Hurting: An Interview with Hertling CEO Justin Christensen

Hertling USA, that long-time supplier of superb quality and effortless American style, is here to stay if Justin Christenson, Hertling’s CEO, has anything to say about it. Hertling’s supposed closure was reported and discussed widely on menswear blogs like Put This On and Styleforum.net, where the official Epaulet account claimed in February that Hertling was weeks away from closing its doors. Coming hot on the heels of the death of Hertling’s beloved patriarch, Julius “Julie” Hertling (covered by Ivy Style here), the closure seemed inevitable, an act of nature. The old-guard, and the companies they lovingly steered, were dying of old age.

The news spread. The teeth of menswear enthusiasts everywhere began to gnash. Wrists were wrung. I even joined in myself, confidently proclaiming the end of an era. Several weeks after the news broke, prominent luxury consigner Matthew Ruiz (owner and operator of LuxeSwap.com) acquired a massive quantity of Hertling’s stock and provided it to his customers at a steeply discounted price, a move that was interpreted by me as evidence that Hertling was dumping their remaining stock and preparing to shut the doors for good.

Perhaps most human beings are pessimistic at heart. Perhaps we look for the negative and hold onto it as if our happiness depended on it. If so, that tendency may have fooled us all. 

I was recently contacted by Justin Christensen, Julius Hertling’s hand picked heir and the current CEO of Hertling USA. He wanted me to know that I was mistaken in my assumptions. Hertling was not closing. In fact, they were just beginning to fight, and Justin was lacing up the boxing gloves as we spoke. After our initial conversation, Christensen agreed to answer a few of my questions and give Ivy Style’s readers an exclusive insight into his background and the state of Hertling USA. He does not lack experience in the realm of menswear and retail clothing, having worked stints at Ralph Lauren and Brioni.

But Christensen had bigger ambitions than simply working for someone else’s company. He and his wife nurtured a dream to own their own premium apparel brand. In 2015 he began creating a business plan and seeking investors to make their dream come true. It was during this period in 2015 that he met Julius Hertling. After a memorable lunch at one of Julius’ favorite Brooklyn spots, Bamonte’s, Justin knew he had met a very special man who ran a very special company. “To say the least,” he recalls, “I was intrigued from that day on about this man, this company Hertling. Long story short, that was the beginning of my efforts to convince Julie to sell the business. After all, he was 90 years old, and with no heir apparent, I couldn’t help but see how our visions aligned to carry on the heritage of quality American manufacturing.”

Julius sold Hertling USA to Christensen in October of 2016, a little less than a year before his death. The importance of stewarding, not only a legendary menswear manufacturer, but the legacy of Julius Hertling, is not lost on him. The weight of knowing I’m a steward of Hertling heritage, as well as others’ investment, is heavy and sometime overwhelming,” Christensen says, “but I love the responsibility. Creating and merchandising high quality products as well as leading a team like this are the kinds of responsibilities that I’ve dreamed of throughout my career. While I was at Brioni I was part of the global team who was transitioning a classic manufacturer into a modern luxury brand, and I learned so much about having reverence for who and what made the company great while being innovative to serve a new customer audience. I get to put my heart and soul into every conversation and decision, knowing that there are real consequences to my choices whether positive or negative. I go to sleep and wake up with this healthy weight every day.”

Although momentous — not only for Hertling’s loyal customers but for their employees and investors — Christensen’s choices are focused on creating a vibrant and healthy company that will continue to serve customers who have come to expect the highest quality from Hertling. “We have worked hard to keep our expenses low,” he says, “ranging from head count and labor costs to fabric purchasing and sales efforts.  At this point we have a good sense of what our capacity is, what selling prices we need to maintain, and what type of customer we can serve best.  We have developed a stock program of cotton stretch chinos and wool dress trousers from which we hope to launch e-commerce and entice new retailers to buy.  The key for us now is to grow our sales with existing and new customers.  The challenge is financing our inventory of fabrics with which we can fuel seasonal and basic replenishment orders.  I am working toward creating reserves and bringing in new capital to achieve our goals.”

But the choices being made at Hertling USA aren’t just about dollars and cents. Christensen is approaching Hertling’s future with a keen sense of who the Hertling customer is. “Generally the Hertling customer has a classic and elevated style,” he explains. “The Hertling gentleman makes deliberate choices about how to dress and where to shop. Those who think highly of Hertling have most likely been influenced by their local specialty store where they purchased the trousers, where the store owner or sales person spoke with respect for Hertling manufacturing, made in Brooklyn. There is a cool factor associated with Brooklyn, and this has been helpful for retailers and brands to set Hertling apart from others.”

