Context photo shoot inspired by an Elvis Costello album cover: 'Nobody was taking the time to photograph the product well and give information.'
Shopbop on East Washington. Context on King. Two acclaimed fashion retailers founded in Madison, doing major business on a global scale. Both credit Madison as integral to their creation and growth, and both strive to be active members of the business and social community. Though their impact on the runway of Madison's streets isn't always easy to gauge, they've given the city a fashion credibility that helps draw in local and national talent.
Shopbop and Context are, each in their own way, working to make Madison a little cooler.
"You could write a paper on U.S. history based on what was happening that year at Levi's jeans."
That's Ryan Huber, creative director and co-owner of Context Clothing, 113 King St. Huber is a denim aficionado, and his passion is infectious.
The store's new studio is an echoing, cavernous space on Madison's near east side used for photo shoots, shipping and receiving, and apparently interviews with alt weekly journalists. The ceilings are sky high, and the decor is minimalist. I feel more like I'm in a trendy Manhattan loft than a renovated warehouse in a midsize Midwestern city.
Huber and his business partner Sam Parker opened Context in December 2005 and have spent the past six years quietly building an internationally recognized brand. Recently heralded by GQ as one of the 10 best independent men's shops in the country, Context has been lauded on the pages of Chicago magazine and The New York Times. With fans as near as Milwaukee and as far as South Korea, the business has put Madison on the map of men's fashion.
Huber and Parker met while working at the Great Dane Pub & Brewery downtown, where they'd put their heads together after their shifts to brainstorm business ideas. They considered opening a restaurant or a contemporary barbershop, but ultimately decided on denim, a subject close to their hearts.
The first American blue jeans, Levi 501s, were designed for the workingman, but in the 1950s jeans became a fashion item. No longer the domain of miners and cowboys, they were the uniform of Marlon Brando, James Dean and even Marilyn Monroe.
Huber likens the search for the perfect pair of vintage Levi's to a record collector's thrill of the hunt.
"If you take a pair of jeans from a vintage store," he says, lifting his foot above the table to show me, "and turn up the cuff - see this stitching on the outside? This clean edge?" He turns out the cuff of his jeans and I see a clean double seam unlike the lumpy, unruly seam on mine. "That means this is shuttle loom fabric. It means it was made on an old machine."
Jeans were originally made on a machine called a shuttle loom, which was invented in 1733 and was one of the key developments in the Industrial Revolution. The shuttle loom produced what's known as selvage denim, a pair of jeans so sturdy they could practically stand on their own. But as demand for denim increased in the 1950s, manufacturers needed a way to mass produce jeans quickly and at low cost.
"They made different machinery, projectile looms," Huber explains. "They made giant reams of fabric that weren't as strong, weren't as durable. And then, of course, the next step was outsourcing to China. It's a sad story."
Huber and Parker were active in online communities of denim enthusiasts, men who traveled to New York and Tokyo to find rare selvage jeans. Inspired by the success of their friends at Shopbop, Huber, Parker and Parker's brother Benjamin decided to open a store in Madison catering to a demographic they weren't yet sure existed.
Context now sells a full line of clothing from $20 T-shirts to $2,000 coats, but when the store opened they sold little other than denim.
"There wasn't another store in the country that was doing what we were doing," Huber says. "Nobody was focused strictly on selvage and raw denim. Nobody was taking the time to photograph product well and give information. There certainly wasn't anyone in the Midwest."
When the store opened, customers weren't sure what to make of it.
"The story of Levi's was told to pretty much every person who walked in the store for two and a half years," Huber says. They developed such a reputation for holding customers hostage to talk denim that they started keeping quarters on hand to feed parking meters.
"We knew that the guys would respond to the jeans," Huber says. "You just couldn't get it anywhere. You'd see guys at the bar wearing stuff that you knew they got in Chicago or New York, or they bought them online."
Context's online store didn't open for another year, but it didn't take long for their passion to catch on in Madison. Huber says there's a misconception that Context does most of its business online; it's actually split about 50-50. He says that Madison gets a bad rap for being a poorly dressed city but that people here are more fashion-conscious than they're given credit for being.
