Undoubtedly, the recent and regularly publicized trend for Americana has created new reverence for locally made and manufactured garments. A number of brands following that notion regularly escape our full attention. To that end, Cary Randolph Fuller spent a bit of time chatting with a few of the folks in New York dedicated to Big Apple production.
The purpose of the Q&A is two fold – one, to give voice to smaller brands and two, investigate the process they go through as emerging entities. A third reason behind our Q&A was to get a little feminine perspective on Selectism. We’re male heavy, and though the subject might not be directly geared to the lady, Cary’s concern and interest in menswear differs from ours.
The focus here might be New York and the City might have garment trade advantages over other locales, however there are universal lessons that may be useful/inspiring to people across the United States.
What follows is a discussion with Adele Berne and Mike Kuhle of Epaulet, Eunis Lee, Mordechai Rubinstein, and Roy Dank. Above is an example from Roy Dank’s The Wurst Editions. Pieces from the others are peppered throughout the Q&A.
In New York, city of eight million, it can be hard to reach a consensus on anything, but for five designers who live, work, and play within the five boroughs, theirs (and ours) is the only city that will suffice for the production of their garments. Thanks to the (relatively) recent revival of all things Americana and a little research on the part of bloggers as devoted to good menswear as they are intrepid, it’s getting easier to mark those goods Made in the U.S.A. These brands are doing us one better by doing it local.
In SoHo Eunice Lee creates Unis, a brand well known for clean, modern basics that dress up as well as they dress down. Roy Dank turns out the Wurst Editions from his Lower East Side studio. Mordechai Rubinstein of Mister Mort designs cheeky updates on beloved classics in the heart of the Garment District. And representing the County of Kings are Mike Kuhle and Adele Berne of Epaulet, designing and collaborating on sportswear and accessories, sold at their shop on Smith Street.
When I met with these designers, I asked them all the same ten questions. My goal was twofold: I want to know what the future holds for not only their brands but also the trend waves they currently ride, but more importantly, I want to know how manufacturing in New York City has shaped the identities and the visions of their work. – Cary Randolph Fuller.
CRF: What is the inspiration behind your brand, especially for upcoming pieces or collections?
UL: Unis has always championed understated classics. Spring’s inspiration was based on classic American sportswear, but with a more modern twist. We were very minimal in feeling. The colors are very soft using muted pinks and blues.
RD: In a literal sense all of the Wurst Editions are inspired by not finding exactly what I was after in the market today. Whether it was unnecessarily or over-detailed, too skinny, too baggy, or had poor materials and/or construction, I felt that we could contribute to the menswear landscape with our unorthodox approach – one could liken the Wurst Editions’ approach to that of a record label or an art gallery issuing prints, one release at a time – our attention to detail, and obviously the inherent tongue-in-cheekiness that the Wurst brand name evokes.
In a grander sense I was inspired by the level of craftsmanship of vintage oxfords and outerwear from the ‘Sixties that I managed to procure through yard sales and the like; the definitively downtown, wacky antics of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party; the irreverent sense of humor of Woody Allen; the respite from the city that weekend getaways in upstate New York offer; and, as trite as it may seem now, the heritage of classic American manufacturing.
AB/MK: Our in-house brands are tightly tied to our store and our customers. It’s a fusion of our ideas with our customers’ desires and needs. We meet and see our customers every single day, and we produce our “small batch” items weeks in advance rather than seasons in advance. We’re very powerfully influenced by our customers and their direct feedback. Although we don’t create fixed collections like a traditional brand, we aim to coordinate the individualized items into a coherent look and lifestyle.
For spring we’re presenting two distinct brands: The Epaulet brand is classically men’s tailored clothing with touches of British mod, New Romantic, and La Dolce Vita style. Spring shirting will have lots of seersucker, stripes, gingham, and prints. Trousers and suiting will be offered in a range of colorful cottons and tropical wools. And expect plenty of silk scarves. EPs by Epaulet is our more casual denim based line which is produced in LA.
MR: Classic style, seeing people on my daily commute really does me in. No need for the walk through Luxembourg Garden for my inspiration trips. Mark McNairy, Michael Raphael, Michael Jude Caputo, and Alexander Heminway, and Robert Waltzer. It’s their attitudes and mindset that I can’t live without. It’s not what they do.
CRF: How is the city of New York, where you design and manufacture your goods, reflected in the clothes?
