On a recent winter’s day in New York, menswear designer Todd Snyder, Man of the World founder Alan Maleh and Sebastian Kaufmann sat down at a cafe to talk shop. Although they have different backgrounds (fashion, publishing and e-commerce, respectively), all started companies from scratch with the desire to fill a need. And all three are still very involved in the day-to-day. Here follows their conversation…
Finding the Best of Everything
KM: Alan, you said that you want to “curate amazing things for all different categories.” That could be our common mission statement. We share similar values, whether in fashion design, product development, publishing…
Todd Snyder: Yes, the club analogy. There’s been this resurgence in menswear in the last five years of everyone rooting for each other. We’re doing similar things, but still unique to each person. Cool brands I had forgotten about are coming back to life, not just clothes, but food and whiskey. There’s a greater awareness across the country, thanks to blogs and the internet. I see it in Iowa, where I’m from, and in Wisconsin and Kansas – all these little pockets.
Sebastian Kaufmann: This had a huge impact on us, too. These people live in smaller towns but all of a sudden they can connect.
Alan Maleh: The sense of community is one thing, but try to google a product with limited time on your hands and sift through 17 pages of content. The internet has been an asset, but also a detriment in the sense of “system overload.”
TS: You need an editor. That’s where we come in: “Here’s my point of view.”
KM: So when you have so much choice and information, how do you curate? What makes the cut?
TS: You just have to go with what you know. I’ve spent 20 years in the business, and I’ve seen a lot come and go. You have to filter. I’m a huge fan of Pinterest because it’s like having 1,000 magazines at my fingertips that I can just file away. Now when I’m creating my inspiration boards, I just go through my phone.
AM: That’s interesting. I have categories I’m trying to build: the Gentleman, the Sportsman, the Outdoorsman, the Bohemian… and the things that each guy emulates. Then I build products, or DNA, around these different individuals, those pieces – the “keepers” – that the owner himself has to have. That’s the way every item should be, like when I see your website or enter your store.
SK: Which brings us to the question of staples. Do you carry the classics, or follow the fashion trends that change every season, always coming up with something new? Todd, your Champion line will evolve but still stay true to the brand.
TS: Yes. I studied architecture in college and fashion is very similar. My collection started with a foundation: A great oxford shirt, a trench coat, a suit… Then you add one or two new pieces each season. They reinvent everything you have. You just keeping building.
SK: Right. You don’t want to turn back time but move forward.
TS: What you do is clever, Sebastian. It’s hard to put a finger on. The slingshot, for example, is my favorite. Every guy’s eyes light up. It reminds them of their childhood. What I love is that KM makes customers feel smart and thoughtful, when really you’ve done all the hard work for them. But I still look like the genius.
AM: It doesn’t look like a re-gift when it comes from you guys [laughs]. What we all bring to the table is that we’re not necessarily the cheapest but we offer the best pieces in their category. There’s a big gap between luxury and flea market shopping, like how we have vintage watches on our website, for example.
Keeping Things Real
KM: That’s a relevant point to touch on. Todd, you mentioned that being from Iowa always make you ask what men living there would want. Fashion and design can both be intimidating and exclusive to many people. How important is the accessibility of products and price?
TS: It’s everything. I want to sell to a lot of people. I don’t want to be a designer who thinks, “This is my look, take it or leave it.” The best is if I have a piece that a guy in Iowa and a guy in New York will wear. That’s my gage. Add Japan and London, and I’m golden.
AM: So funny how we think in a similar way. Everything is a balance. You go too slim and you’re pigeon-holed with limited appeal. You go too broad, and you’re trendy. I don’t even like the word “fashion.” Your favorite jeans will either be the beat-up pair you’ve had forever, or the dark wash denim you can wear everywhere. That’s all you need. I’ve turned down private jet advertisers because I feel like it will alienate my everyday guy. I’m a firm believer that you don’t need to have a lot of money to have style. My friend is a minimalist – he owns one belt – and he’s the best dresser you’ll ever see. I need to learn from him!
TS: Now you have me thinking. I’m inspired, because we all have a desire to simplify.
AM: I’m a huge believer in picking a side. Focus on men or women, for example. But what KM did is interesting. You’re probably one of the only gender-neutral places I would endorse, because, hey, I’m in the kitchen wearing my apron.
