The Universe Conspires
When Just the Right Person Shows Up at Just the Right Time
Before spring break of our second year in graduate school, Brian and I had a conversation about travel. I was headed to Kenya and Uganda on a service trip that forever changed my life.
He headed off to Brazil for a friend’s wedding. Or so I thought.
I came back from Africa and asked him how the trip had been.
“I didn’t go,” he said.
“Wait, what? You missed the wedding?” I was perplexed.
How many times do you get a chance to go to a wedding in Brazil with dozens of your classmates?
“I drove to the garment district in LA instead,” he replied, “and I bought a bunch of fabric.”
I was amazed and inspired. Brian had been talking about the need for better fitting pants for two years, and a better way to buy them — and now he was taking action and getting ready to tinker with the product and see what potential consumers thought.
Next up he found one of the last remaining pattern makers in San Francisco. From pants he had altered over the years to fit an athletic build perfectly, the pattern maker made a pattern for a better fitting pair of men’s pants, with a signature curved waist band.
Brian had the fabric and he had a pattern with technical specifications. Now there was only one question.
Where to make the pants?
The Man Who Made Pants
A block from Giants stadium in San Francisco on Townsend Street, he found the answer. There he met Seymour, a Russian Jewish gentleman from Brooklyn, in his early 70s, and his Chinese immigrant business partner, Hong Ning.
“I don’t know Brian, pants are a tough business,” Seymour would say with his thick Brooklyn accent, skeptically. Over lunches in Chinatown and with enticing cash payments up front (great terms!), Brian cajoled the two of them into making pants. A handful of sewing machines sprung to life. Cut tickets were dropped off, with fabric swatches and buttons taped to them. 21-wale, super-thin, stretch turquoise and brown corduroys started rolling off the line, a couple at first, then a handful, then a few dozen, and then a hundred.
The corduroys were perfect for the Northern California climate, lighter weight for the blazing midday sun that scorches the yellow grass of the Portola and Woodside hills, and still able to keep you covered at night when the temperature would dip into the 50’s. Brian would pick the pants in a Subaru station wagon, stuff them into boxes and Trader Joe’s grocery bags, and drive back to Stanford to hawk them to our friends. Guys would drop their pants behind trees and parked cars, try ‘“the Spaly pants” on, and buy them on the spot. After playing a bit with the price, Brian started selling them for $95 a pop.
Now a handful of friends will part with maybe $500 or $1000, collectively, to support you. And that’s how it started. Then one sunny Saturday Brian threw a pants party at our house, playing lawn games in the yard and on the driveway. Brian had made a bolder bet on inventory out of his own money, and that day he sold $16,000 worth of pants.
When you are making that much money off your friends and not doing something illegal, you’re on to something.
I don’t know if Bonobos would exist without Hong Ning and Seymour. Manufacturing in this country has gone by the wayside, and yet with this little cut & sew shop that remained, and with their guidance, a business school student who didn’t know the first thing about sourcing were able to get something started. A recent article gives some reason for hope that small batch manufacturing might actually be coming back in San Francisco. While the scale manufacturing will be done abroad, these small batch shops are critical to our ability to make brands in America — because they are the experimentation chambers where the next generation of brands are born.
Years after our 2007 start, I visited Seymour and Hong Ning. There was a wall full of newspaper clippings on the rise of Bonobos. It brought a tear. Gratitude surged through me.
We took this picture.
An American Love Story
The bio on Seymour’s story from his book, From Mena to Seymour: Crossing Many Bridges reads as follows:
Seymour Jaron was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, NY, the 13th child of Jewish immigrants. He grew up on the streets, gaining a street-sharp instinct and don’t-mess-with-me attitude. After completing junior high his mother told him it was time to go to work. Realizing he needed an education, he put himself through high school. Seymour was then drafted into the army and served in Korea. Upon returning home he started working in the garment industry, supporting his growing family while attending night school and finally graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology. After working for many companies as production manager he moved to Portland, Oregon to work for White Stag. He finally settled in San Francisco, setting up and running his own sewing factory, SJ Mfg. He is still actively directing his company. Seymour now spends much of his time consulting with start-up clothing designers sharing his knowledge and wisdom, helping them gain success.
