SanMar’s First Private Label: Port Authority

It was the early 1990s and the imprintable apparel business was changing.

While t-shirts and sweatshirts would continue to be a staple, an emerging customer base of promotional product dealers were beginning to ask for broader assortments. Specifically, demand was growing for button-down shirts, polos, jackets, caps and bags.

SanMar saw an opportunity to source these products itself. “We simply could not buy those items from an industry vendor where you could add a favorable margin and sell them to the marketplace,” recalls Steve Feinstein, SanMar’s head of product sourcing and development. “So, it prompted us to go into our own private labels.”

Steve knew SanMar needed to develop experience in international sourcing and merchandising. So he brought in Mike Patenaude, a seasoned retailer with decades of experience.

“We had to come up with a name for the product. Marty’s cousin was a writer and gave us a huge list. We live in Seattle and it is a port, and we liked the nautical theme. We didn’t think of New York.”
– Sharon Lott –

As potential sourcing locations were being vetted around the globe, a name was needed for the brand-to-be. Marty went to a family member to brainstorm options. One name on the list was “Port Authority.” It struck a chord with the Lotts, who were avid boaters, and the Port Authority apparel brand was born.

The nautical name has a carefree lifestyle overtone and lends itself to aspirational imagery of sailing, nautical flags and blue skies. Port Authority has a somewhat different connotation in the Northeast United States, where it shares the name with an expansive transit system. SanMar’s Port Authority sportswear line soon distinguished itself in the world of promo apparel and gained a reputation for quality merchandise.

“We knew the market and we were confident in what to pick,” says Steve. “We were going to inventory classic products only – those that could stand the test of time and never go out of style. I think that most of those first items we started with are still around today.”

The Port Authority Heavyweight Cotton Pique Polo, made with prewashed ring-spun combed cotton, was SanMar’s first private label product to hit blockbuster status. Many more would soon follow.

The private label business model was off and running, and there was no looking back.