"The perception has always been that it's a college town that doesn't care about aesthetics," he says, "and that's totally not true. There's evidence of that because you have places like Thorps and Context and Shopbop that are thriving."
In the past three years, a flurry of upscale restaurants and bars like Nostrano, Graze and 43 North have opened in downtown Madison.
"I think there's definitely been a shift. The overall cultural landscape of Madison has changed in the past five years," Huber says. "The type of restaurants that have opened, I think people are starting to realize if you walk in wearing some Tevas and a T-shirt, you're going to feel a little bit uncomfortable."
Huber says stores like Context and Shopbop are filling a need for young professionals who want to upgrade from the Badgers jerseys and sweatpants they wore in college.
"A place like Context, you can come into our store and we can get you a proper-fitting shirt," he says. "That goes a long way. Every man should have a shirt that fits him properly."
One peek at the Context blog makes it clear that this is first and foremost a Madison store. Breakfast at Sophia's, drinks at Natt Spil, a close shave at Thorps - the blog paints a portrait of Madison that is at once tirelessly hip and warmly inviting.
"We're all about showing where we are," Huber says. "Our location to us is the beauty of what we do."
Huber and Parker go on a minimum of two buying trips each season, eschewing most trade shows in favor of visits to small-batch garment makers. Most of the products Context sells are made in the United States, with a small percentage made by artisans in Italy and Japan.
"What we sell in our store is heritage manufactured denim," says Huber. "Everything we sell is made the old way on old machines. That's why it's more expensive - it's more costly to produce."
Context is a relatively small operation. There's William Howe, the store's first employee, who now runs shipping and receiving. Joey Tucci is shopkeeper and stylist, and Phill Lee is the company's photographer, shooting in the studio nearly every day. Web designer Aaron Davis was hired while still a student at West High; now he works from his apartment in Brooklyn. In addition to the store's main employees, there are also several local models and a few contract workers such as Tess Camacho, who do denim repair in the studio.
"Everyone's kind of specialized," Huber says. "It's necessary for a small business. If both [Sam and I] were constantly working on the creative side of things, the bills wouldn't get paid on time. And if we were both just making sure the numbers were hit, nobody would shop in our store because we'd have the most boring store in the world."
The creative side is definitely not lost at Context. In addition to products from well-known designers like Gitman Brothers Vintage and Canada Goose, they also sell several exclusive collaborations designed by Context with other well-known brands.
The store's most successful collaboration so far has been with Alden Shoes, a company that's been around for over 100 years. The first product of that collaboration was the Rough Roy boot, which retails for $495 and was recently featured in GQ. The first release of the boot sold out in 12 hours. "The Roy boot was named for my father," says Huber. "He always taught me to buy American."
Context's most recent collaboration is the Melzer's Boxing Club medicine ball, which was produced in collaboration with Leather Head and Horween Leather. It was featured in the December issue of GQ - the third year in a row the store is featured in the magazine's "Best Stuff" section.
Huber says Context has no plans to leave its King Street location but would love to eventually open a second location in its studio near Shopbop's new headquarters. They've only had the studio since August, but Huber is already abuzz with ideas for the space. "I would love to be paying people to produce garments for us here and have 'Made in Madison' on the tag."
The emphasis on craftsmanship and service at Context isn't happening in a vacuum. It's part of a larger movement around the country and right here in Madison. Huber points to local businesses like Bradbury's Coffee, Thorps hair salon, Art & Sons design studio and Underground Food Collective. He says these seemingly disparate businesses share a passion for craftsmanship, customer service,and community.
"They don't take what they're doing lightly," he says. "Someone called our little group - technically, we're not connected but we're sort of naturally connected - the New Traditionalists. We're going back to an appreciation for craft in our business."
"We've said that our store isn't for the faint of heart," Huber says, laughing. "We say that tongue in cheek because after all you're just selling pants."