Monday, August 17, 2009

Ryan in Context

I recently had the opportunity to ask Ryan Huber, co-founder of Madison's Context a few questions. In my opinion, Context is one of the best men's shops in the United States. Few stores have such a breadth of high quality menswear and accessories. Read below to find out what makes Ryan, and Context, tick.

Q: Let’s start with the inevitable, obvious question: I’ve found that most store owners arrived where they are largely by accident. How did you and Sam get to where you are now? What was the inspiration for Context?

Ryan: I would not say Context was an accident, but I can say that we had no prior experience in retail. The business plan was one of a few. Sam and I also thought about opening a neighborhood bar/restaurant that would have looked a lot like our clothing shop-- very masculine with the staff wearing heritage lines. When we opened Context, there were no dry denim specialty shops in the US, or at least none that were openly available to the public. I wanted to put a shop together that felt more like something you'd find in Japan than the US.

Q: Where do you see the store in 5 years?

Ryan: The shop progress is based largely on success shared with our vendors. For example, we meet with Apolis, Gitman, KMW, Alden, The Hill-Side, Nudie, et. al to discuss what works and what we'd like to see them do. They trust us, we know our clients very well.

Q: Has the current economic climate affected plans for the store? Has it limited in any way the addition of new lines to the stores repertoire?

Ryan: I see no indication of us slowing down. I work hard and plan on keeping things rolling. We buy what we like, and we get behind it 100%.

Q: How can you separate what you like from what is “right” for the store?

Ryan: There is very little in the store that I would not wear. I own one of the APC jumpsuits we had last season-- not for everyone. There are pieces in each collection that we do not choose. Most of it is based on how it will appear in the shop. My goal is to create a unique experience within the shop. I want people to remember their trip to Context. The only way to be effective is to have a distinct focus. Otherwise you are like all the rest.

Q: As a follow up to the above question, do you have a process for determining what particular clothing lines you’d like to add to the store, or is it unstructured?

Ryan: You have to have a level of confidence in your shop and yourself to pick up certain lines. Getting behind a collection means presenting it to your clients in a manner that matches the designer's intentions. I spend a lot of time thinking through how our lines will be shown online and in the shop. I'd say we have cultivated a fascination for authentic fabrics among our clients. Quality production is also an attraction. Our guys won't buy it if it feels cheap or if it reeks of trend. I pay little attention to which lines are receiving press. Press awareness comes after we pick up a line. We are quite often the first to buy our lines (e.g. Apolis Activism, Imperial, The Hill-Side). I like launching collections.

Q: Self Edge and Blue in Green are comparatively more Japan-heavy, carrying several Japan lines each (Samurai, Flathead, Iron Heart, SDA and so on), whereas your lines seem to be from everywhere. Sure, Kicking Mule is Japanese denim, but you carry ALD and Nudie, Apolis Activism and so on. Do you think that the Context consumer is different from a consumer at Self Edge or BiG?

Ryan: I've been to Blue in Green and Gordon runs an amazing shop. His focus is very different than ours, but we share a fascination and love for what we sell. There is nothing traditional about our shops. Landing Momotaro or Somet is not easy and we don't make big bucks selling them. We carry these lines because they are some of the best. Gordon is very denim heavy because he can be, he has stuff no one else has. Our location allows us to carry nearly anything we want-- there are no shops like ours in the Midwest. Gordon would have a hard time carrying say APC, Engineered Garments, and Band of Outsiders because others in Soho do. I can say with confidence that he would not want those lines anyway, they don't fit his shop.

Q: Do regional differences play a part in determining which lines you carry? I.e – Midwest versus left or right coasts.

Ryan: Our location plays less a role in determining the lines we carry than most people would think. There are people all over the world who respond to what we carry, Midwesterners are no exception. Sam and I have brought some pretty unique lines to the US market... we are both native Wisco boys.

Q: Do you feel any pressure to seek out American companies for your store? I notice you have quite a few – Russell Moccasin, Alden, Gitman Bros, for instance.

Ryan: If everything in the shop was American made, I'd be very happy. I'm not saying American made is always the best, but it does make things easier from a business standpoint. I can visit the Gitman factory, the Alden factory and discuss collaborations. A visit to Japan is not out of the question, just much more difficult. We will never fall out of love with Japanese production, their dyeing and weaving techniques are exceptional.

Q: Name a designer or clothing line that you do not carry, but that is one you really like. Who “gets it”?

Ryan: A friend of ours opened a shop in Atalanta called Sid Mashburn. Sid has amazing style and is an encyclopedia of apparel knowledge. His shop is Southern Gentleman, but has a very distinct personality. He has a list of amazing lines that just wouldn't work in our shop, but each is spot on.

Q: Last question – if you could only have one of the items you sell. What would it be?

Ryan: This is an insane question, like choosing which child you love most.