TS: I had a conversation with a reporter recently who was interviewing other menswear designers, and I get along with all of those guys. We root for each other. The reporter wondered how we could do that. But the bigger Thom Browne gets, the better it is for all American designers.
Serving as a Guide
KM: Sharing knowledge freely, basically. MOTW has the Handbook, Todd has a blog and KM launched with a series of Reference articles. Why build a place of learning?
SK: You want the story behind it.
AM: Yes. Some guys know what they like but need a visual guide. Customer service is also huge for us. It reminds me of Stride Right when I was a kid. You step on that thing that measures your foot, and the guy puts your shoes on and ties the laces for you… There was something warm and fuzzy about that. Obviously you can’t provide that kind of service when someone is buying a $100 jacket. But I think it’s as important as the design of a product to have customers feeling they can make a phone call and get questions answered. For instance, a guy bought a watch from us, wore it three times within six months and realized it was too big for him. Normally, our policy is a 30-day refund. But it was a beautiful piece and it could go right back in stock, so I thought, “You know what? Let him return it.” I was going to London, where he lives, so he exchanged the watch on the spot. He truly cherished that personalized attention. How can you be better if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong?
SK: That’s also one of the fun things about starting a company: you can set your own rules. Like our customer service: It costs so little extra to make people happy, instead of saying, “No, we have these policies that can’t be broken.” People have lost their way on this. Not everyone should be punished for that one person who takes advantage of the system.
TS: I think that’s the piece that can get easily lost. We’re all human; we want the path of least resistance and everything is so immediate. But when you step back and pause, you realize what’s important is the human connection. One thing that I learned to appreciate – and that I think you guys both do really well – is when I go into a factory and see a person making something. You’re storytelling; there’s a human behind this product.
SK: It’s surprising in a way. We’re so removed from products being made that you think this thing is just being spit out of a machine – even with high-quality products. But then you realize, “Wow, this is really being handmade.” I watched these people make every single part of an old-fashioned shaving blade. For hours they held the blade, inspecting it, testing it. You can’t even imagine the work of this one person! One time, the company where we source our handmade pewter flasks told me they needed to start making a small piece out of plastic rather than pewter. The reason? An employee, Richard, had gone into retirement and he was the only person with the knowledge of how to make this special part. The company brought him back in to show all the other workers how to make it. But the factory was going to just switch production until we stepped in.
Developing Unique Products
KM: Todd, you made your first shirt as a 24-year-old working at Ralph Lauren because you couldn’t find it anywhere else. Alan launched two very successful ventures on this “filling a need” basis. Sebastian as well. You’re all curators, but also developers and collaborators. How important is that?
TS: When I was at J. Crew, I tried to start a collaboration with Red Wing and was told “no” so many times. I worked my way up to the president and said, “I just want to go through your archives and bring in the stuff that guys want to wear.” He said “yes” on the spot. J.Crew started offering a Red Wing boot that was only available in Japan, and it became our best selling shoe of all time. We sold 3,000 pairs in one month! Sometimes you get presidents who are just pushing paper. But when you find the true founders, those people with an entrepreneurial spirit, then it all works.
AM: There are a lot of people in between you, the buyer and the maker that block that enthusiasm to be better. When I deal directly with a business owner, rather than a middleman, things get done. People can be threatened by change. Most companies are bottom line rather than integrity driven. They can get away with being lazy. In the magazine business, everything is about deadlines, but we’ll miss a deadline or pull a story if we can’t get it right.
SK: It’s not that difficult to have integrity and authenticity but so many companies have lost that. It’s not so hard to be better.
TS: Right. Part of the idea behind the City Gym shop was that I thought, “I can go out and do this on my own, or just go right to the source and partner up.
AM: If I’m not an expert in something, I’ll bring that person in. We’re approaching things in different ways, shapes and forms but this is a movement we’re all part of…
TS: Yes. Let’s do another roundtable – next time with booze.
Leading image, from left to right: Todd Snyder, Alan Maleh and Sebastian Kaufmann.
The lens through which every product is examined before entering our store is ...
The idea for Kaufmann Mercantile was sparked when a plastic stapler appeared on my desk ...