With all the efforts to ensure that Hertling USA is financially healthy, appeals to a discerning customer, and maintains the highest standards of quality, the question still remains as to how the rumors of Hertling’s closure start in the first place. It seems hard to fathom how such an idea could have spread when the company’s new CEO is so optimistic about Hertling’s future and about continuing his dream of running a premium apparel company. On this issue, Christensen is forthright: “Ultimately I’m responsible for whatever rumors spread, because I was transparent with our customers about [the] challenges we’ve been experiencing and possible outcome scenarios. I had warned them that we may need to close or change our business model if we couldn’t sustain the financial strain on cash flow, but I also explained that I was the eternal optimist and it was possible we could find ways to survive.”

It’s hard not to see this as a misstep, though one prompted by a desire to be open and honest with customers. And to be sure, the challenges facing Hertling USA are real. They, in some ways, mirror the challenges faced by clothing companies around the world as the realities of the retail landscape change. The constant pressure to discount clothing items and to compete with the bargain basement prices that some overseas manufacturers are able to charge, has strained the American clothing industry for years, and there seems to be no end in sight. But if the pessimism that made so many of us believe that Hertling was going to be yet another casualty of fast fashion’s race to the bottom really is as pervasive as it sometimes seems, Christensen seems not to have been infected by it. Expect changes. Hertling USA can’t survive without them, and it can’t survive without drawing in new customers. But he is clear on what his focus is, and will be, moving forward. “On one hand the focus remains the same,” he says. “To design and manufacture high-quality men’s trousers. On the other hand, since I come from a retail background and have specific convictions about style and brand, our goals have changed slightly.  Now we are making decisions about what we make and how we sell it more with the brand and the end consumer experience in mind. We have defined our mission as ‘elevating style through beautifully handcrafted products,’ so we are working out how to achieve that from design to service, and we are essentially in the beginning of this journey.”

Christensen’s excitement for what’s to come on that journey is palpable. Talking with him about what he has planned is like talking with a kid who gets to design his own candy. “I hope to expand our offering of seasonal fashion style, aka ‘fancy pants,’ through ready-to-wear and made-to-order programs and I’d like to invest more time into collaborations with others, such as the development of an update to the classic Preppy Chino with a higher rise and tapered leg to bottom, which I’ve discussed with Ivy Style’s editor Christian Chensvold, and which we are in the process of fine tuning now. Of course the development of a women’s line would be a natural next step as well. Lord willing, we will continue to serve retailers, brands, and end consumers for years to come.”

Plenty of changes, to be sure, but Hertling is still a classic American brand. The long-gestating Ivy Style chino not only represents Hertling’s commitment to classic style, but also Justin’s desire to continue honoring Hertling’s long time customers while looking forward to new opportunities as well. If you want to keep making the classics sometimes you have to make fashion as well. Through it all, Christensen still maintains a deep reverence for the Hertling legacy and for Julius Hertling. “Julie taught me a lot as we engaged over two years, but I feel like I only scratched the surface of his life prior to his passing in August 2017. I continue to learn something new about Julie and/or Hertling each time I have a conversation with a customer or vendor who has been doing business with Hertling for 10, 20, 30, in some cases over 40 years.”

And what about that large Luxe Swap purchase that made made me so certain that Hertling was getting ready to close the doors? It turns out that Hertling wasn’t dumping stock after all. According to Christensen, the Luxe Swap purchase was actually an effort by Hertling to clear out old, first-quality stock in preparation for future projects. Hertling wasn’t preparing to throw in the towel, they were preparing to fight another round.

Julius Hertling thought Christensen was the right man to take over Hertling USA and to continue to fight for Hertling’s customers and employees. In his short time in the boxing ring of fashion retail for Hertling, Justin has demonstrated an ability roll with the punches and is ready to spar with the fickle 21st century fashion industry. Time will tell whether Hertling continues to be a knock-out with consumers, but If I’m putting money on it, I’m betting on Justin. Besides, I like to believe that he’s fighting with “Julie” in his corner. — PANI M.

20 Comments on "Not Hurting: An Interview with Hertling CEO Justin Christensen"

  1. He lost me at the word “stretch”

  2. GREAT NEWS!

  3. Thomas Mukherjee | April 30, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Reply

    Are there one or two tees in tedious?

  4. A lot of naivety in this article. Author should do some background research before publishing something like this. Interview other people involved with the Hertling business and do some fact checking.

  5. Seems like spin to me, that’s not the kind of error you can chalk up to poor wording…

  6. Michael from Epaulet has responded to the article on StyleForum.net. With his permission I have reprinted his response verbatim below. It seems likely to me that Michael and Justin remember the so called “closing” rumors differently and I’m not interested in assessing blame or trying to dig into who is right or wrong. But Michael’s response should give some further context.

