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.

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