Thanks to Ryan, for taking the time to answer my questions.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

M-422a - The Jacket that started it all for me

In the winter of 2001, a strange compulsion washed over me. Though I had always been interested in World War 2 aviation and planes in general, I had never sought out a flight jacket. Sure, I had owned "bomber" jackets; mostly hand-me-down leather jackets from my Dad which were too big on me, but nothing authentic by any means.

As this interest took shape, I began reading everything I could get my hands on about World War 2 fliers, and despite my own Grandfather's affiliation with the Army Air Force as a B-24 Co-Pilot, I became fascinated with the Flying Tigers, who it just so happened, mostly wore naval flight gear. The Naval Flight jacket, called the M-422 at first, then the M-422a and finally the G-1 is largely unchanged in design since it's inception at the beginning of Naval aviation in the 20th century. When I became convinced I needed a M-422a, I contacted Mark Weinshenker of the Acme Depot, a repository for all things A-2 flight jacket in those early years. As his main love was the A-2 flight jacket (the leather flight jacket that the Army Air Force wore during World War 2), he directed me to John Chapman, who is now the proprietor of the Goodwear Leather Coat Company (more on him in future posts). John was quite eager to nerd out on all details of flight jackets; my obsession had found a like minded friend.

After much discussion, I settled on a reproduction M-422a from the Real McCoy's New Zealand. Working with Real McCoy's on all the details regarding the sizing of the coat, my money was sent, and so began...the wait. It may have taken a month to arrive, newly constructed, from Christchurch, NZ, but in the years since, I don't think of that, I think of the years of service it's provided as jacket, pillow, iPod and cell phone holder and blanket. Over the course of the years I've sold it off, and bought it back - interestingly enough to John Chapman - but the effect owning it has had on me is immense. I probably wouldn't have gotten denim obsessed without this jacket (the two worlds have a great deal of overlap in terms of fans).

The photos below show the jacket in it's current state, note the quality of the leather and the well-worn knit cuffs.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

1980, In Review

For the fourth of July weekend this year, some friends and I rented a cabin in the woods in Wisconsin. The route to the cabin just happened, with only a 5 minute detour, to run right by Madison, where I could visit Context, one of the few places anywhere near Chicago that I could look at a variety of Japanese denim and other denim nerdery in person. Stopping in the store, my fiancee and I did the usual tour of the premises, and and thanks to the great crew at Context, spent too much. I walked out, in particular, with a pair of Kicking Mule Workshop jeans, the 1980 Japanese Edition model. Described, quite aptly I think, on Context's website as "a jean for the refined denim enthusiast. Each step in the production was chosen on the basis of supreme quality. Made of Zimbabwean cotton, rope dyed in Natural Indigo, fabric produced and tailored in Okayama Prefecture Japan. The 1980 is a straight leg jean proportionally cut for a number of different body types.", I was very pleased with my jeans. I've been wearing them since mid July, and I figure, sometime this winter, they might be ready for their first wash. Bring on the fades! I've had my hands on many a pair of Japanese jeans, and the feel and finish of these jeans in particular is really a cut above to me.

While looking through the pictures below, make sure to keep an eye out for these features:

  • Red & Blue selvage line
  • Selvage Coin Pocket
  • Back pocket Hidden Rivets
  • Doughnut Button fly
  • Real Leather Patch

  • Monday, August 3, 2009

    Diamond Dave!

    No, not that Diamond Dave; no early Van Halen here (although that would be fine with me, 1984 and earlier Van Halen are a good time). I'm talking about Dave, the president of Diamond Cap Company. If you are in the market for a "crusher" - a stunning reproduction of the caps pilots wore during World War 2 - look no further than the Diamond Cap Co.

    Another World War 2 era item that Dave makes is reproductions of 1940's style Army Air Force t-shirts, often worn during physical training. Similar styled shirts can be seen in the first episode of Band of Brothers, when the paratroopers are in training running up Currahee. Dave's t-shirts are made on "American made and 100% "ring-spun" cotton, by a USA company that specializes in Wholesale manufacturing." - as you can see from the pictures below, the shirts used are American Apparel, which when laundered have a very vintage, trim shape, much like the original t-shirts. Also, the ink is direct printed to the shirt, not screened on, so as the shirt ages, the images age much like originals. All Dave needs to know is what field you want, and where it was (here is a good website that shows the locations of WW2 era fields. I chose to have the standard winged prop as with my Grandfather's advanced training field. Dave can also print front and back, so on the back is my Grandfather's name, serial number and flight school class. Enough talk; it's time to let the pictures do the talking:

    Detail Shots of the direct printed ink:

    Another item Dave is developing is a "Wild Ones" cap for motorcycle fans, or just fans of Marlon Brando. They're being worked up in black and taupe, and others colors later. Check out the photos below:

    Anyone interested in any of the goodies above should reach out to Dave at

    Sunday, August 2, 2009

    Sorry for the downtime, folks...

    Sorry for the absence folks, life's been busy, but weekly posts, of good content are around the corner. Check back tomorrow morning for the first of many...