EL: The brand was born in downtown NYC. I have been heavily influenced by the guys who live, work, and hang out in my neighborhood. They are a step ahead of the curve. Confident. Creative. Hard-working. Fun. I think the downtown/Brooklyn NYC guy puts himself together in a way that is really inspiring for me and the collection.
RD: The city never ceases to inspire, what with its endless energy, culture, design, and personality, all of which have contributed to our design process. Conversely, each edition has been designed and constructed for fast-paced, well-coiffed, city living.
AB/MK: Our collection is very New York and East Coast. Like the city, it has a strong kinship with the UK and Europe. It’s not only stylish – it’s very practical and long-wearing. It has to be, especially given our mass transit. I mean, there are huge rats running on the subway tracks whenever it rains. You’re not going to wear a white suit down there. You need good clothing that wears well and takes a bit of a beating.
MR: On daily rides I check every person’s footwear and kit, or I can’t get off the train.
CRF: What are your primary reasons for and benefits of manufacturing in NYC?
EL: I have manufactured in China and Italy in the past and as a small company, it was easy to get lost in the shuffle. There was a lot of pressure to grow and to grow very fast. I have also reduced my carbon footprint! One of the last years I was producing overseas, I booked close to 200,000 flying miles. I was exhausted. But the most important reason for manufacturing in NY was my desire to manufacture domestically. I love being a part of my local economy. The money I spend goes to hard working Americans and New Yorkers.
Unis is made locally. Most of the goods do not travel far. If there are issues and questions from the factories, we can address them very quickly by taking the subway midtown. Spending time in the factories is important. It’s important to bond with the people who are making your clothes. We’re in some of the best factories in the city. I’m really proud of that!
RD: I like to be hands-on, so it’s important for me to work closely with our manufacturers and to develop a relationship beyond just the phone and email. Also it doesn’t hurt that some of the world’s best clothing manufacturers are in or near the city.
Manufacturing in and around the city makes it a helluva lot easier to make revisions, catch mistakes, etc. Also it makes it a far more personal endeavor since you can actually meet with the folks you’re working with.
AB/MK: We want to make the best garments possible, and NYC has world-class production. The consistency and quality is great. Pattern-making is solid. Once we spec out our design, we can feel confident that our garments will always be made well and executed properly. We live here, so we can keep in constant contact with our suppliers and supervise things on-site. And there’s easy access to excellent fabrics and trimmings from all over the world. The NYC garment center is a crucial resource for independent brands like us, and we want to support it in every way possible.
MR: I can oversee production and support my own city. I love resurrecting old factories. It’s not like I have to make it in America. Somehow I’m attracted to established and older factories. These legends in the business treat me like I’m Ralph Lauren. I can drive my Lambo to the factories (kinda like Warhol did) on my lunch break.
CRF: And what are the drawbacks to using local factories?
EL: It’s very expensive. If more US companies decide to make product here in the US, the cost of manufacturing would go down. There would be enough work for everyone. Many of our local suppliers and factories are closing, and the ones still left are struggling to make ends meet. It’s really sad and it’s made manufacturing here in the US very difficult. There is a movement to try to save the garment district here in NYC. I hope that the mayor and city will support this movement by keeping a part of the midtown zoned for the garment district.
RD: It’s certainly not cheap to make clothes here.
AB/MK: It’s quite expensive. There’s no real option for proper sweaters and knitwear.
MR: None. [Clothes] aren’t cheap, but people are. Quality must be paid for, and people don’t understand that.
CRF: Describe your customer. Who wears your clothes?
EL: The Unis guy is modern and savvy. He chooses to buy brands like Unis because he knows that it’s not mass-produced. It’s a local brand that feels more special and designs a more specific look and fit. These guys study details and are very aware of what is trending in fashion. But my customers are largely ahead of what is trending.
RD: The Wurst man is smart, effortlessly cool, has impeccable taste in music, art, film, design, and of course fashion, but he isn’t too easily caught up in trends.
AB/MK: [The Epaulet man is] stylish, well-educated, value-conscious guy. He demands items with excellent quality and a great fit. He appreciates classic style and wants to know the heritage and the story behind the items he buys. He’s very much “quality over quantity.”
MR: Dudes with a taste for classics but not afraid.
CRF: How have your prior experiences shape your brand’s identity and your approach to the craft?