The Sunday before last was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust rememberance day. As a recent convert, it weighs even more heavily now. It made me wonder where Seymour’s family is from. I looked up Mena. It is a historic town located in Chernihiv region of northern Ukraine. In 1926, three years before Seymour was born, there were 1,321 Jews in the town. Now there are 20. According to a website on the Jewish communities of Ukraine, here’s what happened there:
On October 15, 1941, the Nazi units and local policemen shot 124 Jews (according to other sources, 31 Jews) at the local Jewish cemetery. The mass killing continued throughout November and December.
On November 29, 1941 near railway bridge on the Desna River in Makoshino 50 local Jews were killed.
On December 15, 1941 on the territory of the monastery in village Dominitsy of Menskiy district the Germans shot and killed 34 children from the local orphanage. Among the dead were five Jewish boys and girls.
On December 20, 1941 in Mena all Jews of the village of Blistavy were executed.
The last mass shooting that occurred in Mena was held February 2, 1942 in an open field near the road to the village, Kukuvichi.
Almost two years later, the Germans found the local school teacher, Halyavko Seraphima, and shot her in the village of Berezna with her three children, aged 3 to 8.
Before World War II, the Ukraine had 2.5 million Jews. Now there are 100,000.
Why do I bring this morbidity up?
Because Seymour’s story stands in contrast, and for me is a story, cliche that it may sound, of the American dream. It brings to mind what an amazing country this is, and can be, if we stay committed to building it — that with grit and hustle and love, we can do great things together.
Born the year the Great Depression began in New York City, Seymour’s is a rags to riches story, pun intended. He showed us the best of who we can be, and the mobility this country can afford. For me, a grandson of World War II heroes and the son of an immigrant, Seymour’s life is a reminder for the salvation this country can be for immigrants, and a call for the gratitude we should all have for the American service people who secured the future of the free world. That Seymour served in our military as a part of his life story makes it all even more poignant.
Seymour’s forebears came here and avoided the fate of the Jews of Mena.
They came here to build a better America, and they did.
Seymour’s work is a reminder of opportunities that have departed for the American worker, that we were once proud makers of things. As the world evolves and the robots get to work, the beautiful possibility is that declining labor cost percent to total in the cost of goods (COGS) might enable us to be makers again. The paradox of all the fear about robots and AI is that American workers might reclaim opportunities that were lost to international trade. It’s an optimistic view of the future, and possibly naive. But it’s a future that perhaps if we dream of we and realize. It’s far from probable or guaranteed without entrepreneurial will, hard work, and a focus on working together rather than externalizing blame. The threat to America is in seeing immigrants as job takers when, if we work together, they are actually some of the best job creators among us.
Thy Shadow Clear
Last week I found out that Seymour was no longer with us. I choked up. I choked up for the serendipitous ways the universe brings us the right people to us at the right times if we are willing to receive them. I believe if we have an open heart and a spirit of hope and gratitude, and if we are willing to notice and pay attention and value the people around us, the universe conspires to help us. It seems to me Seymour knew this, and that he lived it, and transmitted that goodwill to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
I choked up for the reminder that the world is also a difficult place, because our loved ones leave, and we don’t know why or when. Seymour was a lucky man, living to 89 years of age. I choked up in admiration for the life he lived, for his loving way with people, and for the way it seemed that making clothing and counseling retail entrepreneurs, for him, was just a way to express that love.
More than a million pairs of pants later, six hundred Bonobos associates wake up each morning and head to work thanks in no small part to Seymour. That legacy is a tiny part of what he accomplished in his life, and invites some wonder on all the lives he might have touched.
I’m reminded of the last two verses of the poem, To Brooklyn Bridge, by Hart Crane.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .
O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
If you have a few minutes, check out the below video. The photos of Seymour from the Korean War, and on the beach in his swimming trunks, are priceless. From the progression of photos as he grew up and moved through life it is evident what was important to him: the people around him. It is a compelling reminder that in the end what we do for each other is all that matters.
Rest in peace, Seymour.