    “Hey everyone, I know that there’s a lot of speculation about this and our prior announcement of Hertling’s closing. I just finished a very nice phone call with Justin Christensen, and wanted to clarify our position on things:

    1. For background, I’ve began making trousers with Hertling since 2009. I know all of their employees personally, and there were years that I visited the factory two or three times a week. Believe me, I want them to continue in business, with their Brooklyn team, as much as anyone.

    2. We coordinated the “Factory Retirement Sale” in direct concert with Justin. The intention was to do one last big production run, make a lot of pants for longtime fans, and give them some badly needed liquid cash to facilitate their closing. Shutting down a business in NYC, exiting a lease… all of that stuff is nightmarishly difficult and expensive.. so the “final sale” nature of our promotion and LuxeSwap’s enormous sample sale was intended to give them the funds to execute that closing.

    3. Justin wanted to keep the door open for Hertling to endure, so our sale was carefully worded as “Factory Retirement.” They will most likely move to another location, and the staff has undergone a significant reduction, so the Walt trousers made in our promo will be among the last units made at that factory, and they are the last units made by the original Hertling team in its entirety.

    4. As of now, Hertling is continuing to operate in its current space. Their quality is great, their product is consistent, and it appears that their level of business is sustainable.. so we’ll look to bring back both stock and MTO options as soon as we possibly can. They are actively looking to move into a smaller space, which will probably disrupt service for a time, but we’ll keep communicating about that.

    5. Our promotions (Epaulet & LuxeSwap) certainly brought in a lot of new customers, and that’s amazing. I really hope that everyone loves the products that they received. However, the price points that were offered are in no way sustainable for their costs. In our case, they were selling off older fabrics for essentially the cost of labor only. For LuxeSwap, they sold off older samples and stock items that were just hanging in the factory. With new production, you can expect cottons to be about $175-$200, wools to be closer to $275-$295. Like the current prices on their site. It’s extremely fair for the product IMO, but may be sticker shock for some first-time guys who only know Hertling from these one-off promotions. This will be the pricing that empowers them to keep going in New York City.

    6. To be crystal clear… the promotion that we offered was in NO way intended to mislead anyone or present a false narrative of Hertling’s closing. We were informed that Hertling was shuttering its doors.. and most likely its whole concern… around the middle to end of April. All of the copy written on our site and in our newsletter was seen and approved by Justin before it went live, so he knew exactly what we were communicating. So when this statement is made in the article by @Caustic Man :

    “the official Epaulet account claimed in February that Hertling was weeks away from closing its doors.”

    Be advised that the “official Epaulet account” is me (Michael Kuhle) and my “claims” were based upon direct information from the CEO of Hertling. He told me they were closing. We did the sale. Now they’ve found the funding to stay open and reorganize. I don’t know where the money came from and I’m not privy to their business plan. But if his employees like Anthony and Ming and Manchito and George can keep making pants in Brooklyn, then I’m going to keep ordering them.

    Ultimately we made a ton of amazing trousers for really great prices, so hopefully everyone is happy with their purchases. Likewise for the sample sale. Regardless of where Hertling goes, I doubt we’ll ever be able to offer anything of that scope or value in the future.”

  7. If Justin is reading:

    Will you continue to offer the Gene model? I sincerely hope so. A favorite of J. Press customers. And, best I recall, Andover Shop customers, as well.

  8. Meh. What Epaulet says in the comment above refutes most everything that the author and Justin say. I don’t know whom to believe. Someone is not telling the truth and I can’t imagine that the principal people involved (Justin and Mike Kuhle) can possibly recall different things on something this critical and so recent.

    Caustic Man on Styleforum specifically and clearly states that Justin never said Hertling was closing and that the closing “was uncritically assumed elsewhere”. (I take that to mean by Epaulet among others). In this article, the author claims it is “hard to fathom how such (closing chatter) could have spread when the company’s new CEO is so optimistic about Hertling’s future and about continuing his dream of running a premium apparel company.”

    Then Justin essentially throws Epaulet under the bus, while revealing himself to be a bumbling fool. Justin claims he was only being transparent when intimating to his retail customer that times are hard and he may need to “…change our business model if we couldn’t sustain the financial strain on cash flow, but I also explained that I was the eternal optimist and it was possible we could find ways to survive.” Somehow, this got misinterpreted and twisted into a conclusion that the factory would be closing soon, so let’s run a massive, last chance sale, and so the discussion about Hurtling’s imminent closing spread. Not that Justin did anything to stop these rumors, of which he was surely aware.