EL: My most influential industry experience was working for DKNY. It felt like grad school. Lots of cool designers and creative people all on one floor. I called it the school of hard knocks. It was hard work but fun. At the time DKNY was a modern menswear brand. They used more fashion forward silhouettes and fabrications. There are so many rules in menswear, but working at DKNY helped me think outside this menswear box.
AB/MK: Opening our own shop was a dream that we had for years. It’s in our blood. We’re both the children of entrepreneurs who ran their own businesses. We love being self-employed, even if it means we never actually have a vacation. In terms of business experience, we’ve both worked extensively in retail. Adele was a corporate footwear assistant buyer. I was an associate buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue and a product manger for Lomography cameras. This gave us a solid background in design, budgeting, merchandising, collaborating with partners, and keeping a bunch of diverse product lines consistent and moving forward. It also gave us a mind-blowing addiction to caffeine. Outside of that we bring a lot of our own personality into our items. Adele is an artist and a professional modern dancer. I’m a professional photographer, a former ska band singer, and a Japan-o-phile who lived in Osaka for a bit. Both of us sing karaoke like you wouldn’t believe. We put a little bit of all these disparate creative influences into our clothing and accessories.
CRF: What can we expect from your brand in 2010?
EL: I have already seen some mills veering away from plaids. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m feeling plaided OUT. Unis has been on the outer cusp of the log cabin look and has always had a more modern and clean look.
RD: [My music and fashion] overlap insofar as the artists signed to The Wurst Music Co. are all cultured gentlemen with discerning taste in style. We’re also working on a project that bridges the two arms of the brand more overtly.
AB/MK: Doing collaborations and special editions with other like-minded brands is one of our mainstays of our business. Together we create a constant stream of new products for our customers. Over this past year, we did a horsehide work boot with Thorogood, an old-school fedora with Bailey, black strap bags with Wm. J. Mills & Co., a contrast-collar oxford with Mark McNairy, a silver tie bar with Tanner Goods, and plenty of special edition shoes with Alden. This year we’ll keep things rolling with many of these brands, and we’ll have new collaborative products with Vanson, Brooklyn Circus, and a few other friends.
MR: More fine fancy furnishings for the discerning gentleman.
CRF: For what reasons do you believe the trend for American heritage brands and construction have become so prominent in the past couple of years?
EL: This look has gathered so much steam because of the internet. Heritage brands have been dug up by blogs. What also made it so easy for guys everywhere is that the clothing is actually really approachable. It is stuff you stole from your dad’s closet. There’s history to the details and history makes it all interesting. The clothing is really handsome! You can also still find these vintage pieces because they were so well made. Hunting jackets and work wear! They were built to last – and they still work today! The look is also spreading internationally. I think there’s something about all things American that is still “cool” all over the world.
RD: Obama, plain and simple. It’s no longer embarrassing to be an American now that the Bush era is over. Having lived and traveled abroad quite a bit, I’ve found anti-American sentiments – amongst friends and strangers alike – to have died down quite significantly since Obama took office. And his suits are nice and trim, for the most part.
AB/MK: We see three reasons for this: One: Menswear – like all fashion – is cyclical. The Americana and preppy looks are constants which rotate in and out of fashion. Wayfarers are a good bellwether. They come in and go out of fashion every decade or so. Two: It’s very recession-friendly. Heritage brands are seen as a good investment. The styles are classic, versatile, and long-lasting. Their long history is comforting. It’s also quite affordable. While $400 for a Barbour jacket isn’t cheap, it’s a bargain compared to a nylon windbreaker from the likes of Dolce & Gabbana. The political aspect of support US-based production and workers plays a large role as well – especially in urban areas.
Three: It’s become the new direction for “streetwear.” Many of the guys who wore Supreme, Nike Dunks, 10 Deep, etc., are now interested in more classic styles. Brands like 10 Deep and Dave’s Quality Meat are now putting out oxford shirts. They’re attracted to the quality of these garments. These days there are a lot of young people interested in this style.
In the short term, heritage brands stand to gain a lot of new business and customers. For the better ones, this trend will hopefully leave a legacy of goodwill. We believe that Alden is one of the best footwear makers in the world. Many young guys buying Indy Boots this year will probably be onto a new style a few years from now. But the quality and comfort are there so they’ll most likely stick with Alden when they need a new pair of leather or casual dress shoes. It’s great that the emphasis on Americana has shed light on a lot of well-deserving firms.