Recently I went to the store Context Clothing in Madison, Wisconsin and was blown away. It was a destination location for Harlo, who actively searches the web for stylish, quality menswear and Context is a leader in the movement to bring back classic styles. So when en route to Chicago we put a few quarters a street meter figuring we’d stop in so Harlo could try on a Woolrich coat he liked on their site. Well the quarters kept flowing as we ended up staying a couple of hours! The store is not large, but it filled with carefully hand picked pieces, and many items are designed as exclusive collaborations between Context’s owners and fashion companies (the boots pictured are a collaboration with Alden).
We spent a long time chatting with co-owner Ryan about the history of particular styles of denim, manufacturers of bags and shoes, the intricacies of apparel factories and warehouses found in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the images in Japanese magazines that revere 100-year-old American style. I regretted not taping our discussion, and so Ryan graciously agreed to reply to an email interview afterward.
In the interview I wanted to discuss the exploding menswear market, the renewed interest in classic American sportswear and workwear, and success in retailing. While I didn’t ask him specifically about tips for students, I do feel his answers can be insightful for those entering the retail world. The main reason I wanted to talk more with Ryan though was because of his obvious passion for historic American menswear and his interest in reviving that aesthetic pushing it to the forefront of contemporary design. When Harlo and I were chatting with Ryan his knowledge on his subject was parallel to any professor or curator I know who gets a twinkle in their eye if you ask them about their research.
Below is the interview:
Please tell me about the philosophy of Context?
Our shop presents a unique mix of hand selected quality menswear; heritage craftsmanship and wear-ability top top the list of criteria. We see service as an art form. We do much more than simply present beautiful clothing.
How did you develop your interest and expertise in classic menswear?
My interest in menswear stems directly from my interest in vintage, which is quite similar to the design process for most of today’s successful men’s lines. There is a thrill to finding a hidden vintage shop or garage sale. I educated myself on how to spot pre-WWII denim, American Made workboots and shoes, as well as vintage military garments. My taste in contemporary is directly related to the gems of the past.
Can you discuss the historic and/or contemporary impact of the Midwest, U.S. on fashion, and some of your experiences checking out local designers, factories and warehouses doing research?
I can say that American heritage production has made its way into virtually every mens collection today. Whether it is well done or not determines the success of the line. There is a long list of Japanese and British designers using old American mills for production. Authenticity is a selling point. I recently found an amazing denim line called Amoskeag XX. Amoskeag was the New Hampshire mill that produced denim for Levis until the great depression. XX denotes selvage fabric (or shuttle loomed) fabric. We tell the story of the designer’s inspiration and production– what I call transparency in manufacturing.
What have you found regarding the increase of interest in men’s fashion (media, consumers, more productions, more stores, etc)?
Our most successful products are made in the US. I have a tendency to fiercely promote those products, but they do receive the best response. For example, our Alden Roy Boot sold out in 12 hours and all deliveries through January of 2010 are spoken for via preorder. The major selling point is that the boot is hand made by Alden (est. 1884) in Massachusetts using leather processed by Horween (est. 1905) in Chicago. We see these type of products as truly luxury. There are very few things that are completely made by hand in one country. This is one example.
When I was in the shop you discussed many exclusive collaborations Context does with designers. Please discuss some of them and how you’re merging old and new ideas to develop an innovative product that appeals to the modern male consumer.
The Alden shoe collaborations have been the most well received. We recognize the added value in hand crafted in America. You can have the boot resoled for $100, or completely refurbished for $125. These are lifetime boots, not garbage from China sold for $25. We choose only the best manufacturers for collaborations. I don’t want our name on anything but the best. My business partner Sam feels exactly the same way. No bullshit allowed.
What are some of the items you carry that have the oldest lineage? Why do you think they stand up and even sell for top dollar in today’s market that is often geared toward fast fashion?