    Epaulet’s rebuttal (which reads as if it were drafted with the help of legal counsel) sounds like an attempt to cover its tracks, thwart possible litigation, and save face with certain customers who feel misled (based on comments in the styleforum thread). Same thing can be said about the comment by the author of the Putthison.com blog post which discussed the factory closing (again per the same styleforum thread). Both claim evidence that Justin said the factory was closing. So why is there confusion?

    Either way, it will ultimately not matter. Unfortunately the die has been cast on this once illustrious company.

  9. Caustic Man | May 1, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Reply

    Thanks for your comment, Javier.

    I’d like to address a couple of your points because I think you made some interesting observations. First, this:

    “I can’t imagine that the principal people involved (Justin and Mike Kuhle) can possibly recall different things on something this critical and so recent.”

    I can’t respond to this with any certainty since I was not privy to any private conversations between Justin and Michael. What I will say, however, is that after several years experience doing oral history interviews for academic audiences it is clear to me that memory can indeed be this confounding. Memory is fluid and is not set in stone. It changes over time. Even very brief periods of time, and by now this memory is months old. I’ve seen much wilder variations in how different people recall the same event. It’s a fact of life.

    Second:

    “Caustic Man on Styleforum specifically and clearly states that Justin never said Hertling was closing and that the closing “was uncritically assumed elsewhere”.”

    What I meant by that was that Hertling never announced in any public way that they were closing. Again, I can’t comment on private conversations that may have been had, but my point was that through all these rumors none of us in the public had actually heard from Hertling on the issue. We assumed the closure based on what other people had said. I’m sure none of those other people meant any malice by any of this.

    Just some things to think about. Take them as you like. Thanks again for reading!

  10. Charles Dana | May 1, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Reply

    Goodness. These comments–so prolix; so convoluted; so confusing. Here are the simple facts:

    (a) Julius Hertling is dead, and all the talking in the world is unlikely to revive him;

    (b) Either the new owners will successfully continue the Hertling business or they won’t;

    (c) The products, the management, and the priorities of a company depend on whoever owns the company at any given time, not on who owned it in the past. It doesn’t matter if God Himself owned a business for a thousand years before selling it–the only thing that is relevant is who owns the business right now.

    The past is the past. Hertling now? Wait and see. It will be around, or it won’t. You’ll like their products, or you won’t.

  11. My advice: don’t rely too much on bricks-and-mortar operations. Sell your pants to online businesses (looks like Dapper Classics remains a customer) with low overhead, or, better yet, open an online Hertling store and sell direct to customers.

    Of course, the latter is no guarantee of value. A Ratio or High Bar Shirt (Gambert) oxford is every bit as good as (if not better than) a Mercer & Sons oxford, yet the latter, factory-direct-to-customer, is considerably more expensive ($150). (aside: After I tried the Gambert 3.75″ unlined OCBD collar, I bid farewell to Mercer).

    The retail game can be so confusing.

  12. Take a pair of well-fitting trousers to your local Korean alterations tailor. Ask him/her to take as many measurements as possible. Or even better—have her/him dis-assemble them and make a pattern. It’s not brain surgery or rocket science. He/she will enjoy the achievement of producing a perfect copy, and you will no longer have to worry whether two pairs of trousers from the same maker, supposedly the same style/model are actually cut the same.

  13. Looks like Ratio is using Brooks cloth and manufacturers for ties:
    https://www.ratioclothing.com/products/navy-and-burgundy-repp-tie

    (I agree 3″ is the new classic).

    Wonder if they’ll go full bore Brooks and begin offering Southwick MTM online.

  14. Grey Flannels | May 2, 2018 at 9:00 am | Reply

    S.E.,
    Isn’t “new classic” an oxymoron?

  15. I’m wearing a pair of chinos that I bought from the notorious Luxe Swap clearance as I type this——they are truly wonderful trousers and a bargain even at full price. I hope that, whatever the future holds for Hertling, there will continue to be products of this honest caliber.

  16. Vern Trotter | May 2, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Reply

    I think I am stuck on a 3 1/4 minimum necktie. Used to wear the narrow ties, of course; that was when I was more narrow.

  17. I affiliate 3” tie blade with classic (Heyday eta) Brooks and perhaps J. Press, as well. And Chipp. Looking at the old catalogs, seems none of the above succumbed to the weirdo narrowness represented by other, “Main Street Ivy” brands and stores. When it comes to lapels and ties, three really is the magic number.

  18. *Heyday eRa

  19. Those Sears catalog Ivy jackets were the worst: what look look to be 2 1/4” lapels. Good Lord.

  20. Henry Contestwinner | May 9, 2018 at 12:49 am | Reply

    Grey Flannels,

    I imagine you like the phrase instant classic even more!

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