Denim began roughly in the 1850’s and the first pair of rivet Levis was produced in 1873. I’d say that is about as far back as it goes for us. The shirt came in the 1880s, and we do sell shirts. Fans of fast fashion have a different set of criteria than our guys. Our guys don’t want to look like everyone else, but even more important they don’t want the item they bought to fall apart. If you shop on price alone, it is wise to invest something more, as the thing you bought quite often does perform (I just butchered an old quote from John Ruskin, but you get the point).
Discuss the impact of Japan on the re-interest in classic menswear. Especially with denim.
The Japanese indigo masters have a deep appreciation for American denim weaving. They have combined their dyeing techniques with antiquated American shuttle loom weaving to create beautifully irregular denim fabric. No one even questions where the best denim is produced today, and the Japanese will tell you the best denim ever produced was done so in the US before WWII. The Japanese also have a fascination with American vintage. They have an eye for detail and present some of the best interpretations of vintage that I have seen. It isn’t all Japan, but there is a list of Japanese men’s designers that rate high.
As a retailer with a specialized market, do you find the brick and mortar store or the web achieves your goals more successfully?
They are one in the same. The store has received international press for the design, and the web shop has been recognized as a leader in e-retail. Service and presentation are top priority.
The website indicates your prioritizing of fit, old world service for the store, and online being able to make customers feel they can reach out and touch the objects. How do you facilitate these goals?
Research. I do not attempt to style the models, choose shoot locations, or decide where the product is positioned physically in the shop until I fully understand the intent of the designer. Service begins with a hello, and ends with extensive product knowledge (passion). We are not selling, we are cultivating a fascination with fabric and design.
Since you have become an expert is classic American men’s clothing, have you ever worked with museums, costume designers, or other consulting projects?
I have a lot to learn. Speaking with designers is a thrill for me; there are hundreds of options to consider for a simple white oxford shit. I have not worked with museums, or costuming designers. If the right project presented itself, I am confident I would excel. My friends roll their eyes when we are watching a movie and I point out the brand, year, and model number of a pair of vintage jeans visible for 2 seconds. I’m a dork.
Where do you go for ideas for the store? What media and research outlets do you find helpful?
I approach the store like an installation. Nothing is permanent. I love Wisconsin selvege yards and antique malls. Recently I’ve been moving in the opposite direction. I read about a cutting edge bathhouse in Japan. I pulled some ideas from the article.
Who would you say are contemporary icons of men’s style?
Everyone loves Ralph Lauren. I can not tell you how many people I’ve met who worked for Polo at some time in their life. Ralph reaches deep. People love the classic American look. I look back for inspiration. Everyone today wants to look like a young Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Andy Warhol, etc. Back to the source.
Would you say the styles in Context are inspired by history, are exact duplications of historic garments, are mergers of historic and new ideas, or something else?
Interpretations of vintage. Sugar Cane denim attempts to reproduce some pieces, but thats the only exception.
Discuss the details and lengths people go to care for their denim. Washing, soaking, wearing for a year without washing, etc. What are some of the helpful tricks of the trade you’ve learned regarding fit, style, and care?
I give advice on fit to ensure the customer is happy with their jeans after they stretch. I tell them not to wash the jeans for at least 6 months and cold soak or give them a delicate hand wash when the time comes. Its good to leave some length on a jean and selvage denim looks great with a small cuff. Each person is different, and I feed off of their vibe. I want the person to be comfortable. The clothes should not wear you.
In 2008 DNR named Context one of America’s most influential men’s stores. What do you feel your team is doing that earned you this title? What are you most proud of about the store?
Our service level is a major distinguishing factor and our product mix is the best.
On your website you have a quote from Eames, who rank in my absolute favorite designers and thinkers. The quote is “art resides in the quality of doing, the process is not magic.” Can you talk about what this quote means to you and your business?
By recognizing the restraints that apply to each situation you can set yourself up for success. We are not simply putting pants in bags.
Again I want to thank Ryan and Context for taking the time to respond to my questions. Check them out online or in Madison, WI. By the way…Harlo ended up getting a pair of jeans by The Stronghold which is a historic denim brand recently resurrected. They’re very cool and look like they were found in your great-grandfather’s attic-but in perfect condition.